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Holidays and Alcohol: How Much Is Too Much?

Holidays often center around food and drink. Even as we limit our parties to virtual gatherings, the fun and, yes, stress may leave you wondering how much to drink is too much to drink.

Primary care provider Chae Lee, MD, with Overlake Clinics Primary Care – Medical Pavilion, offers some ideas about how to be safe with your drinking during holidays and beyond.

Q: As long as I don't drink much the rest of the year, is it harmful to enjoy more alcohol during the holidays?

A: Even if you do not drink regularly throughout the year, you unfortunately do not earn any freebies that allow you to binge drink during the holidays. Binge drinking can lead to acute injuries such as intoxication and may also increase cardiovascular risks. A standard drink in the U.S. is any drink with about 14 grams (1.2 tablespoons) of alcohol. This typically means 12 ounces of 5% alcohol beer, 4 to 5 ounces of 12% wine or 1.5 ounces of 40% liquor. That means a bottle of wine would be about 5 to 7 drinks—and we consider having 4 (for women) or 5 (for men) drinks in a single occasion to be binge drinking.

Q: What are some ways to avoid alcohol when everyone else seems to be drinking?

A: Social pressure to drink is especially high over the holidays. Even when you limit your gatherings to immediate family or virtual parties, it is always important to know your personal limits and preference. If you do not wish to drink for any reason, you should not feel pressured. You can try to curb your own desire and other people’s pressure by having a nonalcoholic beverage in your hands. It's hard to offer a drink to someone who is already drinking something else! And, depending on your comfort level with your friends and family, simply being honest with your reasons for abstaining may do the trick and remove the pressure.

Q: As long as I feel like I'm thinking straight and not slurring my words, am I OK to drive?

A. Driving after drinking is never recommended, regardless of how you personally feel. Your feeling is not an exact measurement of your condition. While the law says anyone with a blood alcohol level at or above 0.08% is legally impaired, that is not the only factor that should be used to determine your ability to drive. Even if you feel fine as you get in your car, alcohol can diminish your coordination, reaction time and judgment, any of which can lead to serious accidents.

Q: The holidays are so stressful, I have to take the edge off. Is having one or two drinks a problem?

A. Depending on alcohol as a coping mechanism is not a good thing. Excessive alcohol use may worsen anxiety or depression symptoms. It may affect your physical health as well. While it may not be easy, finding a healthy way to manage your stress that matches your lifestyle is very important. A healthy hobby can help you deal with other stress in your life and take your mind off things. Increasing social interaction with family and friends—even virtually—and just talking through some things may also help you unload some burden.

Q: Will alcohol help keep me safe from COVID-19?

A. To put it simply, no. Drinking alcohol will not prevent or treat COVID-19 in any way. Being under the influence will often lead to additional risk-taking behaviors, which increases your risk of getting COVID-19. Drinking too much can also negatively affect your immune system, which further puts you in more danger of getting and make it harder to recover if you do.

If you are concerned or have questions about your alcohol use, be sure speak candidly with your primary care provider. If you don’t have one, Dr. Lee is accepting new patients.