We have all heard that drinking alcohol is not good for us, yet an estimated 14.4 million people struggle with an alcohol use disorder in the United States alone….and this was before the COVID-19 pandemic!
COVID-19 has burdened us with many personal challenges - from paranoia and fear of contagion, loneliness and depression brought on by social isolation, to anxiety over disruptions in routine, changes in employment and/or financial status, and overall uncertainty about the future. These factors and more, have led many Americans to reach for a drink to “take the edge off” of reality. In fact, alcoholic beverage sales have been off the charts since the on-set of the virus.
But does alcohol really “take the edge off” … and at what cost? Let’s explore this.
Whether a person consumes alcohol on a regular basis or is a first-time user, the effects of alcohol on the mind and body are undeniable. These effects can vary from person to person, based on age, weight, gender, liver function and tolerance from habitual use. The liver can typically metabolize one standard alcoholic beverage an hour and consuming more than that amount will result in intoxication.
Some of the milder and more immediate effects of alcohol use may seem desirable to those seeking to numb the feelings of stress, anxiety or depression. These effects include:
These effects sound kind of pleasant when you are stressed out, right?... to feel warm and fuzzy (skin flushing), take your mind off your troubles (loss of concentration), relax (lowered inhibitions), and improve your mood? But, wait, let’s take a look at the flip side - how might these same effects impact you in the midst of a global pandemic?
Loss of concentration and lowered inhibitions can significantly affect your decision-making skills. This may lead to an impaired state of awareness and a more casual adherence to safety precautions, such as social distancing, washing your hands, touching your face, and wearing a mask in public. Are those temporary feelings of relief worth the risk of exposing yourself, your loved ones and others to contagion due to a simple lapse in judgement that may occur under the influence of alcohol? It gives you pause to think, doesn’t it?
Now that we have explored the short-term effects of alcohol use, let’s talk about excessive and long-term use and the effects that may have … because, let’s face it, we’re several months into this pandemic and it’s not over yet.
Alcohol makes it difficult for the immune system to defend the body against harmful germs. In the lungs, alcohol damages the immune cells and the fine hairs that clear pathogens out of our airway, increasing the risk of serious respiratory infection and a greater risk for acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS) and other pulmonary diseases.[7
This appears relevant when there is a significant risk of exposure to a respiratory virus such as Covid-19.
“With COVID-19, alcohol is likely to interfere with an individual’s ability to clear SARS-CoV-2 and cause people to suffer worse outcomes, including ARDS, which commonly results in death,” said Dr. E. Jennifer Edelman, a Yale Medicine addiction medicine specialist.
In addition, alcohol also destroys the normal healthy gut bacteria that promotes a healthy immune system and helps ward off the risk of infection.
So, we’ve covered the more physical effects of alcohol, but what about the effect that alcohol has on your overall mental health?
Alcohol is a depressant. So, although a person may drink to improve their mood and take their mind off of their troubles, alcohol can actually worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, regular consumption of alcohol changes the chemistry of the brain by decreasing levels of serotonin, which is a key chemical in fighting off depression.[11 The more one drinks to manage the symptoms of depression, the more their serotonin levels are depleted, and their depression worsens. This can initiate a vicious cycle of consuming more and more alcohol to treat the worsening symptoms, often referred to as “self-medicating”. Self-medicating can be very dangerous.
The neurological effects of alcohol can also cause mood swings that can exasperate negative or dark feelings, resulting in overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and/or shame.[12 The intensity of these feelings can not only create a potential for self-harm, but can also pose a risk of harm to others.
In addition, alcohol can interfere with normal sleep patterns, resulting in decreased energy levels.
Ok, so we now know that there are plenty of reasons to avoid turning to alcohol to take the edge off of our worries during the COVID-19 pandemic….OR EVER. So, what are some healthy ways to cope with stress during these challenging times? Here are a few suggestions:
Most importantly, always remember that you are not alone! There are resources to help…
High Country Behavioral Health provides mental health and addiction services in Western Wyoming and Eastern Idaho.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1.800.662.4357 is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Wyoming-Based Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK
Idaho Suicide Prevention 208-398-4357
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255
[1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2017). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
[2 Better Health Channel. (2012). Know The Facts.
[3 Mark Keller, George E. Vaillant. (2018). Alcohol consumption. Encyclopedia Britannica.
[4 American Addiction Centers. (2020) Why Alcohol Lowers Inhibitions.
[5 Dubowski, Kurt. ResearchGate. (2019). Stages of acute alcoholic influence/intoxication blood alcohol concentration grams/100 ml stage of alcoholic influence clinical signs/symptoms.
[6 Piano MR. (2017). Alcohol’s Effects on the Cardiovascular System. Alcohol Res. 38(2):219–241.
[7 U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine. (2015) Alcohol and the Immune System.
[8 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain. Alcohol Alert. No. 63.
[9 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.
[10 Pfefferbaum, A., Sullivan, E. V., Mathalon, D. H., Shear, P. K., Rosenbloom, M. J., & Lim, K. O. (1995). Longitudinal changes in magnetic resonance imaging brain volumes in abstinent and relapsed alcoholics. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 19(5), 1177-1191.
[11 Mental Health Foundation (2006). Cheers Report.
[12 PsychCental (2014). Alcohol May Not Help: Alcohol’s Impact on Your Mental Health.