April 15, 2021

Stress and Alcohol: What It’s Doing to Our Health

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, Medical Director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they discuss how alcohol and stress impacts our overall health.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • How the pandemic has played a role in the increase in alcohol consumption.
  • Moderate vs excessive drinking.
  • What can we do to reduce our drinking or help someone in need.
  • How to approach a loved one if one is worried about his/her drinking.

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode 78. Coming up, we discussed stress-induced drinking and what it could be doing to your health.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast, a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can all improve our health and wellbeing through small, healthy habits we can start right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica. Every other week, we sit down with a certified expert to discuss topics, covering nutrition, fitness, a whole lot more. And on this episode, we’re diving deeper into the impact stress-induced drinking has on our overall health. With us today as the medical director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker. How are you today, Dr. Walker?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Good morning. Thanks for having me, Chuck. It’s a great topic to address at this point.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. I’m glad that you’re with us because you know through this pandemic that we are gradually coming out of now, a lot of people feeling more confident, we have seen these statistics that are kind of mind boggling when you see them. Alcohol consumption has grown significantly. We’re talking about wine, beer spirits, everything. In 2020, hazardous alcohol rose from 21% to 40.7%. That’s use of alcohol according to Web MD. And we’re also seeing stats about young adults in particular turning to alcohol to ease their stress. But the question that we’ve got today really is a grand one, how is it affecting our overall health? And I know you’ve seen this from multiple perspectives. Now, as a physician, medical director, you were a nurse, you’re a mom, so you’ve come through this pandemic with the rest of us. What is going on that is driving so many more people to the use of alcohol?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, as you stated Chuck, these are unprecedented times, and a lot of stress that we’re experiencing now due to the pandemic and other societal factors that are going on, so people are turning to alcohol as a means to cope. Yes, the numbers are getting better. People are becoming vaccinated and more fully vaccinated, but the cases are starting to increase. So we have to be cognizant of that. But yes, alcohol particularly in young people is a problem and a lot of people use it to cope. So that’s one of the reasons that we’re seeing some problems with alcohol use at this time.

Chuck Gaidica:
And, doctor, I think we use these words, and I’m not disparaging what you said about coping or the word stress, but it seems like it can also be broader, right? Whether old or young, it could be loneliness. It could be other health issues. We just say stress as kind of a broad brush of what’s going on, but so many different variables could be in place during this pandemic or any time in life. Right?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
That’s true. It’s just not stressed, but considering some of the rolling lockdowns that we’ve had in this country, depending on where you live, there’s a lot of social isolation, particularly for the elderly. Often people are living alone. There’s a degree of loneliness. There’s boredom, not only for old, but for young people, and some of the economic stressors that we’re filling right now. So there’s a lot of reasons to be stressed out, and having some stress is not a bad thing because that’s the way our bodies function. Stress can be beneficial, but too much stress is not good. And that’s kind of what we’re seeing now, especially with the pandemic.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And too much alcohol is not good. There are all kinds of averages about what’s okay to drink and not to drink, and we hear these blue zones in the world where people have a glass of wine a day. But there’s something, I guess it’s more authentic. Maybe it’s coming from the earth right where they live. I’m not sure. But what can we discuss about when you move from a healthful, every once in a while, a little red wine, because you think it’s good for your heart health to being in a position where this is just starting to take over your life and you just can’t control the consumption anymore?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yeah, that’s right. Although there are studies that show that red wine in particular, because of its antioxidant effect, can be beneficial for heart health, although studies are not definitive on that as well, other forms of spirits, such as beer and alcohol, vodka, gin, et cetera, can cause a problem. Now, we always say drink in moderation. And what do we mean by that? For men, that’s two drinks per day. For women, one drink per day is considered moderate drinking. But that in itself is not the full scope of it. We have to figure out what’s a standard drink. And a standard drink would be four or five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer and 1.5 ounces of spirits. So when you’re saying you’re having one drink, what does that really mean? So educating ourselves on what a standard drink is important.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting that in this time we’re coming through, it seems like we have had to put on the shelf so many habits. Good habits, maybe. Hugging somebody, giving somebody a kiss, you use to do a handshake. There’s so many things that were ritualistic, and I mean that in a good, positive way, that we’ve sort of gotten away from. And I hope it’s like riding a bike, we don’t forget. But conversely, when we talk about alcohol use, I’ve read that on average, about 66 days is all it takes for a new behavior to become automatic. That’s kind of scary. In just two months of sitting around while we’re using the word binge watching, watching our favorite shows maybe over and over again, bingeing could extend to the use of alcohol, which means within two months, two short months, this could become a new issue for you or me or anybody.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yeah. Habits do develop over time. And you’re right, it takes about two months to develop a habit. But breaking a habit is harder, of course. And people can become dependent on alcohol, and that’s one of the dangers of alcohol use. There are a lot of factors that we consider with that. Genetic factors are an important part of that, but there’s also environmental factors that contribute to alcohol overuse. But developing a habit can occur over a short period of time. And you mentioned binge drinking. That’s very important to talk about because binge drinking is an excessive amount of alcohol that can be detrimental. We hear about young children or college students developing alcohol poisoning. And that’s usually a result of binge drinking, where they’re drinking five or more drinks for a man within a short period of time, or four or more for a woman over a short period of time, and that can increase your alcohol levels. And statistically, if your alcohol level is 0.5% or above, that can be fatal.

Chuck Gaidica:
And how does that translate for an average sized person to number of drinks? Is there such an equation?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, for instance, a male who’s 150 pounds, four glasses of wine can increase your blood alcohol level to 0.1%, and same for a woman about 150 pounds as 0.1, 2% blood alcohol level. And the legal alcohol limit in the United States is 0.08%, so 0.1 and 0.12 is above the legal limit. So that’s four glasses of wine or four ounces of spirits. So just like with eating, portion control is important, so we can translate that to alcohol.

Chuck Gaidica:
So from a clinical standpoint, looking through the window that you see more than maybe we see, the idea of what you’re seeing happening to people that you may now be watching walk in the front door of a hospital or a doctor’s office, what ramifications are you seeing manifest coming out of this pandemic? We know that, I guess, the stories of the past, somebody becomes an alcoholic, et cetera. But any changes you’ve seen now in behaviors that are manifesting themselves, where people, when they visit a doctor, it’s kind of apparent there’s an issue?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Well, with alcohol, it’s sometimes hard to pick up because with alcoholism, it’s not always evident. People can hide it. One of the big things that people do is to keep it a secret, and they keep it a secret from family. There’s a hard time admitting it. So unless someone has alcohol on their breath, it may be hard to ascertain. But if somebody comes in distress, they’re feeling depressed or sad or irritable, that’s one of the questions that we ask, are you having problems with alcohol or with other substances? So we do try to tease that out during our history and then physical.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
And of course, with alcoholism there’s short-term and long-term effects of alcohol overuse. And the short term effects would be, of course, blurred vision, slurred or confused speech. Sometimes you can have a shaking of your hands, facial flushing, or sweating. Then with long-term effects, of course, we see problems with liver cirrhosis. It can affect other organs as well. Those are some of the things that we look out for. But of course, with the pandemic, people are seeing more depression, we’re seeing more anxiety. So those are some of the things that we’re seeing more of when people walk into the office.

Chuck Gaidica:
And to be fair, for some of those folks, for any of us really, this could be a form of self-medicating that starts off as, quote unquote, harmless. And then at some point can become different. And I guess by the time someone comes to the doctor, and you ask me the question, “How you doing?” And I don’t even mention alcohol use, you may not know it, but the eyes on the prize may be your spouse, may be somebody who’s living in the same home. When should we be concerned about someone who we know and love, who we have an intimate relationship with, and we’re seeing something happen? What would be the signs that we should start to be concerned, and even raise the topic with them?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yes, often as the family that will pick up the signs. You’ll notice maybe the person is late for work more often, or they’re calling off work more often. Your loved one may be leaving the house for long periods of time and hiding the fact that they’re drinking. You may notice some of the physical signs, as we talked about with the facial flushing, the sweating, tremors in the hands. Skin coloring may change and there’s jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin, may occur. So those are some of the things that we’re talking about. Unfortunately, people get in trouble with the law. DUI that a person may get. So those are some of the things that are red flags.

Chuck Gaidica:
We tend to have talked about mental health issues moving us toward alcohol use, but the alcohol use itself can also be a cause of some mental health issues. Right?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
That’s right. Alcohol, when you have a drink or two, it can make you feel good because what it does, it increases your endorphins and increases something called serotonin for a short time, and that will make you feel good. A lot of people drink to relax, to decrease shyness. They’re able to talk in a social situation. But long-term what happens is the serotonin will start to decrease over time, that hormone that makes us feel good, and we can develop what’s called alcohol dependent depression. So over time, alcohol becomes a depressant, and that way you’ll notice your family member may be sad, talking less, becoming isolated. Those are some of the signs that you’ll look out for with your family members.

Chuck Gaidica:
Wow. That’s interesting. So depression or anxiety could lead you to drinking, and the drinking then becomes part of the vicious cycle that creates more of a downside for you. And then where do you turn? You may go back to the bottle. It sounds like it is this vicious cycle that could occur for some.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Absolutely. And that is exactly what happens. You’re feeling good and you’re starting to feel bad, and so you’re trying to get that reward or the feel good feeling again. So you pick up the bottle to try to duplicate that feeling and it is a vicious cycle. So it’s important if you have a family member to talk to them about it and get help, because it’s oftentimes hard to distinguish between what’s called major depression versus alcohol dependent depression.

Chuck Gaidica:
And in this time that we’re in where some haven’t gotten a vaccine or they still are fearful of what’s going on in the world, where can we be turning for help, quote unquote, with or without the help of a spouse? Maybe it’s just somebody living alone.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yeah, well, today we have computers and a lot of people, older, younger, are computer savvy. I know my parents are in their eighties and they’re able to get on the computer. So we like to use those digital platforms if we can. And they’re all sorts of support groups online. And of course, there are the old standbys such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, so we do advocate for that. And the National Suicide Hotline because alcohol, especially those who binge drink, is a major reason for suicide. So if your family member’s suicidal, please reach out and access those support groups. And with Blue Cross, there’s ahealthiermichigan.org that you can get some resources as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
You’ve talked about if isn’t an absolutely scary enough that we all trip our way through this past year and some of us handling stress and coping in different ways, but the long-term effects that you talk about. I don’t think average folks really think about the long-term. I know Corporate America doesn’t. It’s like we’re just going from quarter to quarter, and that’s what we seem to care about, not the next five years. But for us, human beings, you’ve got, I’ve heard of something like alcohol induced dementia. There are some really important, scary, long-term things that can happen if we don’t sort of nip this in the bud when we’ve gotten ourselves in this position of over-consuming alcohol, right?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
That’s true, Chuck. Alcohol is a drug. People don’t commonly think of it as a drug, but it is, and it’s one of the most common drugs in the United States. And small amounts are okay for human consumption, but over time, longer periods of alcohol use, it can cause major effects on our body. Even cancer. People don’t think about alcohol as being related to cancers, such as cancer of the throat, cancer of the esophagus. And it’s also been related to breast cancer. So we need to think about those long-term effects with alcohol use.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, so let me jump back for just a minute. You talked about the various hotlines, including the suicide hotline. And I don’t want to belittle that or spend too much time on it, but how do we approach a loved one? We may hear someone exclaim something. We may just see a bad habit that’s developed. What is your suggestion about how we can approach that loved one with love and with grace to say… Is it, we care about you, we love you? Is that a good way to start? Because that’s got to be a tough conversation.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
It is a tough conversation, but it’s a conversation that needs to be had. My motto was always to gently be direct about it. You have to ask because if you don’t ask and are afraid to reach out to that person, then the outcome could be bad. Don’t be afraid to seek help with a mental health provider. There’s a stigma about mental health, but the outcome, such as suicide, could be even worse, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your loved one and get help because there are many, many psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health providers, social workers that would be happy to help your loved one or yourself if you’re having a problem.

Chuck Gaidica:
And ae can be hopeful here in the state of Michigan and beyond that as we’re coming into spring, taking that pressure off will be maybe vastly more easier than in the middle of January, right? We’re able to get out. We’re able to wash the car. To your point, we’re able to do some of these things that just, even if they’re mundane, get us out in nature, get us out in some sunshine and fresh air, huh?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yes, absolutely. Of course, the virus is easier to spread when you’re in closer quarters, and the winter months of course were more confined. So now that the weather’s opening up, it’s warmer outside, more people are getting outside, so I do recommend that. But of course, we still have to be cognizant of being safe. So that means wearing your mask and it means social distancing and hand-washing of at least 20 seconds as frequently as you can during the day. And I just want to make the point that unfortunately the levels of COVID are increasing in Michigan. There are probably all sorts of reasons that, but it’s still here, so we have to be careful.

Chuck Gaidica:
And you used the phrase a couple of times, reach out. And I think so many of us used to think, well, that was a physical thing. I’ve got to reach up or reach over and get a hand from somebody to help me when I’ve got an issue. But in today’s world, we’ve just learned it, we’re coming through it, the virtual nature of everything from telehealth to phone calls, to using FaceTime, whatever it is, we can reach out and should be encouraged that, as you mentioned, there are so many opportunities for us to seek some kind of assistance that we don’t really have to get in a car and drive to an office if we can’t or don’t feel comfortable doing so.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
That’s right. As I mentioned, there are all sorts of online virtual platforms that we can access. And it’s important for us to stay in touch with our loved ones. I know I do that. We have a family meeting online at least once a month to stay in touch. It’s important to see a face. Even if you can’t touch someone, you can still see them. You can still talk to them. Now, of course, that things are opening up and we can meet outdoors, that’s another way to see family. So that’s important, staying in touch. Humans need that interaction.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, and I think staying in touch can also become a habit that some people would say, “Well, I did it last month.” But we’ve tried it with my family to stay connected in different ways. We played Yahtzee the other night from a long distance with our daughter and son-in-law. It was awesome. Yeah, I lost, but it was still awesome. So you can come up with new ideas of even playing board games to stay in touch, which is so nice.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yes. Yeah. So a lot of people do that. My husband’s family, they do virtual meetings, and they’ll play puzzle games, and other times Jeopardy or whatever they can online to kind of break the monotony. I know the other day we had vacation photos and we talked about our vacations and things like that. And my husband and I went to the Caribbean right before the pandemic, so we’re glad we did that because we haven’t traveled since that time. But there’s ways to stay in touch.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, as we wrap up here, what takeaways do you have? And then could you do us a favor and recap some of those numbers, the consumption of alcohol numbers that you had about how many drinks is too much and what may be considered helpful?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Yes. I always say moderation is key. If you choose to drink alcohol, four or five ounces of wine for a man once a day, or two drinks for a man, let’s put it that way, and one for a woman is considered moderate, and that would be a four ounce glass of wine, 12 ounces of beer or one and a half ounces of spirit. So that’s considered moderate drinking. We have to be aware of healthy that we can use to decrease stress. Stress is an important part of life because it helps us get away from the bad things may happen. But too much stress occurs, we may often turn to coping or drinking as a way to cope. So I would just ask people to think about other ways to reduce stress rather than reaching out for an alcoholic beverage. That could be meditation. That could be mindfulness, reading a good book, journaling, writing down your thoughts. Eating a healthy diet is important. Getting your vitamins, vitamin D and vitamin C to boost your immune system. So these are things to think about.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, it sure is good to have you with us, Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker. What a pleasure and a lot of good information and encouragement that as we come out of this pandemic, there is going to be some light at the end of the tunnel and places we can turn. If indeed we’ve kind of moved into a place where we are over-consuming alcohol, there’s a way to come back from it, right?

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker:
Absolutely. Alcohol consumption has increased during this time. There’s no doubt about that. But be aware of it, be aware that it can become a problem, and turn to healthy ways or natural ways to cope with stress.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, good to have you with us. Today, again, we had medical director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Dr. Gina Lynem Walker. And we’re glad that you’ve joined us as well. Thanks for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like the show, you want to know more, and the doctor pointed this out, you can go online to ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. You’ll find a ton of information available to you on all facets of health and wellness, including multiple episodes of this podcast, some of which deal with mindfulness and de-stressing et cetera, et cetera. We’re up to episode, what is this? 78 today. So there is a lot of great content there for you when you start going on your power walks again. Leave us a review or rating on Apple Podcast or Stitcher if you would. To get new episodes on your smartphone or tablet, be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Be well.