Just before Christmas, Dr Mark Rowe penned an Irish Country Living article on Ireland’s often unhealthy relationship with alcohol and how alcohol misuse can spike around the holiday season. He wrote that many who consider themselves to be social drinkers are actually binge drinking and that many are not aware of how many standard drinks they are consuming on a weekly basis. His message on how alcohol affects our overall health remains as relevant as ever, as we stay home and practise social distancing amid the COVID-19 crisis.

With so many people currently isolated from friends and family, the temptation to indulge in alcoholic beverages in the evening - whether out of boredom or as a way of coping with stress, fear or anxiety around our current situation - can seem ever-present. Drinkaware has developed a new online hub to help deal with COVID-19-related alcohol misuse called Alcohol and COVID-19. Drinkaware CEO Sheena Horgan says that, since the launch in early April, traffic to their website has been heavy.

Sheena Horgan, CEO of Drinkaware.

“In just one week, more than 40,000 people have visited Drinkaware’s new Alcohol and Covid-19 hub, so it’s clear that the demand is there from people looking for specific information and supports at this extraordinary time,” she says. “The decisions and actions we take today around alcohol will not only help to mind our mental and physical wellbeing in the here and now, but also support wellbeing beyond this crisis. Drinkaware, like all other organisations working in this space, does not want alcohol misuse and alcohol-related harm to be an unintended consequence of this pandemic.”

The online hub combines practical information on what constitutes a standard drink, with insightful tips on how to maintain, or develop, a healthy relationship with alcohol. In Ireland, a standard drink is a half pint of beer, 100ml of wine or 35.5 ml of spirits.

To help adults drink more responsibly, Drinkaware is giving away free standard drink measure cups (available on its website). The weekly recommended limits for standard drinks are different for men and women – women should have 11 standard drinks per week while men can enjoy 17. Irish Country Living spoke with Drinkaware’s communications and marketing manager Miriam Taber, who gave the following tips on how to be more mindful of alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 crisis.

1 Limit or cut out alcohol

Habits are easily formed but they’re much harder to break. If your new normal includes a few drinks each evening, we’re encouraging people to try something else. Staying motivated in these times can be a challenge, but there are other ways to pass your time - go for a walk or join an online workout. Take advantage of the beautiful spring weather and get out in your garden – it’s great for your mood!

2 Be mindful of how much you drink

Use a measure for spirits and wine – free pouring makes it almost impossible to know how much you’re drinking. You can find much more information about this on our website.

3 Explore a sober curious mindset

Try stocking up on no-alcohol alternatives when you’re doing your next shop. This way, even if you don’t want to give up your evening drink, you can still indulge in an alcohol-free way. The simple truth is if the alcohol isn’t in the house, we’re not going to drink it. Try not to drink when virtually visiting with friends. Instead, challenge them to a mocktail-making competition or something equally fun.

Dr Mark’s Christmas message is also easily applied to our current situation. Here are some of his main points on how alcohol negatively affects your health:

Alcohol and the brain

Here are some facts about how alcohol affects the space between your ears (your brain).

1 Decision-making skills

Firstly, alcohol can damage a particular part of the brain known as the inferior frontal gyrus, which affects inhibitory control and decision-making. Drinking alcohol leads to poor decision-making, weaker willpower (more likely to succumb to food and other temptations), while increasing accidents and unintended consequences. “Happy hour” can become unhappy hour quite quickly.

2 Dumb and dumber

The teenage brain undergoes periods of rapid change and is especially susceptible to the effects of alcohol, particularly those areas that deal with learning and memory (the hippocampus), which may shrink irreversibly.

Big boys are affected too. In a published study in the Journal of Neurology, European scientists found that men drinking 2.5 or more alcoholic drinks daily at mid-life were more likely to experience more rapid mental losses over the next decade than lighter or non-drinkers, with adverse effects on thinking skills seen as early as age 55.

Alcohol can shrink your brain and raise your risk of dementia (studies also show that people who drink every day have smaller brains than non-drinkers). Furthermore, weekend binge drinking can reduce the white matter pathways across the entire brain.

3 A superficial stress buster

Alcohol reduces overall bloodflow and activity in the brain, induces stress and elevates stress hormone levels. While many people reach for a glass of wine or alcohol when they feel stressed, alcohol may actually make feelings of stress worse and impair your ability to cope with stress.

4 Mental health

Feeling anxious in social situations, known as “social anxiety”, can lead people to use alcohol to self-medicate and feel more relaxed and comfortable in social situations.

Ironically, while small amounts of alcohol can be relaxing, there is a tipping point where it can lead to significant rebound anxiety in the days following alcohol intake.

In my opinion, informed by what I’ve seen in my surgery over more than 20 years, alcohol is a major cause of anxiety, panic attacks and reactive depression, including suicide. It lowers mood and can significantly affect self-esteem and self-worth.

Alcohol and your heart

Isn’t a glass of red wine good for your heart, I hear you asking? Perhaps, but in terms of alcohol, less is more when it comes to your health. According to the Harvard School of Public Health study on the health of alcohol, the heart benefits of alcohol saved 26,000 people per year in America.

On the other hand, according to the Centre for Disease Control, excessive alcohol use accounts for 88,000 alcohol-attributable deaths and 2.5m years of life lost each year. In fact, alcohol is listed as the eighth most preventable cause of death in America.

The conclusion: alcohol kills far more than it saves in a country where the legal drinking age is 21 and where the culture of episodic binge drinking is incomparable to what exists in Ireland.

‘The fountain of youth’

Really? OK, so that’s totally untrue. In fact, alcohol can make you look older for several reasons. These include dehydrating and decreasing moisture from your skin, which increases wrinkles.

Dilating blood vessels and capillaries in your skin and depleting levels of Vitamin A, an important antioxidant involved in skin cell regeneration.

In addition, damage to the liver reduces its ability to remove toxins, resulting in increased levels of toxins in the body and skin that make you look older than you really are.

Alcohol misuse is very much a family illness. When it starts to have a negative impact on a person, it has a ripple effect on the spouse, children and wider family.

It can become the great destroyer, affecting the heart and soul of the family.

If you or someone you care about is affected by alcohol, there is plenty of support available. Consider contacting Al-Anon on their confidential helpline (01-873 2699) for support.

The HSE also has an excellent Drugs and Alcohol Helpline (1800-459 459) which provides confidential counselling if you or someone you love is suffering from alcohol abuse.