America Has a Drinking Problem.
According to CNN, CBS, and NBC, alcohol sales have been on a steady increase along with the Coronavirus pandemic.
In New York, for example, there was a 55 percent rise in sales during the third week of March.
Larger packs of beer, 24 and 30-packs, have gone up by 90 percent.
Marketwatch.com says that alcohol sales have jumped 243 percent in the U.S. during Coronavirus.
The problem is so concerning that the WHO issued a statement urging a restriction on alcohol access as it may worsen the immune system. Because, of any time for the immune system to take a hit, this is, of course, the worst. Want to make it far more likely you will get sick? Drink a lot of alcohol.
People are stuck at home, feeling bored, isolated, anxious, and/or depressed, so they are buying and drinking more. They are using it as a means to cope, as “something to do”, and as a way to manage (they think) their unsettled feelings (which the vast majority of us are feeling right now, to some degree).
Our country’s drinking problem didn’t start with COVID though.
Back in 2017, Op-Eds were appearing in the NY Times about it, including one titled America, Can We Talk About Your Drinking?
According to The Denver Post, America’s drinking problem is way worse this century. Americans are drinking more than they used to, a troubling trend with potentially dire implications for the country’s future health-care costs. The number of adults who binge drink at least once a week could be as high as 30 million, greater than the population of every state save California, according to a published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.
A similar number of people reported alcohol abuse or dependency.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Americans are drinking more now than when Prohibition was enacted — a trend that’s been rising for two decades with no clear end in sight. That’s the picture painted by federal health statistics, which shows increases in per-capita alcohol consumption and emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and deaths tied to drinking.
And now Coronavirus has ushered in a sharp rise in the drinking rate.
Here’s why this is a problem.
There is a strong link between alcohol use and depression. Alcohol is a depressant, so it doesn’t alleviate depression, it adds to it. In fact, nearly one-third of people with major depression have an alcohol problem. Drinking makes depression worse. It can also make anti-depressants less effective.
Drinking fractures your quality of sleep (The Power of Sleep by Matthew Walker, Ph.D.). It robs your body of its ability to sleep deeply, which is the reparative type, the kind of shuteye crucial for strong immune system functioning. People think that because alcohol makes them feel tired and causes them to fall asleep, that it “helps them sleep better.” Not so. It causes drowsiness, though the quality of sleep you have after even one drink is dismal. Alcohol stops your body from being able to sleep soundly and deeply. This results in poor quality sleep. And during a global health pandemic? Probably the worst time to do such a thing. You need an immune system that is as strong as you can make it during this time. Not getting good quality sleep wrecks havoc on it.
Which leads to the next point. Alcohol itself weakens your immune system, making you more likely to get sick and contract various diseases. So, drinking and getting a crappy quality sleep? A double hit on your body.
When you drink too much, you’re more likely to make bad decisions or act on impulse. As a result, you are more apt to, say, drain your bank account, ruin a relationship, say things you regret, eat badly, use drugs, or make other terrible choices. When that happens, you’re even more likely to feel down, particularly if your genes are wired for depression. And so, it becomes a cyclical thing. Drinking, making bad choices, feeling depressed, and drinking some more.
Liver problems occur with drinking as well. In fact, a fatty liver develops in 90% of those who drink more than 1/2 an ounce per day. It can also, of course, still develop in people who drink less. This is when your liver has become inflamed. In a worst-case scenario, the liver cells die and are replaced with scar tissue. This is called Cirrhosis, which is irreversible and leads to serious health problems.
Even just moderate drinking (not necessarily heavy) has been linked to dementia.
Alcohol consumption is also a risk with regards to various cancers, including the mouth, throat, colon, breast, and liver (though especially the mouth and throat).
Alcohol dependence is one of the main causes of disability in the U.S. and a strong risk factor for various diseases.
Alcohol problems are more common among people with severe mental health problems, so, given the increasing numbers of mentally ill people in America, it isn’t surprising that the U.S. is a country with a severe drinking problem.
The fact that drinking problems are more common among people with mental health issues does not necessarily mean that alcohol causes severe mental illness. But evidence shows that people who consume high amounts of alcohol are vulnerable to increased risk of developing mental health problems and alcohol consumption can be a contributing factor to some mental health problems. Meaning, it makes your mental illness issues worse, not better.
Roughly one-third of people struggling with an alcohol problem have a mental illness. And with dual diagnosis (meaning, you have both an alcohol problem and a mental illness), the symptoms of alcoholism and mental illness often feed off of each other. Because of this, any amount of alcohol will affect a person’s emotional well-being and vice versa.
Thus, people who are drinking to quell their anxiety, boredom, and depression during this time are only feeding the problem over the big picture. They aren’t helping it at all.
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, and this can make our moods fluctuate more widely. It can also ‘numb’ our emotions, so we avoid dealing with and facing difficult issues in our lives. Research shows that even just moderate drinking causes irritability, anxiety, and withdrawal symptoms.
So, mental illness in America today along with our alcohol and opioid addiction issues…is this a chicken and egg type scenario? It seems like it might be.
The truth is, though, that the skyrocketing number of alcohol sales during this time fits hand in hand with our culture which makes light of, glamorizes, and even encourages problem drinking.
Happy hours, two-for-one, commercials equating drinking with beauty and sexiness, and people who remark “man, it was a tough week so I need a drink” (our normalizing using substances in order to deal with emotions- never a healthy choice). The fact that we treat any celebration, as well as the weekend, as a reason to drink. We have power-hours, chugging contests, and use beer bongs. We gloat and punch our chests with regard to who can drink the most as if this is an enviable and way cool talent. We self-medicate, using alcohol as a means (we think) by which to feel better, even though in reality, it makes us feel worse over the big picture.
When a friend or loved one has a drinking problem, we tend to dance around it, to not say much of anything, or even to enable and go along with it. We may also just look the other way. Though if that same friend or loved one was using heroin or meth regularly, we would speak up in a heartbeat. Yet, both are drugs, both cause addiction, both wreck your health, and both ruin lives. Alcohol is just as dangerous a drug as others.
We look the other way, or even laugh and make light of it when people drink too much. We do not consider alcohol with the same seriousness as other drugs, even though it causes the same level of damage to health, and it’s one of the most significant worldwide addictions.
Heck, I can rattle off several names of people I know personally who are either problem drinkers or flat out alcoholics. I bet you can too. This small example makes plain just how prevalent our societal problem with alcohol really is.
According to the WHO data on alcohol consumption, the developed world consumes between 7.5 and 12.5 liters of alcohol per adult in one year. North America alone is drinking between 7.5 and 10 liters per person. If this is the case, then most people in North America are drinking between four to seven drinks per week. And because this is an average, some are definitely consuming more. We have a serious drinking problem here in America, though it’s one we aren’t taking seriously.
Also, according to the World in Data, the global patterns of mental health issues correlate with drinking consumption. Meaning that for countries where alcohol consumption is higher, so too are their mental health issues.
And, when the pandemic hit, the same developed countries where alcohol use and mental health issues are high, deemed liquor stores an essential service.
We should not be rushing for alcohol to numb, quell, and medicate away our feelings of fear, loneliness, or depression right now. That is only going to amplify and exacerbate all of it. It will not change or solve anything.
Turn toward other means instead, to try and help yourself feel better. Set up a Zoom or Skype date with a loved one. Read books that grip or fascinate you. Exercise, outside or in your home. Find a fun T.V. series to watch. Go walking in the fresh air. Cook something delicious to eat. Set up an appointment online with a mental health worker/therapist if you need to talk with someone. Play a fun video or computer game. Go sit in the park and listen to the birds chirruping and enjoy the sun. Watch a great movie. Listen to music. Dance. Have a mug of tea (before 1 pm, so as not to disrupt your sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of 5–6 hours, meaning it takes double that to leave your body entirely). Take a nap. Do some yoga. Take an online class.
Do not turn to alcohol as a means to try filling the hole inside of you. It won’t work. Not for long. In the end and over the big picture, it will only burn the hole inside of you wider and wider. It will cause more problems, within your emotions, physically, and in your life at large, rather than solving and helping with the challenges you feel you’re contending with.
We need to courageously face the significant alcohol problem we have, as a culture at large and for a lot of people as individuals. Otherwise, it will only result in major health problems down the road, which will equate to more problems for our country at large. And there’s no time like the present, is there? A health pandemic seems like the ideal time to make changes to your behavior, address a problem, and start protecting your health instead. Your life may depend on it.