“It’s always cocktail hour during a crisis!” “Time for some quaran-tinis!” “Schools closed=mommy juice starting at noon.” It’s unlikely you’ve made it through the last year without seeing one of these memes on social media or being invited to a Zoom happy hour. While playful in nature, the implication—increased alcohol use during the pandemic—is much more serious. Alcohol and coronavirus have become inextricably connected over the last 365 days. As cases spiked, so did drinking. Even as bars and restaurants remained closed, alcohol use at home increased.
Maybe you were an occasional drinker, who stocked up on wine to cope, or even a teetotaler who started having a nightly beer for lack of anything else to do. Unfortunately, that extra alcohol consumption might not be very good for your health. But there’s some good news: You can do something about that.
Why the pandemic drove people to drink
Even in the early weeks of the pandemic, experts warned that people might turn to alcohol to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. They noted that factors like ongoing lockdowns and long-term social isolation might lead people to drink more than they normally would. A commentary published in April 2020 in The Lancet journal noted that periods of isolation “might lead to a spike in alcohol misuse, relapse, and potentially development of alcohol use disorder in at-risk individuals…”
The predictions came true. The frequent use of alcohol and COVID-19 became closely linked for many people. A research letter published in JAMA in September 2020 noted that alcohol sales went way up as stay-at-home orders commenced. People drank more often, according to the study. And the researchers also found that heavy drinking among the women who were surveyed increased 41% last spring when compared with the previous year.
Clinical psychologist Reid Hester, Ph.D., senior science officer at CheckUp & Choices, isn’t surprised that many people turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Alcohol is easily available and relatively inexpensive. And it makes people feel good—at first. “The risk lies in the fact that while one or two is good, three or four is not,” Hester says.
How much alcohol is too much?
Some people may not even realize they’re drinking a lot more than they used to—or they may not realize how much more they’re drinking.
According to the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, the definition of moderate drinking is two drinks or fewer per day for men and one drink or fewer per day for women. And the guidelines emphasize that in general, drinking less is better for your health. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women within a two-hour time period.
If that sounds like a lot, consider this: what constitutes one drink may be less than you’re thinking. According to the guidelines, “one alcoholic drink equivalent is defined as containing 14 grams (0.6 fl oz) of pure alcohol.” That could include one 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits. This means a standard bottle of wine contains five 5-ounce servings.
Alcohol’s effect on the immune system
Increased alcohol use is always something that concerns experts because it can affect your health in so many ways. Excessive alcohol use can lead to chronic diseases such as liver disease and digestive diseases. Even moderate alcohol use can exacerbate mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
But in the time of COVID-19, you might also want to consider how alcohol use might affect your body’s ability to fight off the coronavirus—or protect yourself against infection. “Abusing alcohol in high dosages damages the immune cells, making it harder for your body to fight against infectious diseases,” explains Mary Gay, Ph.D., evening program director for The Summit Wellness Group, an outpatient addiction treatment center.
Additionally, drinking alcohol, especially to excess, may lower your inhibitions and make you less cautious about your behavior. You might forget to social distance, or you might be less vigilant about things like wearing a mask around other people, washing your hands or using hand sanitizer, which are typically recommended as ways to help protect you from the coronavirus.
How to cut back on drinking
If you’ve been wondering, perhaps a little uncomfortably, if you should cut back, that might be a sign. “It is time to address your drinking when it’s no longer fun and it causes problems in your health, relationships, work, or social functioning,” says says John Mendelson, MD, chief medical officer at Ria Health, a tech-enabled AUD treatment system. “If other people are bothered by your drinking, it’s time to decrease it. If you don’t like who you become when drinking, it’s time to decrease it.”
And you can cut back. “Most people can successfully cut back on their drinking, especially if it has escalated recently, and they don’t have a long list of alcohol-related problems,” says Hester.
So how do you do it? Here are a few strategies that may help you:
- Set a goal. Set a limit for how much you will drink, and write it down so it’s harder to dismiss.
- Assess your alcohol collection. It may be easier to cut back if you don’t keep any alcohol in your home.
- Keep track. Write down how much you drink and when. You can use a diary or an app on your phone, whichever makes it easier for you to keep tabs.
- Designate alcohol-free days. If you’re not planning to quit drinking altogether, you can still abstain on certain days to reduce your consumption.
- Drink slowly. When you do indulge in an alcoholic drink, try to slow down and savor it, rather than gulping it down. You might follow each drink with a glass of water or a non-alcoholic drink.
- Watch out for your triggers. People tend to be creatures of habit, notes Hester. You might consciously develop some new habits to replace those old habits. Did you get into a habit of having a couple of drinks every day at a certain time or under certain circumstances? If you pay attention to these triggers, you can avoid them. “Triggers are powerful, but over time, you can manage and learn to address those triggers effectively,” says Hester.
Still having trouble cutting back? “If you find these tactics aren’t working, it might be time to seek professional support from a doctor or therapist,” says Gay. If you think you’re dealing with a more serious addiction, it’s important to seek professional help, from your healthcare provider or the National Helpline for SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.