Drinking the Pandemic Away: Alcohol Consumption on the Rise

It’s been a stressful year for virtually everyone in the country, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that drinking is on the rise across the U.S. Many people are pouring themselves an extra glass of wine or two each night before they go to bed, even though bars remain closed in many areas.

The recent rise in drinking has raised new health concerns. If you or your patients are turning to the bottle to unwind at the end of a long day, here’s what you need to know:

Drinking During the Pandemic

The statistics on drinking are in, and they paint a fairly grim picture of the U.S. According to Nielsen, alcohol sales in stores were up 54% in late March compared to that time last year, while online sales were up nearly 500% in late April. That’s a lot of extra drinking.

Back in April, a Morning Consult poll surveyed 2,200 Americans on their drinking habits during the pandemic.

  • 16% of all adults said they were drinking more during the pandemic.
  • One in four millennials and nearly 1 in 5 Gen Xers said they had upped their alcohol intake.

Americans have lots of reasons to drink their sorrows away, from financial and economic insecurity to the grief of losing a loved one. Many people are also drinking at home, alone in isolation, where there’s no one around to moderate their behavior. Others are drinking out of loneliness and boredom as they sit inside all day.

Dr. Adriane dela Cruz, a psychiatrist who specializes in drug and alcohol addiction, says, “There are all these uncertainties: ‘Will I still have a job? When will my kids go back to school? When can I see my family again and hug them?’ A lot of my patients talk about this idea that there’s a hamster wheel constantly going in their head and that alcohol quiets down the hamster wheel.”

The Risks of Excess Drinking

The U.S. had a drinking problem before 2020.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol consumption was responsible for an annual average of 88,000 deaths from 2006 to 2010, including 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20 to 64 years.

Federal guidelines define moderate alcohol consumption as one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. “Excess drinking” is defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in a two-hour period.

Health officials are concerned this trend may have a negative effect on the current coronavirus crisis. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) have issued warnings that excess drinking can increase a person’s susceptibility to COVID-19. It impairs the immune system, which limits the body’s ability to fight off new infections.

Alcohol also impairs a person’s cognitive abilities, including spatial awareness, interpersonal behavior, and their sense of balance. This can be a recipe for disaster in certain social situations where people should practice social distancing and avoid any unnecessary contact.

Heavy drinking can also lead to a slew of health complications. It can increase the risk of liver disease, obesity, breast cancer, depression, suicide, accidents, and a wide range of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, stroke, and heart attack. 

Your patients shouldn’t wait to see a doctor until symptoms appear. A new report from the American Heart Association says excess drinking can cause heart damage before then. A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association compared the blood samples of 2,525 adults living in Russia. They were tested for proteins and hormones that indicated three types of problems: heart injury, stretching of the heart wall, and inflammation.

Compared to people in the general population without a drinking problem, the samples from hospital patients – those with the heaviest drinking habits – had 10.3% more evidence of potential heart injury, 46.7% higher blood markers showing possible stretching of the heart wall, and 69.2% higher markers for inflammation.

Making Room for Self-Care

We all need to look after our health amid the pandemic. Certain lifestyle habits and underlying conditions can increase our susceptibility to COVID-19. Encourage your patients to limit their alcohol intake whenever possible. Tell them to avoid drinking out of boredom or loneliness. If some of your patients are having trouble coping with their addiction, refer them to the Alcoholics Anonymous website where they can find a list of online meetings and support groups.

If some of your patients are known to drink more than they should, continue to monitor their health, so you can prevent certain health problems before symptoms appear.

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