Alcohol use has grown significantly across the United States during this stressful pandemic period of the last few years. It can take many forms: a glass of wine with dinner that turns into two or three, a nightcap that becomes a nightly habit, cocktail get-togethers with friends that put a big dent in the liquor stash or even binge drinking done in secret. In this episode of the A Healthier Michigan Podcast, Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, a medical director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, joined the conversation to talk about stress-induced drinking and what it could be doing to your health. In 2020, drinking levels that met the description of hazardous alcohol consumption rose from 21% to more than 40% among those surveyed, according to WebMD. Evidence also points to young adults, in particular, turning to alcohol to ease their stress. But the problem also runs across age groups and includes people who are bored, sad or simply depressed.
“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,” said Lynem-Walker.
Some of the reasons behind this jump in alcohol use include:
- Social isolation and loneliness
“So, there are 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,” Lynem-Walker said. “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.”
Aim for moderation. If you’re going to drink alcohol, Lynem-Walker encourages people to stay within the boundaries of moderate drinking. That means:
- For men, that’s two drinks per day.
- For women, one drink per day.
- Four or five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits.
Beware binge drinking. Behavior takes about two months to become a routine. This is also true for bad habits that can harm your health, like binge drinking. This is characterized as consuming an excessive amount of alcohol over a short time. How much drinking is considered a binge?
- Five or more drinks for a man within a short period of time.
- Four or more for a woman over a short period of time.
“Statistically, if your alcohol level is 0.5% or above, that can be fatal,” Lynem-Walker said. “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 0.12% blood alcohol level. And the legal alcohol limit (for drunken driving in Michigan) 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.”
Short-term and long-term effects on health. Drinking too much has both immediate and long-term effects on a person’s health.
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A vicious cycle. Alcohol overuse and abuse can lead to a spiraling downward cycle for some people. Feelings of depression or anxiety can trigger them to drink. Alcohol is a depressant, which just sends them into repeating the drinking behavior.
“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,” Lynem-Walker said. “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.”
Where to find help. If someone thinks they may have a problem with alcohol, they should try opening up to a family member or health care provider. But there are also other organizations ready to offer help:
- Alcoholics Anonymous https://www.aa.org/
- Narcotics Anonymous https://na.org/