How To Control DrinkingAnna Ciulla
Alcohol is recreationally enjoyed and abused to an alarming degree. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is considered the third leading cause of preventable death in the US— resulting in approximately 88,000 deaths annually and producing an economic burden of $250 billion.
Unlike other addictive substances, alcohol is relatively inexpensive and legal for adult consumption. However, alcohol’s popularity and cultural acceptance mask a terrible truth—that even in minute quantities it is toxic to human life. Alcohol distorts cognition, assails various psychological and physiological processes, prematurely ends lives, and destroys families.
HOW MUCH ALCOHOL IS TOO MUCH?
The question of how much alcohol constitutes “too much” remains a fiercely debated subject. For millennia, alcohol consumption has remained a defining aspect of human experience. When consumed responsibly and within moderation, alcohol appears to flaunt many benefits including lowering social inhibitions and fears, facilitating connections, helping people to relax and unwind after periods of stress, and temporarily forget about inner struggles or personal demons. Certain religious practices such as Shambhala Buddhism teach that alcohol helps diminish the grip of ego over one’s life when used by enlightened practitioners.
If judged as a whole, only a fraction of those who regularly consume alcohol develop moderate or severe alcohol use disorder (AUD), colloquially known as alcoholism. However, one doesn’t have to engage in binge drinking to experience the cognition-blurring effects of alcohol consumption. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse (NIAA), binge drinking is defined as immoderate alcohol consumption that results in a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 grams or higher. For men, this entails consuming five or more alcoholic beverages within a two-hour time frame, and for women, four or more alcoholic beverages within the same period. Although crossing the threshold from “responsible drinking” into binge drinking represents one objective criteria, it is highly problematic.
For example, while crossing the legal limit for impairment when operating a motor vehicle is consistent with the definition of binge drinking in all 50 states, you can still be charged with a DUI for having ANY level of alcohol present in your system. Regardless of legal standards, noticeable cognitive impairment and decline occur long before the binge-drinking threshold has been officially reached. The following percentages, published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), show the effects of alcohol consumption on an increasing scale:
- 04-.059 percent BAC – results in lower inhibitions and slightly impaired judgment
- 0.1-129 percent BAC – results in significant loss of judgment, impaired coordination and hearing, and slurred speech
- 0.13-0.159 percent BAC – results in blurred vision, significant loss of balance and dysphoria
- 2-0.249 percent BAC – results in loss of motor skills, disorientation, inability to stand or walk, and vomiting
- 0.25-0.399 percent BAC – results in unconsciousness (black outs) and alcohol poisoning
- 4 percent or higher BAC – results in a coma or respiratory failure-induced death
By the aforementioned criteria, it is reasonable to assume that any level of alcohol consumption that results in cognitive distortion or impairment—however mild it may be—is unhealthy. Therefore what constitutes “too much” alcohol diverges from socially and legally accepted definitions and can present a much more serious dilemma. These findings also contradict previous scientific claims that mild to moderate alcohol consumption is potentially beneficial.
MINDFULNESS AND ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
For many people, moderate alcohol consumption will continue despite knowing the associated risks and dangers. In such cases, mindfulness becomes critical in insuring reasonably safe outcomes. The following tips can serve as a guideline for practicing mindfulness while drinking:
- Pacing – regardless of the occasion at hand, consume alcoholic beverages slowly and consider the alcohol content. Unlike beer, margaritas, martinis, and hard liquors frequently contain higher alcohol contents and result in intoxication at an accelerated rate.
- Adaptation – learning to avoid alcohol in environments where immoderate drinking is the expectation. In such situations, sipping from a tonic water or club soda—complete with a lemon or lime—is an excellent way to fly under the radar while still enjoying the occasion.
- Including Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages – research shows that the inclusion of high protein foods or non-alcoholic beverages can help significantly slow alcohol absorption rates. Eat prior to drinking if possible, or occasionally interrupt a drinking session with water, soda, or another non-alcoholic beverage of choice.
- Caution Regarding Prescription Medicine –never engage in drinking without first understanding how alcohol interacts with whatever prescription medications you may be taking (if any). Use similar precautions even when taking over-the-counter medications or herbal supplements.
- Planning – many people have definite social and environmental triggers that lead to heavier drinking— all of which can be controlled. By making a simple list of known triggers, you can better avoid succumbing to these triggers and drinking to excess. And, even when certain people or situations are unavoidable, you will be better prepared to act responsibly.
- Never Drink When Upset – negative emotions and stressors of every kind increase the likelihood of overdrinking. By being aware of your emotional state and practicing self-discipline, you can avoid consuming alcohol at times when doing so is most likely to lead to excess.
- Be Aware of Commitments – remaining aware of your schedule and commitments is a key aspect of self-control. If you are planning to drink, do so at appropriate times, stopping early enough to allow a sufficient recovery period before engaging in important personal or professional activities.
- Technology and Safety –modern technology allows for safe transportation via Uber or Lyft with just the touch of a few buttons for those using ride-share applications, or a simple call to a taxi cab for those without. Always plan transportation ahead of time in any circumstance where you will be drinking and never risk getting a DWI, DUI, or causing an accident as a result of your intoxication. Another popular option for drinkers is tracking applications— customized programs that allow you to track your exact BAC and alcohol-based caloric intake from the convenience of your smartphone.
STRATEGIES FOR REDUCTION
The decision to control drinking frequently unfolds in stages beginning with greater mindfulness and progressing to implementing strategies geared toward reducing the amount consumed. For many people—especially full-blown alcoholics—quitting alcohol altogether requires a process of trial and error and is seldom achieved easily. The following strategies can be extremely helpful:
- Establish clear drinking goals and limits by predetermining the amount of alcohol you will consume daily, staying within those limits regardless of internal or external triggers.
- Select a time period of at least two days a week designated for abstinence. As you become comfortable with this routine, gradually increase the time frame to include more and more days so that you can tangibly measure your progress.
- Eliminate the presence of alcohol from your home, office, or any other environment in which you have easy access. This process represents a symbolic and literal step in the removal of alcohol from your life.
- Track your alcohol consumption in a diary or personal log. Regularly reflect upon the findings and take notice of the patterns they indicate, making corrections and improvements accordingly.
- Learn how to set clear social boundaries that include saying “no” whenever you are confronted with peer pressure to engage in alcohol consumption. Many passive people struggle with the ability to say no as an extension of insecurity or codependence, but doing so regularly allows it to become second nature while encouraging self-respect.
- Be willing to openly seek the support of family, friends, and loved ones who can help you navigate the rocky terrain of early reduction and abstinence.
- Always maintain a productive schedule that allows for social connection, personal hobbies or sports, community activities and/or volunteer opportunities that reduce the likelihood of drinking as a result of boredom.
EFFECTS OF REDUCED ALCOHOL INTAKE
Focusing on the positive benefits of reducing your alcohol intake is a very effective way to stay disciplined in your goal of reducing your consumption. Making a list of these benefits and reviewing it daily is a powerful tool to help you stay on track. The following list represents a few of the positive, life changing effects associated with reduced alcohol consumption—a process frequently known as harm reduction:
- Weight Loss – many alcoholic beverages are fattening, sugary, and filled with empty calories. Even one drink per day can add 2000 calories in one week! Multiply that number of drinks and you can see how easy it is to unintentionally pack on the pounds.
- Improved Brain Function – drinking negatively affects multiple brain regions necessary to healthy cognitive function. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex—which is analogous to a human supercomputer and responsible for executive functioning and memory formation—are both damaged by excessive alcohol consumption. However, empirical evidence suggests that following several weeks of reduced consumption (or abstinence), the quality and consistency of cognition significantly improves. This results in increased focus, less distractibility, and greater productivity.
- Enhanced Liver Health – the liver, like other vital organs, possesses the unique ability to naturally regenerate while shedding excess fat. Reducing your alcohol intake will automatically stimulate healing within the tissues of your liver and concurrently affect your overall health, resulting in a noticeably happier, healthier disposition in as little as two months.
- Healthier Skin – alcohol diminishes skin health and reduces vitamin absorption—two unanticipated consequences that lead to a prematurely aged, unhealthy appearance. Reducing alcohol intake promotes a healthier, more attractive complexion by eliminating these toxic, dehydrating effects.
- Saving Money and Supporting Relationships – although alcohol is relatively inexpensive compared to illicit drugs, regular consumption becomes a major financial burden. By reducing your consumption, you will save considerable expense and simultaneously improve the quality of your relationships. After all, if you are not fully in control of your senses, you cannot truly be present for your personal and professional relationships.
If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction to alcohol or displaying warning signs, call a substance abuse professional today. It is never too late to seek help, and the sooner you take action, the greater your chances are of making a full recovery.
For more about alcoholism and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “What Is Alcohol Poisoning and Its Link to Addiction?”
- “The Long-Term Health Effects of Too Much Alcohol”
- “Alcohol Abuse: How to Get Help”
- “Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Kidneys”
- American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM). Economic Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption in the U.S., 2006. Nov, 2011.
- Alcohol Research Current Reviews. The burden of alcohol use: excessive alcohol consumption and related consequences among college students. Jan, 2013.
- Health Affairs. The Economics of Alcohol Abuse And Alcohol Control Policies. March, 2002.
- Journal of Hepatology. Managing excessive alcohol consumption at a population level: The earlier the better. March, 2018.