Are You Drinking Too Much During COVID-19 Lockdown?

About a 9 minute read

By: Mary Elizabeth Dallas and Kerry Weiss

More Australians are turning to alcohol to ease pandemic-related stress. Here’s why that could backfire.

If what Australians are buying more of these days is any indication of what they’re doing during COVID-19 lockdown, it seems that among the pastimes picking up steam are bread-making, knitting, doing jigsaw puzzles… and drinking. Aside from stockpiling essentials, such as toilet paper and flour, many people are buying alcohol, as well—in bulk. Liquor stores are among the limited number of essential businesses that remain open, but state and local stay-at-home orders have also seemingly contributed to a boom in online alcohol sales, according to Nielsen.

In fact recently the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education reported that new data shows one-in-five Australians have purchased more alcohol than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the majority are drinking more and have concerns about their alcohol use and the drinking of others in their household. National polling by YouGov Galaxy, commissioned by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), shows that 20 per cent of Australians purchased more alcohol and 70 per cent of them are drinking more alcohol than normal, with one third (33 per cent) now using alcohol daily.

To be sure, if Australian’s aren’t having cocktails at bars and restaurants, they may compensate by drinking more at home.

The hashtag #quarantini has more than 36,000 posts on Instagram and counting. And Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa author and Food Network star, posted an early-morning video of herself making a giant cosmopolitan on her Instagram page, which went viral. Meanwhile, the number of people posting screenshots of their Zoom “happy hours” is on the rise.

In short, pandemic drinking is trending.

This may seem normal—perhaps even silly—as some people use alcohol to blow off steam and help manage stress. But turning to alcohol to calm your nerves or cope with the pandemic is risky and may do more harm than good.

It’s not a risk-free solution
Initially, drinking may help you “take the edge off,” but this sensation is fleeting. Alcohol is a depressant that slows the central nervous system. Drinking affects everything from your judgment and emotions to your coordination, speech, hearing and vision.

COVID-19 isn’t going away overnight. Using alcohol to help deal with this relatively long-term uncertainty and strain increases the risks for alcohol-related mental and physical health issues, including dependence. Essentially, drinking to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic could backfire, cautions Julie Shafer, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Portland, Oregon. “You risk it interfering with your health and your relationships, it’s going to impact your sleep—and that’s going to make it even harder to cope,” she explains.

Why alcohol may hurt—not help
If you’re worried about being able to fend off the SARS-CoV-2— the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—you should be doing all you can to bolster your immune system, including easing stress as well as eating and sleeping adequately. Drinking, particularly heavy alcohol consumption, can have the opposite effect.

It takes a toll on your body’s natural defences.
Heavy drinking has long been linked to a dampened immune system and slower recovery from injury and infection. Heavy drinkers are also at higher risk for pneumonia and acute respiratory stress syndrome (ARDS), in particular—two serious complications of COVID-19.

It can disrupt your sleep.
If you’re already tossing and turning due to worries about COVID-19, alcohol won’t help you get the rest you need. It can make you feel drowsy, but it isn’t a sleep aid. Drinking can actually have the opposite effect, resulting in disrupted, poor-quality sleep.

If you have a drink or two before bedtime, it could interfere with your natural body clock or circadian rhythms. Altering your normal sleep-wake cycle could cause you to wake up earlier than usual.

Drinking can also interrupt rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the most restorative phase of sleep. If your REM sleep is disrupted, you’re not going to feel as refreshed or sharp the next day.

Alcohol could also affect your breathing since it relaxes your throat muscles. This can increase the risk of snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition that interrupts your breathing when upper airway blockages hamper airflow.

Drinking also suppresses a hormone called anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), causing your body to make more urine than usual. So, if you’ve been drinking late in the day or in the evening, you’ll likely have to wake up and use the bathroom during the night.

You’re more likely to injure yourself.
Alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body; it can start to have an effect within minutes. It’s one of the few substances that can be absorbed through the stomach. From there, it goes right into your bloodstream to your liver, and then to your brain.

Even one or two drinks can have almost immediate effects on your judgment. The more you drink, the more your coordination, balance and decision-making skills will be affected, increasing your risk for injuries such as falls or burns.

It’s good to try to avoid a trip to the emergency room at any time, due to what is essentially an avoidable injury, but particularly now during the Covid-19 pandemic reducing your risk of exposure to the novel corona virus and helping to reduce the burden on the Australian health system just makes sense.

You may hurt someone else.
Domestic violence is on the rise around the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown. In some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled, according United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

While not all cases of domestic violence involve alcohol, drinking increases your risk for being involved in violent situations, including intimate partner violence, such as rape or verbal and physical abuse. In fact, alcohol plays a role in up to two-thirds of all homicides, at least half of serious assaults and more than 25 percent of all rapes.

Your long-term health still matters.
It may be hard to remember life before COVID-19 and too early to envision our post-pandemic world. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should abandon your healthy habits and goals.

In a landmark August 2018 study, for which researchers reviewed more than 1,000 existing data sources and studies to estimate the effects of alcohol on the risk for 23 different related health issues, including cancer, high blood pressure and stroke as well as car accidents and injuries. Using mathematical models, the team found that alcohol was tied to 2.8 million deaths in 2016 and was the leading risk factor for disease worldwide among people between 15 and 49-years old.

So, is alcohol off-limits?
Not necessarily. The answer to that question really depends on you—your age, sex, DNA, lifestyle and other individual risk factors for cancer and chronic diseases. These personal variables all factor into the dangers associated with drinking.

Overall, the more you drink, the greater your risk for a number of serious health issues, including cancer, liver disease, atrial fibrillation and stroke. You also shouldn’t drink with the idea that your beer, cocktail or wine will offer certain health benefits. And some people should not drink any alcohol, including pregnant or breast feeding women, those with a personal or family history of alcoholism or those with a history of alcohol-related liver or pancreatic disease.

Generally speaking, if you don’t drink, it’s best not to start. If you decide to drink, don’t exceed current Australian guidelines,. Remember Alcohol is never completely safe. The more you drink, the greater the risk to your health.

In Australia , a standard drink contains approximately 10g of alcohol (12.5ml of pure alcohol) It is important to keep in mind that different types of beer, wine and liquor contain different amounts of alcohol so one drink may in fact contain more alcohol than what is considered a standard drink which makes it is easy to consume more alcohol than you think you are. It’s a good idea to check the label on your bottle or container so you know for sure.

Australian guidelines say that If you’re a healthy adult (man or women) to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.

Finding other ways to cope
If you’re feeling down or depressed, it’s best to steer clear of alcohol and not self-medicate with other substances. While practicing social distancing and being largely confined to your home, there are some other ways you can stay connected, boost your mood and find healthy ways to cope.

Shafer suggests receiving news in manageable doses from credible sources and sticking to your routine and healthy habits as much as possible. That includes keeping a consistent bedtime, eating a healthy diet and keeping up with household chores. Staying active is key, too—even if it means taking a virtual exercise class, some extra trips up the stairs or a walk around your yard.

And remember that if you’re confined to your home, there are still ways you can reach out to help others get through the crisis.

Medically reviewed in April 2020.

Sources:
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The Link Between Stress and Alcohol.”
D Sarkar, MK Jung, HJ Wang. “Alcohol and the Immune System.” Alcohol Research. 2015;37(2):153–155.
National Sleep Foundation. “How Alcohol Affects the Quality—And Quantity—Of Sleep.”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Interactions With Circadian Rhythms.”
J Pietilä, E Helander, I Korhonen, T Myllymäki, UM Kujala, et al. “Acute Effect of Alcohol Intake on Cardiovascular Autonomic Regulation During the First Hours of Sleep in a Large Real-World Sample of Finnish Employees: Observational Study.” JMIR Mental Health. 2018;5(1):e23.
E Simou, J Britton, J Leonardi-Bee. “Alcohol and the risk of sleep apnoea: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sleep Medicine. 2018;42:38–46.
Cleveland Clinic. “Adults + Booze = Bedwetting? Here’s Why It Happens to You.”
UpToDate. “Overview of the risks and benefits of alcohol consumption.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol and Public Health: FAQ.”
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Alcohol and Driving.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Excessive Alcohol Use.”
United Nations. “Amid Global Surge in Domestic Violence, Secretary-General Urges Governments to Make Prevention, Redress Part of National COVID-19 Response Plans.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.”
National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression Basics.”
Australian Government Department of Health “How much Alcohol is safe to drink” Retrieved from; https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/alcohol/about-alcohol/how-much-alcohol-is-safe-to-drink
Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education Article ‘Many Australians using more alcohol and worried about household drinking’. 16 April 2020Retrieved from: https://fare.org.au/many-australians-using-more-alcohol-and-worried-about-household-drinking/
Australian Government Department of health article: ‘Alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding’. Retrieved from; https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/alcohol/alcohol-throughout-life/alcohol-during-pregnancy-and-breastfeeding



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