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When drinking isn't merry

November 29, 2012
Dear Jeff and Debra:

I begin every holiday season with trepidation. The reason? Too much drinking in my social circle. I don’t mean to say everyone is an alcoholic — although I know a few — but everyone uses the holiday season as an excuse to drink a lot. Everywhere I go, there is an abundance of alcohol and in the name of goodwill, family and friends pressure guests to have a drink and then another and another.

I’ll be honest. I accept these drink offerings happily and then end up unintentionally inebriated. Someone is always filling up my wine glass or offering me a hot toddy or pouring punch packing a wallop. It seems like great fun at the time. Now mind you, it’s not something I do throughout the year. But holiday merriment is synonymous with an overabundance of alcohol, resulting in hangovers and, some slightly embarrassing memories.

This year, I’m once again telling myself I am going to be in charge and not let peer pressure lead me down a drunken road. But I’ve promised myself that before and utterly failed. I’m not an alcoholic, but this time of the year, I am an alcohol abuser. Can you offer suggestions to help me avoid too much gaiety?


Dear Sloshed:

Even non-alcoholic drinkers can overdo it during the holiday season and experience unwanted consequences.

If you want to tipple, consuming less alcohol promotes the festive feeling most people are seeking. When you sip (we hope you are sipping) your first drink, it hits your stomach, enters your bloodstream and goes directly to your brain. Since alcohol is a mood-altering drug, it affects your brain’s pleasure centers, leading to euphoria and relaxation.

Your sense of euphoria peaks with your first drink. More alcohol will not increase this sense of elation. The brain, with each additional drink, cannot generate enough neurotransmitters to make you feel as merry as the first drink. Instead, more alcohol begins interfering with communication between your nerve cells and your pre-frontal cortex or your thinking brain. As a result, you become increasingly uninhibited. You feel more confident, but judgment begins to fail you. Decision-making capacity diminishes. This is when you become susceptible to saying and doing things you later regret.

As drinking continues, the brain system responsible for muscle movements is affected. Walking becomes a greater challenge. Just picking up your drink may require more concentration. Trying not to appear drunk takes effort.

As the night progresses, you begin chasing the high. You drink more or switch to stronger spirits in an attempt to achieve the euphoria you experienced with the first drink. Instead, the depressant effect of alcohol creates drunkenness. The slump you are experiencing in your brain will eventually create a desire to sleep. If you keep drinking, you eventually pass out. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to respiratory failure. Alcohol masks your brain’s self-protection mechanisms causing you to ignore warning signals.

Upon waking up in the morning, your hangover gets worse as the day progresses. Your organs have been busily metabolizing alcohol out of your system, and upon reaching a blood alcohol content of zero, you begin feeling withdrawal symptoms. Your brain chemistry is lower now than when you poured your first drink. You feel irritable, depressed, intolerant. You have increased body temperature, elevated blood pressure and an accelerated heartbeat. You probably feel shaky. Hangovers last one to two days before the body bounces back. Brain chemistry can take up to 25 hours to normalize after one drinking bout.

To avoid abusing alcohol, devise a plan. Set a limit and stick to it. Drinking wine spritzers, for example, can decelerate your alcohol consumption. For each spritzer, pour a half glass of wine (about 2 ½ ounces), fill the rest of the glass with sparkling water. Add fruit for flavor. This trick transforms your limit of two into four drinks. You can do the same with highballs. You consume more drinks, but not more alcohol.

Between alcoholic drinks, ask for alcohol-free beverages; bring your own non-alcoholic beer, wine, juice or soda.

Drink on a full stomach. Protein slows alcohol’s absorption. Stay away from salty foods that increase your desire to drink. Offer to bring some hors d’oeuvres so you have a protein-rich choice.

Eat before leaving home.

Determine a cutoff time and switch to coffee and sweets. If coffee isn’t available, ask the hostess to brew a pot. Once you begin drinking coffee and eating desserts, you won’t want another drink.

Don’t be the last person to leave the party. Late night hanger-ons tend to be the heaviest consumers of alcohol.

Never drive after drinking. Select a designated driver or call a cab. Even small amounts of alcohol affect your response time.

The Jays co-authored “Love First,” and Debra Jay is the author of “No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.”

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