April is Alcohol Awareness Month and since habits are fueled amid a two-year pandemic, now may be a good time to rethink your alcohol consumption for concerns of health and well-being.
As stay-at-home orders were implemented due to COVID-19, excessive drinking increased by 21%, according to research published earlier this year in the journal Hepatology.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said 25.9 million Americans who drink alcohol reported drinking more alcohol during the pandemic than before, according to an October 2021 report from the government agency.
Dr. Sarah Church – who is the founder and executive director of Wholeview Wellness Center – an addiction treatment program in New York City, said there are a variety of reasons why people increased their drinking during the pandemic.
“Alcohol could be used as a coping mechanism for either loneliness and boredom or for relationship strife,” Church told Fox News Digital. “Also, people were finding that they were having trouble shifting between work and after work, and sometimes drinking was the thing that they used in order to make that transition.”
Church added that without early morning commutes, people may have felt like they could drink a bit more.
“Some people found themselves drinking much more, and they couldn’t actually stop,” Church said. “So when they got called back into work, they found that they had to go to detox in order to be able to get back to work.”
The effects of alcohol on the body
The increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic is expected to cause an increase in deaths, liver failure and alcohol-related liver disease, according to the study published in Hepatology, which Fox News Digital previously covered.
According to researchers, a one-year increase in alcohol consumption is estimated to result in 100 additional deaths, 2,800 additional cases of liver failure 8,000 deaths from alcohol-related liver disease by 2023.
In general, excessive alcohol use has a number of short-term and long-term health risks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Short-term health risks for excessive alcohol consumption include injuries from car accidents, falls, drownings and burns; violence; alcohol poisoning; risky sexual behaviors; and miscarriage, stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder among pregnant women, the CDC wrote on its website.
The CDC also cites several long-term health risks for excessive alcohol use over time which include numerous chronic health conditions including heart disease, digestive problems, various forms of cancer – including breast cancer, colon cancer, throat cancer and liver cancer, – weakening of the immune system and memory problems.
In March, a study published in Nature Communications also found that drinking an average of only one or two alcoholic drinks every day can cause someone’s brain matter to shrink.
“I think what the average person can kind of take from that is, it’s probably not great for your brain to be drinking every day,” Church said regarding the study’s findings. “You want to really think about reducing your alcohol.”
Drinking alcohol can also affect someone’s sex life, Church said.
“Some people will find that their partner is not so interested in having sex with them when they’re drinking a lot,” Church said. “Some men will find that they are unable to perform when they’ve had a lot to drink.”
“There can be other effects, where it can affect your mood,” Church added. “If your mood is low, you may be less interested, you might have less libido.”
‘Tricky’ culture around drinking
Church said alcohol is “probably the trickiest” when discussing the types of substance use issues people face.
That’s because alcohol is legal and in some circles, drinking is celebrated, such as in the “mommy wine culture.”
“[Alcohol] is really normalized,” Church said. “But some people find that they can’t drink safely or they can’t drink in control and so they have to make changes or they have to stop drinking.”
“That can be really hard for people,” she added. “They feel embarrassed or shameful about it.”
How to tell if drinking is a problem
For someone who isn’t sure whether alcohol is a problem for them, Church said she recommends thinking about “how they’re feeling and how they’re functioning.”
Some of those indicators can include missing days of work, having problems in their relationships or if someone has told them directly that they have a problem with drinking.
“Things like that tend to be the first signs,” Church said.
Church also recommended checking out myrelationshipwithalcohol.com, which has a questionnaire to help people take stock of their own alcohol use and drinking patterns.
“If they’re really worried about it… I would encourage people to try to talk to somebody about it, either their doctor or a trusted friend or someone like a therapist… to talk about what’s going on with their drinking,” Church said.
One strategy for figuring out if drinking is a problem for someone is “sobriety sampling,” which Wholeview Wellness Center encourages patients to try.
A sobriety sampling, as Church explained, means a person should compare a period of time when they’re not drinking to a time when they were drinking, to see if there’s a difference.
“Is their sleep better? Are their relationships better or are they doing better at work?” Church said. “[Looking at] what’s happening once they’re not using. And sometimes, in reflecting back on that period when they were drinking, they can tell whether it was an issue or not.”
If drinking alcohol is a problem for someone, Church said there are plenty of options to seek help, including mutual support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training), which is a cognitive-behavioral mutual support group.
Church also said a primary care doctor or therapist can discuss options for FDA-approved medications which can help people reduce their alcohol use.
“The thing I always want people to know is that there are effective treatments and that treatment for alcohol use disorder actually really helps,” Church said. “The outcomes for treatment are just the same as any chronic medical condition.”
Church said alcohol use disorder is like any other chronic medical condition.
“We don’t have a cure for it yet,” Church said. “It’s similar to diabetes, to hypertension, to asthma. People struggle with any chronic medical condition, to take their medicine, to do what they need to do to support themselves.”
Church gave the example of someone who has diabetes slipping up and eating a piece of cake once in a while.
“It’s the same thing with drinking,” Church said. “Maybe if you’re trying to be abstinent from alcohol, once in a while you have a slip.”
“What we want to do is reduce those slips as much as possible, have as many periods of abstinence as possible and to have functioning be as high as possible,” she added. “And that’s true for any chronic medical disorder.”
Strategies for reducing alcohol use
Skills and strategies Church recommends for reducing drinking include arriving late to events or leaving early, substituting a non-alcoholic drink between every alcoholic drink or doing activities with friends that don’t involve alcohol.
“Another technique is just being really mindful about drinking, so really enjoying each sip that you have and taking it a little slower,” Church said.
Since many have turned to alcohol to adapt to pandemic-related stress, Church suggested that people find other ways to cope instead.
“We really encourage people to do more of whatever it is they love,” Church said.
“So, adding more positive, fun activities to their lives that sort of crowd out the amount that they’re drinking and increasing pleasurable activities,” she added.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or drug addiction, please contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Fox News Digital’s Amy McGorry and Shiv Sudhakar contributed to this report.