Due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we’re all at home for long periods of time and social activity is heavily restricted. It’s easy to get into the habit of drinking more alcohol (or more regularly) than we might have done before lockdown. However, if we want to protect our physical and mental health, it’s important to manage our intake.
Eliminating alcohol isn’t necessary to lead a healthy lifestyle and feel good. However, it can be helpful to get into the habit of enjoying it occasionally and, when we do have it, making sure that we’re enjoying it mindfully and without distractions (e.g. not in front of the television).
It’s perfectly fine to enjoy a glass of red wine with a meal, for example. The negative impact on our health arises when we regularly binge drink, i.e. having 3-4+ glasses of wine or pints of beer at once.
This blog will explain why it’s beneficial for our health right now to manage our alcohol intake, and provide our best tips on how to do so!
Why should we manage alcohol intake?
In the current climate where we may find ourselves being less active and we want our immune systems to be strong, it seems sensible to limit our alcohol intake. Excessive alcohol intake can negatively impact our immune system, lead to weight gain, and leave us feeling low on energy.
Alcohol and our immune system
Recent research has suggested that it’s more than just the side effects of heavy drinking (e.g. poor diet or lack of exercise) that affect our immunity. Alcohol appears to impact multiple aspects of the complex human immune system.
Studying the effect of alcohol on our immune system is challenging, as there’s a lack of high-quality randomised control trials. This is because studies giving people large amounts of alcohol are (rightly so) considered morally unethical. For that reason, most of the available evidence is observational, which looks at patterns but doesn’t tell us anything about causation.
A large amount of observational research shows that light to moderate drinkers (1-2 drinks per day) are less likely to die from a number of specific health conditions, including respiratory conditions and heart disease, compared with heavy or non-drinkers. Plus, light to moderate drinkers are less likely to die from all-cause mortality (or death from any cause), compared with heavy drinkers and non-drinkers.
One theory as to why the same relationship isn’t seen with non-drinkers is that light to moderate drinking indirectly provides a health benefit. Arguably, those of us who’re light-moderate drinkers occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or beer to reduce stress levels, or as a social activity. This means alcohol could be part of a protective, relaxed lifestyle, rather than a direct effect of pure alcohol (ethanol).
We can’t conclude from this observational data that alcohol (or the strict lack of) increases our chances of developing specific diseases or all-cause mortality. Many other lifestyle factors come into play, such as diet, smoking status, or exercise.
However, research conducted with heavy drinkers shows compromised immunity due to high levels of inflammation, both from alcohol and its byproducts.
Plus, an animal trial carried out with monkeys suggests that chronic alcohol consumption negatively impacts immune cells and increases inflammation in the body when at rest, putting a strain on the immune system. Although we can’t make conclusions about the effect in humans from animal studies, the combination of this data and the numerous large observational studies suggests that regular, large amounts of alcohol reduce the strength of our immune system.
Alcohol and weight gain
Regular, excessive alcohol intake can lead to weight gain, both directly and indirectly.
Other than the excess energy that alcohol provides, research suggests that once we reach our ‘tipping point’, our inhibitions are significantly lowered and this results in increased energy intake in the following 48 hours.
If you have a specific goal of weight loss, reducing binge drinking (roughly 3-4 alcoholic drinks + at one sitting) is one of the most effective steps without making any other changes.
Top tips to manage alcohol intake during lockdown
Here are our top tips to cut down your alcohol intake during lockdown, since offering to be the designated driver isn’t an option right now!
1) Weekend rule
With the boundary between weekdays and weekends being less clear during self-isolation, it can be easy to fall into the habit of drinking most days. Especially as we aren’t able to leave the house for social events, gym classes, or certain hobbies, having a drink at the end of each day can be appealing.
Set yourself the challenge to only enjoy alcohol on the weekends. That way, you’ll naturally be having five alcohol-free days a week. The best way to break the habit is to swap the alcoholic drink for a non-alcoholic drink. For example, if you enjoy a drink in the garden after work, you can still continue enjoying this time but try swapping your drink for sparkling water with lime or a decaffeinated herbal tea.
2) Two drink guide
Try to limit yourself to 1-2 alcoholic drinks at a time. As we mentioned earlier, having 3-4 drinks tends to be the tipping point, where we begin to make poor choices with food and alcohol, for up to 48 hours after we’ve had our drinks!
3) Drink distraction free
When you do drink, have it over a relaxing meal with family or housemates, or alone in the garden, rather than mindlessly drinking while distracted in front of your tv or phone.
Really focus on enjoying the drink and the flavour, smell, and texture. This brings awareness to our drinking and we’re far less likely to finish a glass without thinking about it.
4) Alternate your alcohol
When you’re drinking at home, try alternating between non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages. Some good non-alcoholic drinks include sparkling water with lemon or lime, herbal teas, and alcohol-free cocktails. Here’s a refreshing mocktail recipe for some inspiration:
Blueberry and mint mocktail
– 2 cups (300g) of frozen or fresh berries
– 1 bunch of mint, plus additional to serve
– Juice from 1 lemon
– 2 cups of ice, plus additional to serve
– Sparkling water to serve
1) Combine berries, mint, lemon juice and crushed ice in a food processor.
2) To serve, place ice cubes and a sprig of mint in a glass. Pour over the berry mixture and top with sparkling water.
5) Opt for long drinks
When you feel like a drink, make a long drink so that the alcohol is less concentrated and the drink lasts longer. Some examples of long drinks include white wine and soda water spritzer, a single gin and tonic in a tall glass, or a vodka and soda water with lime in a tall glass.
6) Find other methods to stimulate or relax
Some of us are drinking slightly more because we feel bored, whereas others are looking for a way to relax, rather than actually craving the alcohol itself. In this instance, it can be helpful to find other methods of stimulation or relaxation.
To keep our minds active and occupied, cognitively challenging tasks can be helpful. This includes activities like sudoku, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, adult colouring books, reading, or listening to a podcast.
Our guide on coping strategies provides some effective techniques to try for relaxation.
Whether you feel bored or overwhelmed, consider picking one activity and trying it for a week every time you feel compelled to have a drink. If it doesn’t work for you, try a different one, and remember that trying all the techniques and activities at once may be overwhelming, so stick to one at a time!