Time to reset habits: drinking during the pandemic

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ALTON, Ill. (WMBD) — Alcohol sales were up 54% in March compared to last year, that’s according to research company Nielsen. The company also reported online sales skyrocketed by nearly 500% in late April.

Susanne Ringhausen, a manager of health and psychological services for OSF Healthcare Saint Anthony in Alton, said Illinoisans are feeling stressed by lack of control.

“You know there’s anxiety, lots of life changes, people are self-isolating so there’s loneliness, boredom and that kind of anxiety and stress can trigger that kind of drinking escalation. We would call that “relief drinking,” Ringhausen explained.

But how much is too much? New recommendations from the panel which reviews the latest clinical research are suggesting new federal government Dietary Guidelines advise individuals to limit their daily alcohol consumption to one drink a day for both men and women. It also recommends not drinking at all if you’ve never been a drinker.

Ringhausen warns the cumulative effect of too many Zoom happy hours can negatively impact your health. Excessive drinking can increase the risk for liver disease, obesity, breast cancer, depression, suicide, accidents, and a wide range of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, stroke, and heart attack. Chronic alcohol use can also lead to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a potentially deadly condition in which fluid builds up in the lung — a condition often seen in the more severe COVID-19 patients.

We have a culture that celebrates the idea of drinking as a solution with catchphrases such as “Anytime is wine time” and “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,” but Ringhausen says you don’t have to be an alcoholic for alcohol consumption to have a negative impact on your life.

“Where someone might have increased tolerance for alcohol, meaning as they drink more they need to drink more to have the same effect on their body and mind and so someone with Alcohol Use Disorder might experience that sudden urge to drink and really start to avoid non-alcohol related activities with other people,” she said.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who are alcohol-dependent have compromised immune systems, reducing the body’s ability to fight off infectious diseases such as COVID-19. And the more you drink, the higher your risk. Drinking also lowers inhibitions. Ringhausen said that can lead to more risky behavior when it comes to COVID-19 precautions.

Ringhausen suggests looking for more positive outlets to relieve stress and help you cope during these strange and unpredictable times. Video chats to keep connected with family, friends, and co-workers are good for your mental health but she suggests they don’t have to center around drinking.

She suggests, “Exercise routines or even fun scrapbooking activities or any kind of hobby you could imagine could be done virtually via Zoom so it does not have to revolve around drinking,” 

Six months into the pandemic, health leaders who are worried about the lasting impact of this big spike in drinking say it might be a good time to reflect on your habits.

“If you see yourself slipping into a bad pattern, take a break. Just take a break from drinking and maybe don’t keep it in the house for a while and that’ll help you cut back or get back on track. Let other friends and family know you’re cutting back. That will be helpful to get some support,” she advises.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol (BAC) to 0.08 or higher. For a typical adult, that translates to a man having five or more drinks or four or more drinks for a woman within two hours. If you find yourself drinking excessively on a regular basis, Ringhausen stresses, there is support to help you make a positive change.

If you are concerned about your drinking, you can take an Alcohol Use Assessment on the OSF HealthCare website. You can also reach out to an OSF HealthCare Behavioral Health Navigator here.

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