How pervasive is alcohol consumption in America? According to a 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 70% of those 18 years or older reported they drank alcohol in the past year with 55.3% admitting they consumed alcohol in the past month.
So, what’s the big deal?
Alcohol is the leading cause of premature death and disability among people aged 15-49 years.
A huge worldwide analysis published in 2018 in the prestigious journal Lancet concluded that the intake level for lack of harm was zero grams of alcohol per day. In the Lancet editorial accompanying that article, two experts compared alcohol-related harms with tobacco-related harms, and stated “These diseases of unhealthy behaviors…are the dominant health issue of the 21st century.” Strong words in the era of Ebola and coronavirus.
In addition to the wreckage alcohol can create with relationships, careers and, of course, car crashes, alcohol also can lead to the tragic and untimely loss of life. In fact, accidents involving alcohol are the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.
Alcohol’s impact on health is serious and significant: though well known to harm the liver, it also damages the heart, lungs and pancreas AND is a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance). It also can take a terrible toll on the brain.
Alcohol and the Brain
Alcohol use negatively affects the brain in a number of ways. Along with its even more toxic byproduct acetaldehyde, it readily enters the brain across the blood-brain barrier.
Alcohol decreases firing in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most involved with decision-making and good judgment. Long-term, it kills nerve cells not just within the brain but in the hands, legs, and feet, and elsewhere around the body. Alcohol also can disrupt sleep.
It’s known to cause impaired absorption of vitamin B1 (thiamin), linked to major cognitive problems. Alcohol also dramatically inhibits absorption of other B vitamins including B3, B6, and folate.
Alcohol also can interfere with the intake and absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K and the minerals magnesium and zinc, all of which are essential for health. Alcohol increases the metabolic demands for nutrients, increases their loss from the body, and impairs their storage and utilization.
Additionally, alcohol can predispose you to sugar abuse, stimulate your appetite, and prolong the time you sit during a meal, which can lead to continued eating even when you feel full. Alcohol plays tricks on your pancreas and can increase the production of insulin, which in turn can lead to low blood sugar levels.
The Incredible Shrinking Brain
Alcohol’s frequent use is associated with lowered brain volume. The functional consequences of this effect can be life-altering in their scope.
A long-term study that appeared in Archives of Neurology in 2008 tracked brain volume in 1,839 adult subjects for at least 28 years. It found that the greater the reported weekly alcohol consumption, the lower the brain volume, in both men and women. Heavy drinkers (15 or more drinks per week) were the worst affected, but light drinkers (1-7 drinks per week) were no better off than moderate drinkers (8-14 drinks per week).
It’s a similar story for young people, including adolescents: consuming 1-2 drinks daily was linked to loss of brain volume over time, in the prefrontal and other cortex zones, the white matter, and the cerebellum. Functionally, their judgment, behavioral control, learning and overall cognition was likely to be impaired.
Are You in a CAGE?
Recognizing if your drinking is a problem isn’t easy. For many people, dependence creeps up slowly, and the changes are hard to notice. To help you determine if your drinking is out of control, take the following quiz. This questionnaire, called the CAGE assessment, has been used for decades:
- Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
- Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
- Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning as an Eye-Opener to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you may have a drinking problem.
Excessive drinking can be a serious issue. Since it’s recommended to limit your intake of alcohol, or avoid it altogether, here are some simple strategies for curbing or halting your alcohol consumption…
6 Ways to Help You Cut Down on Alcohol & Boost Your Brain Health
1. Alternative Beverages
Sometimes it isn’t even an emotional trigger, but the sight or smell that makes you crave alcohol. A good strategy is to be prepared with a healthy alternative before you’re tempted to drink. If you’re invited to a meal or party where you know alcohol will be served, consider bringing your own non-alcoholic beverage. This will help ensure that you don’t drink, or drink too much, at the gathering.
2. Vigorous Exercise
Exercise is a great way to increase your feel-good neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. A brisk walk or jog can increase blood flow to your whole body. Also, you can do coordination exercises like ping-pong, dance or martial arts, which can help improve your balance, processing speed, focus, and energy. Physical activity can help fend off low mood, which may cause you to reach for an alcoholic beverage.
3. Just Say No
Get into the habit of declining alcohol when it’s offered to you. If you find it difficult to turn down a drink in social situations, ask a friend to back you up. If you both agree not to indulge and hold each other accountable, it will help you stick to your plan of drinking in moderation, or not at all.
4. Stress Management
Anything stressful can trigger certain hormones that activate your cravings, making you believe that you NEED another drink.
To help reduce stress, utilize techniques like:
- Deep breathing
5. Drink Tea
Drinking a cup of warm tea can help relieve stress and lift your spirits. Many teas are low calorie, sugar-free, high in antioxidants, and low in caffeine. Ginger tea may help with reducing the effects of nausea and mild dizziness. This can be a big help if you’re suffering from the effects of consuming too much alcohol the previous night. Whenever you’re tempted to have a drink, try to condition yourself to grab a cup of tea instead.
6. Strong Connections
Social connections are incredibly important to your overall health and well-being. Spending time in a community of like-minded people is a wonderful way to boost your bliss hormones, such as oxytocin. Since the health habits of the people you spend time with can have a dramatic impact on your health, surround yourself with people who are happy, upbeat, and kind…and who won’t tempt you to overindulge in drinking alcohol.
These are just a few ideas for how to cut down on alcohol consumption. If this part of your life has become a problem, it’s a good idea to seek out the help of a support group or a medical professional trained in this area.
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