Full disclosure: I don’t drink anymore. More than 6 years ago, on my 33rd birthday, I drank my last glass of wine. It wasn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that it marked what I sometimes think of as the beginning of my new life. More on that later.
For many years before that last drink, and ever since, I have spent a lot of time thinking about alcohol and drinking. Before I quit, that thinking came from a place of guilt and shame, and the mounting worry that I had a drinking problem. Since I quit, my thinking about alcohol has been more objective; it has come from a place of curiosity rather than obsession. And it is from that place that I would like to share some potentially unpopular, but very honest, thoughts about drinking.
1. Truly moderate drinking is less than we think
Most people know by now that the USDA’s 2010 Guidelines for Americans have defined “moderate alcohol consumption” as 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. However, fewer people are aware of what constitutes 1 drink: 12 fluid ounces of beer (with 5% alcohol), 5 fluid ounces of wine (with 12% alcohol), or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits or liquor (with 40% alcohol).
To further complicate things, the alcohol content (percentage of alcohol per ounce of beverage) is increasing in wine, beer, and liquor, meaning a smaller serving of these beverages provides the same alcohol content as the standard drink sizes mentioned above.
I know I never stopped at 5 ounces when filling my 20-oz Crate and Barrel wine goblets! And according to the Alcohol Research Group, restaurants and bars are likely to serve you a 6-ounce glass of wine. That might not seem like a big difference, but when it comes to drinking and driving, or consistently consuming more alcohol over time, it could be.
And, if part of why we drink is the purported health benefits, shouldn’t we be conscious of what amount of alcohol is actually healthful?
2. About those health benefits…
Everyone loves a news story about the benefits of drinking alcohol. The newscasters love reporting it (winks and fist bumps are exchanged between fake on-screen BFFs), the viewers love to hear it, and smirking choruses of “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!” can be heard beginning with the 7 am news. But media coverage of alcohol as a health food is notoriously lopsided.
True, moderate alcohol consumption as described above has been found by some studies to have health benefits in certain people. For example, drinking 5-oz of wine a day may reduce risk of developing heart disease, of dying of a heart attack, of having a stroke, or of developing gallstones or diabetes. But these benefits don’t apply to everyone. The reduced risk of heart disease, for example, seems to apply to older adults and those with existing risk factors for heart disease. In middle-aged and younger people, alcohol might actually do more harm than good.
Less frequently communicated are the scientific studies showing no health benefit or even harm associated with alcohol consumption. For example, alcohol has been found to increase risk of breast cancer in some individuals and might contribute to cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, and liver. Researchers have also found that alcohol should be avoided in individuals taking many common drugs, including over-the-counter pain relievers and those ubiquitous antidepressants.
3. Alcohol has real effects on our bodies
Anyone who has woken up the morning after a night of drinking (which for some people can require surprisingly little alcohol) and sworn to cut back or quit knows: alcohol clearly has effects on the body. Here are just a few:
- Brain: alcohol can affect cognition, mood, behavior, and coordination.
- Heart: cardiomyopathy, irregular heart beat, stroke, and high blood pressure are all potential effects of excessive and/or chronic alcohol use.
- Liver: because the liver helps metabolize alcohol, the tissue can become damaged; fatty liver, hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis are all possible long-term effects of alcohol use.
- Immune system: even a single bout of heavy drinking can weaken the immune system and lower the body’s ability to fight off infection. (A little nip to help you feel better during a cold or flu? Old wives’ tale.)
In addition, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it increases the body’s loss of water, which makes a hangover so much worse, dries out the skin, leads to rebound water retention, and saps energy.
4. It might behoove all of us to take an honest look at our drinking
Bacardi tells us to “Just add friends,” while Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio wants to help us make every moment perfect. It’s clear from the ads for beer, wine, and liquor that we need these products to relax, have fun, date, have sex, connect with one another, celebrate, commiserate…you name it, we need alcohol for that (or at least we need it to make these experiences better).
Besides the fine print of “Please drink responsibly,” the companies that sell beer, wine, and liquor don’t encourage us to take a look at whether alcohol is truly enhancing or detracting from our lives. Being an alcoholic or needing to quit drinking altogether aren’t the only reasons to notice when alcohol might just not be what we really need in the moment. All of us can develop the ability, before reaching for a glass, to ask ourselves “What am I feeling?” And “What do I really need right now?”
Our shared language around drinking has a strong effect on our thoughts and behavior as they relate to alcohol: “I’ve had the worst day, I really need a drink” and “Relax, have a drink, you’ll feel better.” Say these things regularly enough and you start to believe that you need alcohol to deal with even the slightest discomfort or difficulty. I know I did.
But what if we were to consider the possibility that we have other options? Do we really need a drink (or three) to relax, have fun, de-stress, commiserate, celebrate, or just deal with real life? What I discovered through the process of first questioning my alcohol use and then deciding to not drink was that I am stronger and more resilient than I realized. I am capable of dealing with discomfort and strong emotions without the predictable anesthesia of alcohol. And, very importantly, I learned that there is great value in learning to tolerate life’s ups and downs without medicating them toward the mean (with alcohol but also with food, shopping, TV, Internet, work, etc.).
This is what I meant when I said that last drink marked the beginning of my new life. In many ways, that’s when I stopped going along with the crowd and started getting in touch with what I really needed to feel safe, strong, and whole.
While I realized that not drinking was the best choice for me, I believe that many people (maybe even most people) can learn to drink (and eat and shop and work) more mindfully. If you happen to notice that drinking less or not at all actually improves the quality of your life, however, that’s important information to pay attention to. And, if you are interested in reading my story, about stopping drinking without “hitting bottom,” check it out here.
The perspective I gained through my own experiences with alcohol clarified how I can take better care of myself. All of us can become more curious about ourselves, to notice what we are feeling and needing in the moment, and to give ourselves just that.