When fes­tive fizz hits

It’s party sea­son and all too easy to let one drink lead to two and more. Keep an eye on your units and your body will thank you for it, says Áilín Quin­lan

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature -

‘TIS the sea­son of good cheer and time to be merry — old pals ar­rive home from abroad, scat­tered fam­i­lies re­group, and hav­ing a drink is all part of the fun of catch­ing up.

But what hap­pens when one tip­ple be­comes two — or three or more?

“We know that we have a ‘sea­sonal re­la­tion­ship’ with al­co­hol — we drink more at hol­i­day times, par­tic­u­larly Christ­mas,” says Suzanne Costello, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Al­co­hol Ac­tion Ire­land.

The root of the prob­lem lies partly in our in­creas­ing cul­ture of ca­sual drink­ing, ex­plains Dr Mark Rowe, a GP, life­style medicine ex­pert, and author who be­lieves that the Ir­ish habit of ca­sual tip­pling in­creases our tol­er­ance for al­co­hol and paves the way for heav­ier drink­ing at peak so­cial oc­ca­sions such as Christ­mas.

Even the tra­di­tional of­fer of a neigh­bourly cup of tea dur­ing a so­cial visit is in­creas­ingly be­ing re­placed by the pop of a wine cork, he says.

“Peo­ple are now drink­ing at home. This is the new norm. The pot of tea has been re­placed by the bot­tle of wine and there is a lot of recre­ational drink­ing which goes un­ac­knowl­edged.

“A lot of peo­ple are not tak­ing stock of how much they are drink­ing,” he warns.

“Wine has be­come the new tea and those few glasses of wine can add up to half a bot­tle a day which can be three bot­tles a week.”

Dr Rowe says al­co­hol con­sump­tion re­sults in the re­lease of en­dor­phins and dopamine, both of which are plea­sure-boost­ing, pro­duc­ing feel­ings of hap­pi­ness or even eu­pho­ria, which, of course, is why we like drink­ing.

While al­co­hol in­tox­i­ca­tion can ini­tially make us feel good, it can also make us feel de­pressed, ar­gu­men­ta­tive, an­gry, and ir­ra­tional.

Al­co­hol in­tox­i­ca­tion in­volves a small mol­e­cule called ethanol which dis­rupts the neu­rons in our brains, af­fect­ing their func­tion­ing, says neu­ro­sci­en­tist and author Dean Bur­nett.

“Adding al­co­hol, even in small amounts, can be like pour­ing sand into del­i­cate clock­work — you don’t need much be­fore it starts be­com­ing a pain.”

Al­co­hol pow­ers down a lot of neu­rons. “The main ones it pow­ers down are those in the pre­frontal cor­tex — where the higher func­tions are han­dled, like im­pulse con­trol, an­tic­i­pa­tion, risk as­sess­ment, anal­y­sis — which leads to re­duced abil­ity to worry or recog­nise prob­lems/is­sues.

“It af­fects cere­bel­lum neu­rons, which con­trol move­ment and co-or­di­na­tion. It hits tem­po­ral lobe neu­rons, where mem­ory is pro­cessed ef­fec­tively.

“To put it sim­ply, be­cause of the way it works, al­co­hol turns down the neu­rons re­spon­si­ble for our abil­ity to worry, to make ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions, to walk nor­mally, and to re­mem­ber things.”

Al­co­hol also in­ter­feres with the beta-en­dor­phin sys­tem. “En­dor­phins are the most pow­er­ful ‘plea­sure’ chem­i­cal in the brain, caus­ing the great­est amount of ac­tiv­ity in the re­ward path­way. The pres­ence of al­co­hol stim­u­lates the re­lease of these chem­i­cals, which re­sult in a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion lead­ing to feel­ings of eu­pho­ria by stim­u­lat­ing the re­ward path­way, that part of our brains which pro­duces plea­sure, of all sort.”

Al­co­hol also seems to in­crease the con­cen­tra­tion of dopamine in key ar­eas in­volved with the re­ward sys­tem, says Bur­nett, which in­creases the feel­good ef­fects fur­ther.

How­ever, al­co­hol also has some­thing called a “bipha­sic” ef­fect which means the pos­i­tive ef­fects of in­tox­i­ca­tion di­min­ish af­ter you reach a blood al­co­hol level of 0.05%-0.06%, af­ter which drinkers can ex­pe­ri­ence a dark­en­ing of mood and a lack of en­ergy.

As Rowe points out, the more reg­u­larly we drink, the greater our tol­er­ance for al­co­hol, and there­fore, the more al­co­hol we re­quire on big so­cia­ble oc­ca­sions to ex­pe­ri­ence that same plea­sur­able kick. And so when Christ­mas ar­rives we tend to drink more to get the same plea­sur­able feel­ing.

But along with the feel­good sen­sa­tions in­duced by al­co­hol, there are other rea­sons why we go from one drink to three or more — Christ­mas is also a time when we get to­gether, con­nect, and re­new friend­ships. And so­cial­is­ing in Ir­ish cul- ture is closely en­twined with al­co­hol.

At times like Christ­mas, peo­ple may not nec­es­sar­ily be con­sciously look­ing for an ex­cuse to drink, ex­plains Mar­ion Rackard, ad­dic­tion coun­sel­lor, psy­chother­a­pist, and, as HSE pro­ject man­ager for the HSE al­co­hol pro­gramme, one of the driv­ers of the high-pro­file Ask About Al­co­hol cam­paign and web­site ask­aboutal­co­hol.ie.

They may be sim­ply re­lax­ing, hav­ing a good time, or con­nect­ing with old friends, but cul­tur­ally, all of these, she ob­serves, are closely as­so­ci­ated with al­co­hol con­sump­tion.

“Christ­mas can be seen as an op­por­tu­nity to have a re­ally good time and party,” says Rackard, point­ing to the drink­ing tra­di­tion of the 12 pubs of Christ­mas, which, she warns, en­cour­ages ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion and has in­tro­duced a so­cial norm around it. “It’s very hard to break this when peo­ple are in the loop.”

Our of­ten harm­ful drink­ing cul­ture seems en­tirely nor­mal to us. “Al­co­hol has been around as al­most part of the sta­ple diet and we have tol­er­ated harm­ful in this coun­try for gen­er­a­tions.

“Al­co­hol con­sump­tion is in­creas­ing and the more peo­ple drink, the more harm done in so­ci­ety. We have tended to ac­cept and tol­er­ate that harm.”

Ire­land is one of the heav­i­est drink­ing na­tions in the world. The amount we drink has more than dou­bled since 1960 and, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies un­der­taken by the Health Re­search Board, we sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­es­ti­mate how much we drink, with many of us mis­tak­enly per­ceiv­ing our­selves to be ‘light’ or ‘mod­er­ate’ drinkers.

Some 75% of our al­co­hol is con­sumed as part of bingedrink­ing ses­sions, de­fined as drink­ing six or more stan­dard drinks in one ses­sion.

We also, ac­cord­ing to Ask About Al­co­hol, binge-drink more than most other coun­tries — be­cause this type of drink­ing is so com­mon­place in Ire­land, we tend not to see it as a prob­lem.

The lat­est statis­tics from the Healthy Ire­land stud­ies show that 39%-40% of drinkers binge-drink, and, on any oc­ca­sion, will have six or more stan­dard units of al­co­hol. The fig­ures also show that more than half of drinkers, or 54%, drink at least once a week.

A typ­i­cal binge-drinker seen by Dr Rowe is “a guy [who] says he only drinks at the week­end. He will go out on Fri­day night and have up to eight pints and on Sat­ur­day he goes out to watch the match and can start drink­ing at 1pm and not come home un­til 1am the fol­low­ing morn­ing.”

Re­search shows that, along with all the other cul­tural fac­tors at play, clever mar­ket­ing can also play a big part in how much we drink. “There is no doubt that mar­ket­ing has an im­pact on how we drink and what we drink and buy. There would not be so much money spent on mar­ket­ing if it didn’t have an im­pact,” says Pat Kenny, se­nior lec­turer at the DIT School of Mar­ket­ing.

He says tens of mil­lions of euro are poured into the ad­ver­tis­ing of al­co­hol ev­ery year. Re­search has shown mar­ket­ing can con­vince peo­ple to switch from one brand to an­other, get them to drink or buy more of a prod­uct, and it en­cour­ages peo­ple who do not con­sume al­co­hol to start con­sum­ing, he says.

Kenny points to a 2009 study by re­searchers at Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity which found that data sug­gested an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween ex­po­sure to al­co­hol ad­ver­tis­ing or pro­mo­tional ac­tiv­ity and sub­se­quent al­co­hol con­sump­tion in young peo­ple.

“There are a lot of lon­gi­tu­di­nal stud­ies that track cause and ef­fect over time, which show that peo­ple who have been ex­posed to more mar­ket­ing of al­co­hol drink at a younger age and drink more — these stud­ies would have been car­ried out in Europe, the UK, and US over the past 10 years to 15 years.”

While point­ing out that there is no re­search specif­i­cally into the im­pact of mar­ket­ing on drink­ing habits at dif­fer­ent times of year, Kenny be­lieves mar­ket­ing can ‘nudge’ peo­ple to drink more at par­tic­u­lar times a year. “The me­dia also plays a role, so a com­bi­na­tion of mar­ket­ing and the me­dia can en­cour­age con­sump­tion at Christ­mas.”

In this con­text, he strongly wel­comes the Pub­drink­ing lic Health Al­co­hol Bill, which passed through the Dáil last Oc­to­ber, and will pave the way for a va­ri­ety of mea­sures to be in­tro­duced, such as min­i­mum unit pric­ing, can­cer warn­ings, and seg­re­ga­tion of al­co­hol sales in shops. The bill also re­stricts ad­ver­tis­ing of al­co­hol in places such as schools, play­grounds, sport­ing events, and in the cin­ema.

“We like to boast about how much we drink. Mar­ket­ing plays a role in all of that and the new bill is a pos­i­tive step for­ward,” says Kenny.

How­ever, while Sheena Hor­gan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Drinkaware, an­other or­gan­i­sa­tion which cam­paigns against harm­ful drink­ing, says the or­gan­i­sa­tion wel­comes the bill, she em­pha­sises that re­al­is­ti­cally, mar­ket­ing is only one of sev­eral el­e­ments re­quired to get the mes­sage about harm­ful drink­ing across to the pub­lic.

Drinkaware, which is funded by the drinks in­dus­try but which, says Hor­gan, is a not-for-profit, in­de­pen­dently man­aged or­gan­i­sa­tion, be­lieves in tak­ing a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the prob­lem. “Our re­search shows that 95% of the pop­u­la­tion don’t even know what the guide­lines are in terms of 11 stan­dard units for women and 17 for men, or that a typ­i­cal glass of wine is more than one stan­dard unit.”

The Drinkaware web­site, which boasts more than 30,000 vis­its a month, says Hor­gan, of­fers a num­ber of free tools to help peo­ple be­come aware of their al­co­hol con­sump­tion and cut down on harm­ful drink­ing.

These in­clude free plas­tic mea­sure-cups avail­able from its web­site — 700 peo­ple or­dered these last year. Drinkaware’s on­line drinks cal­cu­la­tor was used by 25,000 peo­ple in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber last year, says Hor­gan, adding that Drinkaware also of­fers in­for­ma­tion about al­co­hol con­sump­tion in the shape of a wheel which de­picts how many units, grams of al­co­hol, calo­ries, and sugar are con­tained in a mea­sure of al­co­hol. The in­for­ma­tion about how many calo­ries are con­tained in a pint of beer or a glass of wine can be a “great mo­ti­va­tor”, she says.

“There is an aware­ness and a will­ing­ness to change, but it’s about con­vert­ing aware­ness into ac­tion,” she adds bluntly.

“You have to give peo­ple the tools and the rea­son to do it. Our tools have been tested and checked against best prac­tice.”

Con­vert­ing aware­ness into ac­tion is how we can make that drink or two, and only that drink or two, an en­joy­able part of the fes­tive cheer. Dean Bur­nett is author of The Id­iot Brain and The Happy Brain


has be­come the new tea and those few glasses of wine can add up

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