Taking steps to reverse a pandemic drinking habit

Health benefits and risks of cutting down on alcohol

Cutting back after a year of quarandrinking? Increased or excessive alcohol use during stressful times is not uncommon. If you’re looking to dry out, here’s what you need to know about drinking less after the pandemic and some warning signs to look out for when it comes to alcohol withdrawal, which can be a serious condition.

How much is too much?

Moderate drinking is defined as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less for men. One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (gin, rum, vodka, etc.).

If you’ve been working from home or just staying home more over the last year, your schedule looks different: fewer early morning wake-ups, more late nights watching TV or the new ability to catch a nap in the middle of the day. For those reasons, you might not notice the effects of a few extra drinks the night before.

How do I start cutting back?

  1. Choose days that you will be alcohol-free. Sometimes after abstaining from drinking for a few days, you can reassess how you feel physically and emotionally without alcohol.
  2. Assess your home bar. If you don’t have your beverage of choice in stock, it’s more difficult to drink it.
  3. Drink mindfully when you do imbibe. Try drinking slower by sipping and alternate with nonalcoholic beverages or water.
  4. Pay attention to your triggers — stress, the clock, whatever it is. Over time you can start to recognize those triggers and learn better ways to cope.
  5. Consider your social engagements — if a friend invites you for a drink, suggest coffee or a walk together instead.
  6. If you need to, ask for support. You can let family and friends know that you need encouragement or seek advice from your health care provider or a counselor.

Benefits of cutting down on alcohol

There are many good reasons to drink less or even stop entirely, such as:

  • Improved mood
  • Weight loss
  • Better sleep
  • Improved digestion
  • Boosted metabolism
  • Clearer skin
  • Better hydration
  • A healthier liver, stomach and pancreas

What if it’s more serious?

If you’re still having trouble cutting back, it may signal a more serious issue.

Very heavy drinkers may not be aware of how much their drinking affects their lives, jobs or families because they can have a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol while still functioning in their daily lives. If you stop drinking entirely after a long period of overdrinking, you may have physical and/or psychological side effects including:

  • Anxiety, irritability or depression
  • Clammy skin
  • Headache
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tremor

If you have mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, schedule a visit with your primary care provider to discuss next steps in your treatment plan.

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Delirium tremens

A very serious type of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens (DTs). Onset occurs anywhere from two to four days after your last drink and can be life-threatening. About 1 in 20 people who develop DTs die from it. If you or a loved one has these symptoms, seek emergency care immediately:

  • Agitation or confusion (may be severe)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Fever
  • Irregular heartbeat or dangerous changes in blood pressure
  • Seizure
  • Sensitivity to light or sound

If you are visiting the hospital for any other condition and have been drinking, be sure to tell your provider so that they may monitor you.

The key to avoiding severe alcohol withdrawal is early intervention. Your primary care provider offers a no-judgment space in which you can share and discuss your drinking history, concerns, questions and goals for cutting back.

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