We’ve all seen the memes and jokes during this pandemic. Friends might have said, "People have it wrong. Don’t hoard toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Hoard wine!"
Or: "Advice" about using a coffee mug with a tea bag string taped to the inside to make it look like you're having tea during at Zoom meeting instead of the actual alcohol in the mug.
We were stressed, bored, angry, lonely. We started drinking.
Early on in the pandemic, Nielsen reported that alcohol sales in the U.S. rose 54%, and online sales rose 262%, compared with that same week in March the year before. By mid-April, in-store sales were still up 26%, but online sales were up 477%.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an increase in consumption of alcohol by 14% compared with the year before, including a 17% increase for women. For women, the number of days of heavy drinking also increased 41%.
Dr. Andrew Moore, chief medical officer at St. David's Medical Center, says that excessive alcohol consumption was already a major public health issue. Add in COVID-19 and what both alcohol and the virus do to the body, and that’s a cause for concern.
Alcohol suppresses the immune system and increases the inflammatory reaction in the lungs and intestines.
At the same time, COVID-19 settles into the lungs, causing complications including pneumonia. It settles into other organs, too.
"Alcohol is like putting fuel to the fire for the body’s response," Moore says. "The whole body is more vulnerable to catch it and less able to fight it. It’s bad all around."
Moore says researchers are beginning to study whether there is a connection between excessive alcohol use and developing more serious COVID-19 symptoms. While nothing has been confirmed because it’s still early in this disease, there are some anecdotal connections, he says.
What about those studies that show a glass of red wine can be good for you?
Moore reminds that alcohol is actually a toxin and the negative effects far outweigh the good effects (such as reduced heart disease and some cancers).
Moore says he’s not naive and doesn’t think everyone is going to stop drinking during the pandemic. What he worries about is the amount people are drinking.
Doctors define excessive alcohol use as more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. A drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and one shot of liquor or spirits.
Some people might not drink every day, but they might binge drink. Binge drinking is defined as consuming four drinks in two hours for women and five drinks in two hours for men. The difference between men and women is not just size, but how quickly livers metabolize alcohol.
For some people, drinking at home might increase their consumption. They might rationalize that because they are not driving, there isn’t a danger to having a second, third, fourth, fifth drink.
"If I drink a whole bottle, I’m not going anywhere, I’m not hurting anyone," Moore says people might rationalize. "But you are hurting you."
Alcohol use also sneaks up on people, he says. At first it might be a glass of wine every day at 5 p.m., then it becomes a bottle of wine.
You can use the one or two drinks a day as a guideline to decide whether you might be dependent on alcohol. Another way to test it: Try not drinking for a week. Do your thoughts go to alcohol? Do you get nervous or your pulse quickens thinking about drinking?
Or can you do healthier things for your body, such as meditation and yoga?
To get help, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP to find out what kinds of treatment, including virtual recovery support groups and facilities, are available.
In Travis County, you can call Integral Care, 512-472-HELP (integralcare.org). In Williamson County, call Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, 1-800-844-309-6385 or go to bbtrails.org. You also can reach out to Communities for Recovery, communitiesforrecovery.org, and the statewide, help.org.