You may have noticed there’s a lot more talk about drinking alcohol this year as people attempt to cope with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Research confirms that yes, Americans are drinking more often and consuming more servings of alcohol when they do drink, especially women. There are multiple reasons people are drinking more these days, including easier access to alcohol because we’re at home more, boredom, anxiety and sadness.
Of course, increased drinking can have negative consequences on physical and mental health, as well as our relationships. If you’ve thought, “I should drink less,” it might be a good time to take a look at your habits.
Heather Gallagher, a licensed clinical addictions specialist for the UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Outpatient Treatment Program, says these are some good questions to ask yourself.
1. How often am I drinking alcohol?
According to the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, if you are going to drink alcohol, moderate consumption is encouraged. That means up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Excessive drinking is defined in two ways: four or more drinks for women and five or more for men in about a two-hour period (binge drinking), and eight or more drinks for women and 15 or more for men in a week (heavy drinking).
It’s important to note how time is broken down in these recommendations. While moderate drinking may average out to seven to 14 drinks a week, that doesn’t mean that you can abstain for six days and consume multiple drinks in one sitting. Binge drinking can lead to unintended actions and behavior, and it’s also bad for your body.
“The time of day that you drink could matter too,” Gallagher says. “People are at home more and even if they are working, may have a drink with lunch or earlier. Pay attention to how early you do start drinking and if there are any patterns emerging.”
2. How much alcohol do I drink?
“When you take a step back and look at your alcohol consumption, it’s important to think about serving sizes,” Gallagher says. “A standard serving of beer, wine or spirits may not be what you consider to be ‘one drink.’”
Alcoholic beverage standards are based on the percentage of alcohol in a drink. One serving contains 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. The higher a percentage of alcohol a beverage has, the smaller its serving size will be. Many beers are 5 percent alcohol and come in 12 fluid ounce containers, which matches the standard serving size. But more and more craft breweries are creating beers with higher alcohol percentages and offering different size containers, so you may have to do some math to get the serving size right. It’s also a good idea to measure out what 5 ounces of wine (the standard serving) actually looks like in your favorite wine glass, and take a closer look at how many ounces of liquor are in that cocktail recipe you want to try—1.5 ounces is one serving, so your cocktail may actually equal two or three drinks in one glass.
3. Is drinking affecting different areas of my life?
Is the amount of alcohol you are consuming causing consequences in different aspects of your life? Alcohol consumption and abuse can cause conflict at home and in relationships. It may create financial or health problems, both mental and physical. If you’re drinking too much, you might not be able to perform to your normal standards at work or at home; you may shirk responsibilities.
Even if you haven’t experienced dramatic effects, your alcohol consumption could be hurting your body.
“Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and it can affect nearly every organ in your body,” Gallagher says. “It is very toxic to not only the liver, but also the brain, kidneys and many other internal organs. We frequently see patients who have developed vitamin deficiencies due to how much they drink.”
Alcohol increases your risk for heart disease and many cancers, including breast cancer, and it impairs restful sleep, which can also affect multiple areas of your life.
4. What is my relationship with alcohol?
Think about why you drink. What is the reason you want an alcoholic beverage? If you are habitually drinking to try to feel better or to forget something you don’t want to remember, it may be a sign that you need to focus on your mental health.
How do you feel about the thought of cutting back on your alcohol consumption? If the thought of cutting back or stopping drinking makes you feel uncomfortable, it might be exactly what you need.
“Getting into the pattern of heavy drinking or binge drinking puts you at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder,” Gallagher says. It can be helpful to examine the underlying stress or discomfort you are trying to relieve with alcohol.
5. Ready to Make a Change?
After exploring these questions, you might be curious about the effect alcohol is having on your body or how you feel. A good way to explore that is to try a period of time without drinking.
“Change doesn’t have to be scary, because it doesn’t have to be a forever commitment,” Gallagher says. “Try cutting back for a week and see how you feel. If you’re interested in stopping for health reasons, don’t drink for a month and see what happens. If you aren’t sure what role alcohol plays in your life, sobriety can be a good way to find out.”
There are online tools to help you learn more about your drinking habits, like the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) and Rethinking Drinking, which also guides you through options and strategies for changing your alcohol use.
If you’d like professional guidance regarding your drinking or help changing your habits, you can talk to your doctor or a mental health therapist. A judgment-free relationship with a professional can be valuable when assessing your drinking.
It’s important to note that if you think you might have alcohol use disorder, meaning you are dependent on alcohol, it can be dangerous to stop drinking abruptly. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional for help. The UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Outpatient Treatment Program offers outpatient therapy, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a tool for finding treatment anywhere in the United States.
Have questions about alcohol? Talk to your doctor, or find one near you.
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