April is for Alcohol Awareness: 5 Steps to Safer Drinking

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. As one of the most widely used drug substances in the world, alcohol is often part of socializing with family and friends, but it is easy to overdo it. So, let’s take a moment to look at our drinking habits and determine if we’re making healthy, safe choices.

iStock_000006638004SmallA friend, who shall not be named, was first made aware of the not- so-pleasant effects of overdoing alcohol during her sophomore year of college. Before then (being under 21 and a law-abiding citizen), she didn’t drink much. And then one fateful night, she found herself at the ubiquitous off-campus party, where she was handed a red keg cup full of “electric watermelon” –  a concoction of hard liquors, melon liqueur and lemon-lime soda. Not knowing her limit for fruity flavored beverages, she had many  within a short amount of time. At some point in the evening, her legs felt fuzzy, the room began to spin and her roommate gave me the “uh oh” look reserved for those about to make a spectacle. Luckily for my friend, her roommate shoved her in cab and got her home safely. Electric watermelons were apparently fun and tasty going down, not so much coming back up. (Her roommate had her back and held her hair that night – a good roommate can make all the difference during a college drinking experience.)

The moral of this story is heavy drinking can give you one bad evening in the bathroom. But it can also do much more to put your health at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports and “getting drunk” can result in:

  • Impaired brain function resulting in poor judgment, reduced reaction time, loss of balance and motor skills or slurred speech
  • Dilation of blood vessels causing a feeling of warmth but resulting in rapid loss of body heat
  • Increased risk of certain cancers, stroke and liver diseases, particularly when excessive amounts of alcohol are consumed over extended periods of time
  • Damage to a developing fetus if consumed by pregnant women
  • Increased risk of motor-vehicle traffic crashes, violence and other injuries

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that while many adults drink moderately and responsibly without complications, alcohol-related problems are among the most significant public health issues in the world. Problems often result from drinking too much, too fast or too often – a trifecta of bad beverage behavior. So here are some steps to drink responsibly (for those who do not have a drinking problem, are of legal age to drink alcohol and are not pregnant):

  1. Only drink alcoholic beverages in moderation, which is defined as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men
  2. Have a designated driver or plan an alternative way home, such as a taxi or bus. And it goes without saying, never drive a car if you have been drinking.
  3. Keep track of what you’re drinking and pace yourself. If you’re going to have more than one, drink nonalcoholic beverages in between drinks and limit yourself to one alcoholic drink per hour.
  4. Eat a meal or snack before and while drinking alcohol – don’t drink on an empty stomach.
  5. If you are taking medication, including over-the-counter drugs, check with your doctor before drinking alcohol. Alcohol can intensify the effects of many drugs and interact with other drugs, making them ineffective or dangerous.

More information about alcohol and your health can be found at the National Institutes of Health “Rethinking Drinking” web page. And one last word of sage advice: Don’t drink electric watermelons out of a keg cup. Trust me.

Preventing Winter Dehydration

FishWe all know hydration is important for our bodies, but how’s this for proof? Up to 60 percent of the human body is water, but our brains are composed of 70 percent, and the lungs are nearly 90 percent water. Feeling like a human fish tank yet?

Now that the holiday season is upon us, there are two potential dehydrating factors in play: winter air and alcohol consumption. Being aware of how both elements affect the body’s water supply will help you avoid feeling the consequences of dehydration.

Winter Air
Dehydration can accelerate conditions like hypothermia, frostbite and fatigue; something outdoor sports enthusiasts need to think about. “Exercise and recreation at higher altitude increases the risk of dehydration because you breathe more to compensate for the relative lack of oxygen in the air,” says Virginia Mason sports medicine physician William Callahan, MD. “That means you’re losing even more water through evaporation when you breathe.”

Dr. Callahan also recommends layering winter clothing properly to avoid excessive sweating – another cause of dehydration during strenuous winter activities. “Dress so you can shed a layer if you’re overheating, which may leave you too cold if clothing becomes damp from sweating.”

Even if you’re not planning an alpine adventure, winter air is colder and drier, depleting the body as it works to humidify and warm the air. The trouble starts when we skip drinking water because we don’t feel thirsty. But whether we feel it or not, our bodies are hoping we’ll replace at least a couple liters of water a day. Of course all of this doesn’t have to come from camping out at the water cooler. Water-based foods, including fruits and vegetables, replenish H2O too (provided we eat them!) Also, herbal teas and other noncaffeinated beverages can be a more pleasant and winter-friendly way to increase your water intake.

Speaking of beverages, another dehydration culprit this time of year is alcohol. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means you lose more fluid than you gain when you drink it. This happens because alcohol interferes with a hormone that helps the body reabsorb water.

With this hormone blocked, people urinate more frequently and voilà – they become dehydrated.

In addition to losing water after drinking alcohol, electrolytes and minerals tend to go with the flow as well. So consider adding a sports drink to your hangover recovery plan, which has ingredients to help get you hydrated more quickly.

Better yet, try to avoid dehydration in winter in the first place, by creating a system to help ensure you get the water you need. Keep a water bottle at hand that can be refilled to provide what should be your daily water intake so you know you’re drinking enough. Remember to drink water before, during and after strenuous winter activity. During party season, try chasing every alcoholic drink with a glass of water. It won’t replace everything you’re going to lose when imbibing, but it will reduce the deficit. Just remember that when it comes to proper hydration, drinking water is a must, for all seasons.