A lot of us may have overindulged in boozy beverages during quarantine, but it may be an idea to ease off and take a break.
“People are drinking more now because they have more fear about both the present and the future,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeart Media.
“This uncertainty and fear drives anxiety, and alcohol can diminish that feeling state in the moment.”
This is because of the nature of alcohol and how it affects the body, she explains.
“Alcohol is in a class of drug called depressants because, amongst other things, it depresses the central nervous system. It is also an addictive drug, meaning that a person becomes tolerant to drinking a certain amount over time, and in order to have the same effect – for example, decreased anxiety – they require more drug,” Saltz says. “It also means that, over time, if they drink less or none, they may experience withdrawal from the drug, which causes feelings of nausea, sweating, rapid heart rate, [and] feeling generally awful. This in turn will usually compel the person to drink.”
After months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us may be turning to alcohol as a way to get away from our fears or feelings.
“[People] are also home a lot, feeling trapped, bored, fighting with family, having no newness or play in their lives and alcohol feels like an escape,” Saltz says. “Alcohol is associated historically with social and fun times and therefore is a draw. In reality,” she says, “alcohol only serves any of these functions while drinking and afterward it all comes roaring back – which incites more drinking.”
If you are experiencing high anxiety, Saltz says, developing actual coping tools like regular aerobic exercise, a mindfulness practice, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and talking to others for social support, will not only help, but they also have no downsides or risk of addiction. Talking to a therapist may also be beneficial.
“People who are drinking in order to reduce anxiety, feel more relaxed, check out, get to sleep, relieve their current feeling state or thought pattern are more likely to develop a problem because they will need more and more alcohol to accomplish this,” Saltz says.
She adds that for those using alcohol to fall asleep, it may not actually be helping as much as you think.
“Alcohol can seem to put you to sleep quickly, but it does cause very interrupted sleep with many awakenings. By disrupting sleep architecture, it causes you to have a less restful night of sleep.”
If you’ve noticed your alcohol intake has increased, reducing it is important, Saltz says.
“If you have experienced or are experiencing a need to keep drinking and increasing it, you may need to stop drinking altogether and not resume. People with alcohol abuse or dependence cannot drink alcohol … at all. Once you have developed an addiction, you can never resume drinking without risking relapse. Your nervous system has been primed for addiction.”
5 Reasons to Take a Booze Break
1. You’ll Be In a Better Mood
“Alcohol might make you feel untethered for a while, but it stuns the brain and depresses your mood,” says William W. Li, MD, an internationally renowned physician, scientist and author of the New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.
2. You’ll Help Your Liver
“Your liver functions as a natural detoxifier and has to work hard to metabolize alcohol in your system,” says Li. “Heavy drinking takes its toll on your liver and going alcohol-free lets your liver heal up.” Tiffany Cruikshank, wellness expert and founder of Yoga Medicine®, calls it a vacation for your liver. “Think of your liver detox pathways like a lineup of chemicals and toxins waiting to be processed and eliminated, while alcohol is notoriously cutting in line and slowing things down,” she says. “Because of that, it’s critical for our health in so many ways and can have a really significant impact on energy levels, mental focus, mood, hormones (a big one for women with PMS), immune function and so much more.”
3. Your Love Life Might Improve
“In addition to mood swings, alcohol puts a damper on your libido as well as your sex organs,” says Li.
4. You’ll Have Better Immunity
Li says, “People who drink heavily have lowered immunity – definitely something you don’t want in a pandemic.”
5. You May Find it Easier to Lose Weight
Cutting out alcohol cuts out extra calories, Li explains.
Consider Alcohol-Free Beverages
Just because you are not drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you have to recuse yourself from social situations where alcohol will be present. You can always consider trying alcohol-free beer and wines, like the award-winning ones crafted by Hill Street Brewing Company. The taste and look just like the real thing – but sans alcohol. Consider stocking your home with alcohol-free options while hosting, or BYO-non-booze to any gathering.
Plus, Hill Street Brewing Company has the #hillstreetchallenge where they challenge you to go alcohol-free for 30 days – learn more here.
How Long Should You and Alcohol Be On a Break?
To get the most out of your liver vacation, Cruikshank recommends at least a week. “For those looking for a more therapeutic impact, I recommend a month.”
If you are a heavy regular drinker, Li also suggests a 30-day hiatus as a start. “During that time, pay attention to how much better you feel, physically, mentally, emotionally,” he says.
Bringing Booze Back, After the Break
After your break, if you don’t have an addiction issue and want to incorporate alcohol back into your life, Cruikshank says moderation is key.
“I like to stick to one [to] two drinks once or twice a week and when I find myself slipping into a more regular routine and feeling the effects, I know it’s time for a short detox to get back to a clear and energetic day,” Cruikshank says.
“When drinking becomes a regular thing, what’s difficult is the habit,” she says. “Creating a new ritual is helpful. I love the process of having a nightly mocktail to replace it, something tasty and healthy.”
Cruikshank’s favorite is a few berries (frozen or fresh) muddled with the juice of half a lemon, five to seven drops of liquid stevia and sparkling water. You can also add some fresh herbs from your garden (she loves thyme, rosemary, mint, basil or sage).
“If you’re feeling stressed and looking for the relaxation of a drink, try some CBD in your cocktail or maybe a short yoga practice to down-regulate your nervous system instead.”
Li suggests limiting your alcohol intake to wine or beer, and keeping it modest, one or two glasses with food, and not every day. “If you have a drinking problem, it may be best to abstain and [seek out] a support group to help you stay on the wagon,” he says.