Struggle with stress, have difficulty sleeping
or concerned that alcohol may be a problem?
The behavior is embedded in our national psyche, reinforced by decades of movies, TV shows and commercials.
Hard day at work? Stop at the local pub for a cold one. Feeling tense? Mix a drink and unwind. Mind racing too fast to sleep? Slow down with a glass of wine.
The truth is, one glass of an adult beverage is fine for most people. The problem is, many people don’t stop after one. And we’re not just talking about people with chronic dependency issues.
If you’re using alcohol to help you sleep, to relieve stress or to numb physical or psychological pain, you’re doing yourself more harm than good – even if you drink only on occasion.
Alcohol interferes with sleep
“Alcohol does have some sedative effect,” said Brian Curtis, MD, vice president of Clinical Specialty Services for OSF HealthCare. “It’s true that it can help you get to sleep faster, but it’s not the same quality of sleep as you get when you don’t drink.”
Our sleep at night has a rhythm, moving through different phases. We begin with a light sleep that turns deep, then moves to a dream stage, then eases back out again. During a normal sleep, those phases constitute a process that allows the mind to restore itself, and we wake up refreshed.
“Alcohol interferes with our ability to move through those phases, and we don’t wake up feeling rested,” Dr. Curtis said.
Drinking worsens depression
In similar fashion, alcohol might dull physical pain, but the relief is only temporary. For emotional distress or depression, the perceived sedative effects of alcohol are mostly an illusion.
“Alcohol actually worsens depression,” Dr. Curtis said. “It’s not a way to deal with pain or depression or any other issue. It just masks the symptoms and actually makes them worse.”
That heightens concerns over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our overall health.
A RAND Corporation study, supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, reports a sharp rise in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, especially among women. And binge drinking increased by almost 20% each week of the initial lockdowns last spring, according to a study conducted by the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health.
“When we start looking at the long-term effects, we have concerns about addiction-type issues,” Dr. Curtis said.
“But there are other issues as well. People who consume more alcohol gain more weight, so we have increasing obesity. Then there’s the impact alcohol consumption has on the immune system, the gastrointestinal tract, your bone marrow and your body’s ability to react to viruses and bacteria and fight off infection.”
The best advice, Dr. Curtis said, is if you don’t drink, don’t start. But if you do drink, limit yourself.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends no more than two drinks per day for adult men and no more than one per day for adult women. The CDC emphasizes these numbers are not an average over several days.
A typical drink is defined as a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a mixed beverage containing 1.5 ounces of liquor.
“So, a single glass of wine at night is well within the standards,” Dr. Curtis said.
Seek alternatives to drinking
A good way to help reduce stress, relax or make yourself sleepy is to create new habits and patterns.
“As we get into cold weather, this becomes even more important because our time outside is limited,” Dr. Curtis said.
Here are some alternatives:
- Exercise in different ways
- Take up a new hobby or renew involvement in an old one
- Expand your reading list by exploring new genres
- Learn to play a musical instrument
- Enroll in adult education classes
If you struggle with stress or have difficulty sleeping, or if you are concerned that alcohol may be a problem for you, reach out to your primary care provider. If you don’t have a provider, you can find one here.