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Enjoying the spirit of the holidays with fewer spirits

The winter holidays are almost here. And it’s the time of year when food abounds and alcohol sales double. So, in the spirit of wellness and health, I’m sharing some ideas for alcohol substitutes, safe drinking, and some general information about alcohol. Enjoying the holidays with good company, food, and drink is a treat. But too much alcohol can be problematic, especially when taking prescription medications or when struggling with depression or anxiety.

Non-alcoholic cocktails aren’t “just for kids” they can be an inclusive party-starter

When considering wellness objectives for the coming year, consider incorporating more non-alcoholic beverage options (e.g., mocktails) for yourself, your friends, and your family. Non-alcoholic cocktails can be refreshing, fun, and healthful. Including non-alcoholic cocktails at your gatherings also brings all ages together while respecting your company’s religious/personal preferences and underlying health conditions.

In addition to making your own spiritless spirits, a small but growing industry elevates the holiday experience with non-alcoholic liquors. Alongside the craft spirit alternatives resides another branch of the mocktail experience: beverages that are touted to contain nootropics, adaptogens, and stress-relieving properties. Many of these beverages are designed to include supplements to support mood without the consequence of alcohol-related hangovers. When purchasing non-alcoholic aperitifs, mocktails, or craft spirit alternatives, read the ingredients to determine what might be a good fit for you or your party. Beverages that include supplements like magnesium, L-theanine, or other herbs can be well-tolerated and calming, but no supplement is entirely without risk (the industry is unregulated).

On drinking safely

There is a plethora of available information on alcohol and its potential for becoming addictive, and most of us know someone who can’t drink any alcohol without it becoming a problem for them. But it’s helpful to remember that a little bit can go a long way. In general, follow established guidelines for drinking alcohol, including information on what is considered a standard serving. Space out your drinks with glasses of water. Eat nutritiously and if you drink on the regular, consider thiamine supplementation. Mix the alcohol you drink with water or sparkling water. Avoid binge drinking. Don’t mix alcohol with caffeine or other stimulants. Avoid alcohol with anything that makes you feel sleepy, and avoid drinking too much. Even if you feel “totally fine,” never drive or operate machinery after drinking alcohol.   And above all, ask for help if you are stuck.

General reminder about alcohol consumption

Especially around the holidays, an appealing aspect of alcohol is the initial calming effect when it reaches GABA receptors in the brain. This is sometimes why people drink alcohol if they are anxious, nervous, or uncomfortable. The “buzz” or “high” some people get from drinking alcohol stems from the effects of dopamine on the brain, and a drink or two seems innocuous. This dopamine surge can override common sense, and one or two drinks can become ten. And that’s where unintended consequences of social drinking can cause harm. But another aspect of alcohol’s potential harm is that it is metabolized in the body to acetaldehyde, a known, toxic carcinogen.  Unfortunately, many of the people we care about and care for are unaware of this.  e might know that it takes a lot of work for the body to break down alcohol’s toxic effects and dysregulate blood sugar, digestion, and mood, but do the people we care about know this too?  Sharing the message with those around us and providing alternatives for holiday imbibing is an inexpensive gift we can give every year.

Gioia M. Guerrieri is a psychiatry and addiction medicine physician.


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