Many of us look forward to celebrations during the holidays, yet it is also a time when some people are more likely to drink beyond their limits than at other times of the year. Some will suffer adverse consequences that range from fights to falls to traffic crashes. Sadly, we often put ourselves and others at risk because we don’t understand how alcohol affects us during an evening of celebratory drinking.
Despite the potential dangers, myths about drinking persist, which—for some—can prove fatal. Scientific studies supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provide important information that challenges these widespread, yet incorrect, beliefs about how quickly alcohol affects the body and how long the effects of drinking last.
Holiday revelers may not recognize that critical decision-making abilities and driving-related skills are already diminished long before a person shows overt signs of intoxication.
Initially, alcohol may appear to act as a stimulant, so people who drink may feel upbeat and excited. But don’t be fooled. Alcohol decreases inhibitions and judgment, and can lead to reckless decisions.
As we consume more alcohol, reaction times get longer and behavior becomes poorly controlled and sometimes even aggressive—leading to fights and other types of violence. Continued drinking causes the slurred speech and loss of balance that we typically associate with being drunk.
Alcohol can also cause blackouts—which are gaps in a person’s memory while they were intoxicated. These gaps happen when a person drinks enough alcohol to temporarily block the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage—known as memory consolidation—in a brain area called the hippocampus. At higher blood alcohol concentration levels, alcohol acts as a clear depressant, which can cause people who drink to pass out if the dose is high enough. At even higher levels, people who drink face the danger of life-threatening alcohol overdose due to the suppression of vital life functions.
During an evening of drinking, it’s also easy to misjudge how long alcohol’s effects last. For example, many people believe that they will begin to sober up—and be able to drive safely—once they stop drinking and have a cup of coffee. The truth is that alcohol continues to affect the brain and body long after the last drink has been finished. Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, resulting in impaired judgment and coordination for hours.
Of course, we don’t intend to harm anyone when we celebrate during the holiday season. Yet, violence and traffic fatalities associated with alcohol misuse persist, and myths about drinking live on—even though scientific studies have documented how alcohol affects the brain and body.
Because individuals differ, the specific effects of alcohol on an individual will vary. But certain facts are clear—there’s no way to make good decisions when you are intoxicated and there’s no way to sober up faster.
So, this holiday season, do not underestimate the effects of alcohol. Don’t believe you can beat them, or they may beat you.
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you host a holiday gathering:
- Offer a variety of nonalcoholic drinks—water, juices, sparkling sodas. Nonalcoholic drinks help counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol. Also, the other fluids may slow the rate of alcohol absorption into the body and reduce the peak alcohol concentration in the blood. They also provide your guests with alternatives to alcohol.
- Provide a variety of healthy foods and snacks. Food can slow the absorption of alcohol and reduce the peak level of alcohol in the body by about one-third. Food can also minimize stomach irritation and gastrointestinal distress the following day.
- Help your guests get home safely—use designated drivers and taxis. Anyone getting behind the wheel of a car should not have ingested any alcohol.
- If you are a parent, understand the underage drinking laws—and set a good examp