Are You Drinking Too Much During COVID-19 Lockdown?

More Georgians are turning to alcohol to ease pandemic-related stress. Here’s why that could backfire.

opening a beer bottle

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on May 11, 2020

If what Americans are buying more of these days is any indication of what they’re doing during COVID-19 lockdown, it seems that among the pastimes picking up steam are bread-making, knitting, doing jigsaw puzzles… and drinking. 

Aside from stockpiling essentials, such as toilet paper and flour, many people are buying alcohol, as well—in bulk. Liquor stores are among the limited number of essential businesses that have remained open in recent months, but state and local stay-at-home orders have also seemingly contributed to a boom in online alcohol sales, according to Nielsen.

In fact, the market research firm reported a 243 percent spike in online sales compared to this time last year. Sales of tequila, gin and other liquors surged 75 percent compared to 2019. Wine sales are also up 66 percent and beer sales have jumped 42 percent compared to March of last year. And people are buying larger quantities than a year ago, including more 3-liter boxed wines and 24-packs of beer.

To be sure, if Americans aren’t having cocktails at bars and restaurants, they may compensate by drinking more at home.

In fact, according to initial findings from Sharecare’s “Flatten the Curve” survey, 31 percent of Georgians who consume alcohol reported that they were drinking more than usual during the pandemic—the highest rate of any of the 50 states surveyed. By comparison, 22 percent of Americans overall who consume alcohol reported drinking more during the crisis.

This may seem normal—perhaps even silly—as some people use alcohol to blow off steam and help manage stress. But turning to alcohol to calm your nerves or cope with the pandemic is risky and may do more harm than good.

It’s not a risk-free solution
Initially, drinking may help you “take the edge off,” but this sensation is fleeting. Alcohol is a depressant that slows the central nervous system. Drinking affects everything from your judgment and emotions to your coordination, speech, hearing and vision.

COVID-19 isn’t going away overnight. Using alcohol to help deal with this relatively long-term uncertainty and strain increases the risks for alcohol-related mental and physical health issues, including dependence.

Essentially, drinking to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic could backfire, cautions Julie Shafer, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Portland, Oregon. “You risk it interfering with your health and your relationships, it’s going to impact your sleep—and that’s going to make it even harder to cope,” she explains.

Why alcohol may hurt—not help
If you’re worried about being able to fend off the SARS-CoV-2— the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—you should be doing all you can to bolster your immune system, including easing stress as well as eating and sleeping adequately. Drinking, particularly heavy alcohol consumption, can have the opposite effect.

It takes a toll on your body’s natural defenses. Heavy drinking has long been linked to a dampened immune system and slower recovery from injury and infection. Heavy drinkers are also at higher risk for pneumonia and acute respiratory stress syndrome (ARDS), in particular—two serious complications of COVID-19.

It can disrupt your sleep. If you’re already tossing and turning due to worries about COVID-19, alcohol won’t help you get the rest you need. It can make you feel drowsy, but it isn’t a sleep aid. Drinking can actually have the opposite effect, resulting in disrupted, poor-quality sleep.

If you have a drink or two before bedtime, it could interfere with your natural body clock or circadian rhythms. Altering your normal sleep-wake cycle could cause you to wake up earlier than usual.

Drinking can also interrupt rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the most restorative phase of sleep. If your REM sleep is disrupted, you’re not going to feel as refreshed or sharp the next day.

Alcohol could affect your breathing, as well, since it relaxes your throat muscles. This can increase the risk of snoring and obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that interrupts your breathing when upper airway blockages hamper airflow.

Additionally, drinking suppresses a hormone called anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), causing your body to make more urine than usual. So, if you’ve been drinking late in the day or in the evening, you’ll likely have to wake up and use the bathroom during the night.

You’re more likely to injure yourself. Alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body; it can start to have an effect within minutes. It’s one of the few substances that can be absorbed through the stomach. From there, it goes right into your bloodstream to your liver, and then to your brain.

Even one or two drinks can have almost immediate effects on your judgment. The more you drink, the more your coordination, balance and decision-making skills will be affected, increasing your risk for injuries such as falls or burns.

Some hospitals are overwhelmed by a high volume of COVID-19 patients and shortages of essential medical supplies, including gloves, gowns and swabs. Avoiding a trip to the emergency room would reduce your risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus and not add to the current burden on the United States healthcare system.

You may hurt someone else. Domestic violence is on the rise around the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown. In some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled, according United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

While not all cases of domestic violence involve alcohol, drinking increases your risk for being involved in violent situations, including intimate partner violence, such as rape or verbal and physical abuse. In fact, alcohol plays a role in up to two-thirds of all homicides, at least half of serious assaults and more than one quarter of all rapes.

Your long-term health still matters. It may be hard to remember life before COVID-19 and too early to envision our post-pandemic world. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should abandon your healthy habits and goals.

In a landmark August 2018 study, researchers reviewed more than 1,000 existing data sources and studies to estimate the effects of alcohol on the risk for 23 different related health issues, including cancer, high blood pressure and stroke, as well as car accidents and injuries. Using mathematical models, the team found that alcohol was tied to 2.8 million deaths in 2016 and was the leading risk factor for disease worldwide among people between ages 15 and 49.

So, is alcohol off-limits?
Not necessarily. The answer to that question really depends on you—your age, sex, DNA, lifestyle and other individual risk factors for cancer and chronic diseases. These personal variables all factor into the dangers associated with drinking.

Overall, the more you drink, the greater your risk for a number of serious health issues, including cancer, liver disease, atrial fibrillation and stroke.

You also shouldn’t drink with the idea that your beer, cocktail or wine will offer certain health benefits. And some people should not drink any alcohol, including pregnant women, those with a personal or family history of alcoholism or those with a history of alcohol-related liver or pancreatic disease.

Generally speaking, if you don’t drink, it’s best not to start. If you decide to drink, don’t exceed current guidelines for light or moderate drinking. If you’re a man, that means you shouldn’t have more than two drinks daily. If you’re a woman, limit yourself to one drink per day.

In the United States, a single drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is the equivalent of 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces (a shot) of 80-proof liquor, such as gin, vodka, tequila or whiskey.

Keep in mind, many people exceed these portions, but still think they’ve had one drink. Different types of beer, wine and liquor also contain different amounts of alcohol.

Finding other ways to cope
If you’re feeling down or depressed, it’s best to steer clear of alcohol and not self-medicate with other substances. While practicing social distancing, there are some other ways you can stay connected, boost your mood and find healthy ways to cope.

Shafer suggests receiving news in manageable doses from credible sources and sticking to your routine and healthy habits as much as possible. That includes keeping a consistent bedtime, eating a healthy diet and keeping up with household chores. Staying active is key, too—even if it means taking a virtual exercise class, some extra trips up the stairs or a walk around your yard. 

And remember that if you’re mostly sticking around your home, there are still ways you can reach out to help others get through the crisis.

Article sources open article sources

Sharecare. “Flatten the Curve.”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The Link Between Stress and Alcohol.”
D Sarkar, MK Jung, HJ Wang. “Alcohol and the Immune System.” Alcohol Research. 2015;37(2):153–155.
National Sleep Foundation. “How Alcohol Affects the Quality—And Quantity—Of Sleep.”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Interactions With Circadian Rhythms.”
J Pietilä, E Helander, I Korhonen, T Myllymäki, UM Kujala, et al. “Acute Effect of Alcohol Intake on Cardiovascular Autonomic Regulation During the First Hours of Sleep in a Large Real-World Sample of Finnish Employees: Observational Study.” JMIR Mental Health. 2018;5(1):e23.
E Simou, J Britton, J Leonardi-Bee. “Alcohol and the risk of sleep apnoea: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sleep Medicine. 2018;42:38–46.
Cleveland Clinic. “Adults + Booze = Bedwetting? Here’s Why It Happens to You.”
UpToDate. “Overview of the risks and benefits of alcohol consumption.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol and Public Health: FAQ.”
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Alcohol and Driving.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Excessive Alcohol Use.”
United Nations. “Amid Global Surge in Domestic Violence, Secretary-General Urges Governments to Make Prevention, Redress Part of National COVID-19 Response Plans.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.”
National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression Basics.”

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