The challenges of the last few years have left no shortage of marks on our psyches, and one of the more problematic is substantially increased alcohol intake, with one 2020 study reporting that in the U.S., the frequency of alcohol consumption rose 14%, and that women in particular increased their heavy drinking days by a rather staggering 41%.
While drinking more than usual was an understandable if dysfunctional default during those stressful months of concern and uncertainty, for many, much of that extra-to-excessive drinking has continued unabated even as the pandemic has waned – so I’m here to remind you that the metaphorical party needs to end.
If, like millions of other adults, your alcohol consumption’s crept up during the pandemic and stayed there, it’s time to take a very hard look at the uncomfortable truth: the stuff’s gotta go. There are multiple ways to do it – to each his own on the cessation approach. But I’m here to give you a bunch of reasons why you need to. Here are a few thoughts that I hope you’ll take to heart and inspire a significant downward shift in your alcohol consumption, perhaps, ideally, jettisoning it altogether. Bottom line, your plans for a long and healthy life may depend on it:
My personal point of view is that alcohol is a toxin. It harms the liver and kidneys, damages the brain, alters the microbiome, weakens the immune system and disrupts sleep – it’s really the whole toxic package! Making matters worse, when it comes to some beers, ciders, liquors, and liqueurs, the stuff is also a significant source of carbs that could otherwise be avoided. While I’m well aware that my wiser-not-to-drink-at-all stance can be tough for some to swallow, it is one of the best health-saving calls you can make, and the sooner you can make it – or something close to it – the better.
Whenever I suggest slashing alcohol use to almost nothing, almost invariably it’s met with the age-old question, ‘But Doc, what about the positive effects?’ Well, if you’re drinking more than 2 drinks a week, the negative effects start creeping in – and the idea that alcohol has positive ones, is, at best, misguided. As I’ve said before, the resveratrol found in a glass of red wine is not the hall pass everyone likes to think it is, in part due to the fact that we don’t yet know where the resveratrol sweet spot is — just right versus far too much. But what about the polyphenols? Nice try, but if it’s the polyphenols you’re after, there are better delivery systems than gallons of wine – think green and black tea instead. Truth is, any kind of alcohol consumption brings with it the specter of dependency and organ damage, so there’s really nothing to like.
There is however one small positive note to acknowledge and that’s the positive effects of sitting around a table, shooting the breeze or celebrating with friends and family over a nice meal. But here, it’s the sense of communion and social connection that are creating the good vibes, not the alcohol itself.
For years, when asked, most doctors would (grudgingly) give folks the green light on the seemingly low-risk, one-drink-a-day limit. But a recent study in the U.K of almost 400,000 people may be changing all that. Researchers found that alcohol use at all levels of consumption, from light to heavy and beyond, was associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Granted the risk is lower for those who keep it to one-a-day, but risk ramps up rapidly (as does blood pressure) with each drink after that, and really starts to soar as drinks per week hit the 21 per range. To put it mildly, this is not good news for those who grew accustomed to putting away a half bottle of wine at dinner though the pandemic and well beyond.
The toxin that is alcohol, even in small amounts, almost instantly suppresses the neuronal activity in your brain: slowing reflexes and slurring speech, making you unsteady on your feet and your memory foggy. Although these effects for most are short-lived, with more drinking comes longer-term effects. I’m talking brain damage. For more serious chronic drinkers, studies show that changes in neurotransmitter activity and even structural abnormalities are part of the package. Those changes can make themselves known with long-term memory problems, mental health issues, personality changes, depression and even dementia. And did we mention brain shrinkage? That’s part of the deal too.
Ready for a little more unsettling news? Drinking regularly now, and not even to excess, and you may be boosting your risk for serious cognitive decline. University of Oxford researchers found in a study of 21,000 middle-aged Brits that drinking a weekly dose of about three pints of beer or five small glasses of wine negatively impacts the brain by promoting a build-up of iron deposits in a key area of the brain. And what makes that a big deal? Well, that build-up has been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – two musts to avoid.
A recent study from the University of Washington in Seattle found that the younger set were more impacted by alcohol’s plentiful downsides than previously thought, with the study reporting that those under 40 who drank alcohol were significantly endangered on two fronts: not only did they not receive any benefit at all from alcohol use, worse still, they were considerably more likely to be injured in car accidents and by suicide or murder than their non-drinking counterparts. So, once again, the less drinking the better for all.
Though alcohol use has been an acceptable part social life for thousands of years, we now know all too well that alcohol’s negatives are legion, bringing with it damage to the heart, brain, liver and kidneys, increased risk for life-changing neurological problems, cancers, disrupted sleep and depression. There’s also the specter of addiction, violence and even death. However, much as I (and your organs) might like you to quit, I know that not everyone is ready for a complete break-up. Drinking is a part of life for many, a way to connect and commune. If that’s the case for you, I invite you to consider how and why you drink, to determine if it’s a habit done automatically or a pleasurable ritual that you feel enhances your well-being. In order to better understand your relationship to alcohol, there are four questions I encourage everyone to ask themselves every few weeks:
Remember that context is everything when it comes to drinking. Tuning in to why you’re drinking and being conscious of its purpose each time you do it is a powerful tool for keeping your alcohol use in check. When it comes to alcohol, less is always more. Consider not drinking, or drinking as little as practicable, a valuable gift for your body and mind. For help on how to keep alcohol use on an even keep, check out the resources at betterdrinkingculture.org