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Health Benefits of Drinking Less

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Health Benefits of Drinking Less

Apr 27, 2020

A common thought is 'a few drinks during times of stress can help a person relax and sleep.' However, drinking too much alcohol can have the opposite effect, as well as other mental health repercussions. Psychiatry Dr. Andrew Smith says moderation is the key and talks about ways to scale back the consumption of alcohol.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: So the thought is a few drinks during a time of stress can help a person relax and sleep. However, according to Dr. Andrew Smith, psychologist at University of Utah Health, drinking too much can actually have the opposite effect, and it comes with a lot of other mental health repercussions as well.

Dr. Smith: Moderation is the key here. I'll tell you what alcohol does when it's consumed at too high of levels. Alcohol has an effect on sleep. So it's a famous disruptor of deep sleep, the kind of sleep that we need to process those stress hormones, for example. It's a famous disruptor of social connection when used in too large of quantities. It can be a social lubricant to be connected, but it can also be a disruptor if we go too far. I think we think that alcohol helps us to be more relaxed, and again, at certain levels, at moderate levels, it might do that. But when we go too far, what it helps us actually do is ignore the signs in our bodies that we're angry or that we're irritated, and it increases the likelihood that some kind of social disruption is going to happen.

It can also have an effect on our mood when it's consumed at too high of levels. So when our mood gets affected, our likelihood of exercising or going to bed on time or starting a new structure and a new routine in this kind of disrupted structure and routine, those would all be affected by going over the line with alcohol.

Interviewer: And if you notice alcohol is beginning to impact one of those many things, to get back on track, Dr. Smith suggests starting by fixing your sleep first with the thought that the other things might follow.

Dr. Smith: Focus on sleep routine and rhythms and reducing, not abstinence from alcohol, but "harm reduction" is a term in the literature that we think about, which is reducing to a moderate amount, and I would say not drinking, you know, based on some of the science, not drinking within three hours before you go to sleep to disrupt that. So if you pay attention to those two features, you might have an increase in energy and motivation that might get you exercising.

Interviewer: And if a person is consuming more alcohol than they want, Dr. Smith has some advice to help scale that usage back.

Dr. Smith: There are very few things in the mental health literature that we know that are better for you than moving your body. If you're not exercising and your alcohol use is up, it's a hard shift to make, but it's intellectually a simple idea. And that is, I should modulate my alcohol use by getting my body moving, doing something else.

There are simple little tweaks to this that can be made. We keep carbonated water around the house as a bubbly substitute. And then cravings typically don't last forever, and if we don't lean into a craving and if we are able to notice in ourselves that, "Oh, I like having a beer at 5:00, but then what happens when I have 3 beers at 8:00," I can reduce that by choosing to ride out a craving with a substitute of some kind and watch that craving go away. Typically, in 15 to 20 minutes, it'll go.

Interviewer: And since we know excess alcohol consumption has negative impacts on all aspects of our health, both mental and physical, if you're having difficulty scaling back, don't ever hesitate to contact your primary care provider for help.