Post Pandemic Bender – Are we Drinking Too Much?

We do not know what came first, bread or beer? We do know that many scientists have said that it could have been the beer or whatever available form of fermented liquid that brought us together. Maybe it was not hunger that made us cooperate to grow crops. Maybe the fermentation killed the bacteria and was safer to drink than the water. We do know that the liquid called beer in the early days was served at almost every meal, and the very first settlers landed in Plymouth Rock because the ship was about to run out of beer.   

Think about how drinking has changed in the last few years. We all know the bad effects of drinking, such as impaired cognition and motor skills, but that does not seem to stop us. Drinking lowers inhibitions and releases endorphins and makes us feel good, just as other addictive behaviors can. Face it – drinking is fun!  Many say it increases creativity. There is the example from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, that alcohol can affect programming ability. Drink a certain amount, and it gets better, the “Ballmer Peak”. Drink too much, and it goes downhill. Programmers have been rumored to hook themselves up to alcohol filled IV drips. There is a room stocked with top notch Scotch for liquid inspiration to coders who hit a creative wall, along with a collection of beanbag chairs: sipping and visiting with co-workers helps them to get mentally unstuck.   

Society has reversed the rules of how alcohol is served. Grocery stores now advertise wine bars and carts with cup holders to get more people through the front doors. Nail and beauty salons are offering drinks to bring in clients after hours. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, and zoos serve alcohol.  During the pandemic, day drinking became a “meme”. Many jokes surrounded the idea that cocktail hours were the new way to handle your stress of being home alone or confined with only your family.  Coming out of the pandemic we all want to know: Am I drinking too much? And we want to know: How much are you drinking?  

Those of us that still went to work every day were faced with intolerable work conditions and imminent dangers. There was no getting away from it. We went home only to get up the next day and do it again. During the lockdown we were not able to mingle with others for social interactions that helped us vent and work through what was happening to us psychologically. We were hidden away from one another with masks, shields, gloves, and gowns. We did not have moments to experience the smiles and other clue giving methods of approval and support.  

Many of us picture the person who drinks too much as a man with a brown paper bag coming from the convenience store or sitting in the parking lot. But the gender gap has closed. Women are now at risk across the globe on a 1-to-1 ratio with men.  Studies say that even as women drink more, they are less likely to ask or get help for the problem. The pandemic has accentuated the problem with drinking as a means of coping with the isolation, trauma, and anxiety. Sometimes, increased stress equaled increased alcohol consumption. 

Alcohol affects women differently than men. Women have less body water which dissolves the alcohol than men of the same weight.  The same number of drinks have a much different effect. It is the reason there are less drinks recommended per day for women than men. 

There is much gender disparity in information concerning the health effects of alcohol in women. One study has reported the emergency room visits for alcohol related issues increased 70% from 2006 to 2014 while for men it was 58%.  Another study at the same time reported the increase in alcohol related cirrhosis was 20% higher for women than men. The gender disparity also extends to the successful treatment plans. The popular 12 step programs are generally male dominated with educational materials written by men and advice targeted for men.  

In many countries in the world alcohol is consumed with food and at meals. Drinking alone or binge drinking is discouraged. That seems to be an American “thing”.  Drinking in bars, popular in America, used to have a social component but now not so much. Talking to strangers has become uncomfortable.  Bars have decreased in numbers during the pandemic, but drinking has become acceptable in all the other places it did not used to be. Those of us in health care are responsible adults, aren’t we? We should not be worried about an extra glass of wine. Now we are trying to return to what we used to say was “normal”. But it really is not and the next surge may be just around the corner.  The anxiety has not gone away nor has the psychological trauma of what we just went through. We should re-evaluate our responses.  

How do you know if you are drinking too much?  I asked Google.  Go to www.learn.mindwise.org and take the survey “I’m worried about my drinking habits” and you can get an answer that screens for problems.  

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