By Jim Harvey
There’s a popular rock song from the Seventies by Dr. FeelGood, with a catchy refrain that goes, “They’ve got him on milk and – alcohol!” This line used to make me chuckle because when I first started going out drinking with student friends, downing a pint of full cream milk before a night out was considered a trick of the trade among drinkers – you could drink more, they said, and be less hungover the next day.
The fatty cream was supposed to line the stomach, or so the theory went, slowing the absorption of alcohol. This always seemed to me an optimistic approach – the only people I knew who vouched for it would customarily drink so much that a mere pint of milk seemed unlikely to spare them a hangover bordering on alcohol poisoning.
And indeed, when I once asked a friend if the method actually worked, he declared, as he guzzled his breakfast fry-up, that the experiment was “inconclusive.” (Interestingly, it has been shown that certain kinds of saturated fat do, in fact, help protect the liver from alcohol – but as a part of a healthy diet, not a one-off preamble to a drinking session!)
In later years, I began to question the sanity of wanting to figure out how to “hack” nature, and find a way to drink more than is good for anybody and not face the physical consequences. Aside from the obvious dangers to health, only someone who was a bit too fond of their drink, I thought, would want the ability to consume ever greater amounts of booze, and still get away with it.
While alcohol and substance abuse worsened over the pandemic, trends in the years prior to this indicated increasing numbers of young people were choosing to simply not drink. In many countries, it’s not even such a “cool” thing to do, and awareness of the dangers of alcohol is nowadays much more widespread. Medical science confirms that since there are inherent health risks to any alcohol consumption, the safest amount to drink is none at all. But there are still some alluring myths that circulate about ‘safe’ drinking – let’s look at a few:
Myth#1: Alcohol is legal so it can’t be dangerous
Yes, alcohol is legally available – and also heavily taxed, so governments make a tidy little income from it, while they make none at all from illegal substances. Bleach, Roundup, rat poison and even liquid nitrogen are also legal, but are unequivocally dangerous if not in the right hands. You may object that nobody in their right mind is going to ingest bleach or rat poison. But can the same be said of not driving after a couple of drinks, not suddenly deciding the evening would be a lot more fun with some drugs too, not cheating on a partner, or not following through on any number of brainwaves that ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’?
The point about alcohol is that people rapidly end up not in their right mind. Even small amounts can impair judgment, decrease inhibitions and jeopardize self-control – none of which are valid safety protocols. And in the long term, alcohol can severely affect physical and mental health.
Myth #2: I can hold my booze, it’s not harming me
Many people who seem able to drink a lot have had practise – they have trained their body to drink increasingly large quantities without getting intoxicated. This simply means they have developed tolerance to alcohol. Tolerance to alcohol does not mean, in any way, shape or form, that the body is happy with drinking large amounts – it just means it has learned how to respond and cope. If the liver is taking a repeated bashing from lots of booze, even when a person rarely seems very drunk, the consequences on their health can be serious. People who can’t drink much are often in fact in better health – their body is not desensitized and it still tells them when enough is enough.
Myth 3: drinking in moderation is fine, and can even be healthy
This is one of the most appealing myths to people who like to drink a lot. Most people who genuinely drink in moderation – meaning within recommended limits – can take their drink or leave it. Trying to convince yourself, or others, that a little is a good thing, may well conceal an excessive drinking habit, and certainly a desire, or even a compulsion, to drink. Science has shown that in some people, the risk of certain conditions like kidney stones, heart attack or stroke, may decrease slightly if modest amounts of alcohol are taken. But the alcohol still has to be broken down by the liver and flushed from a person’s system. While red wine or beer may be touted for their antioxidants or malt, but they, like all other alcoholic beverages, contain ethanol. Ethanol is a toxic chemical, and when ingested on its own, can cause coma or death.
Furthermore, in subjects prone to addictive behaviors or with a family history of these, even a little alcohol can sow the seeds for a heavy drinking habit – the initial, “oh, this feels good! I could use more of this!” feeling, can morph into alcohol dependence.
Myth#4: My drinking is under control, I never drink alone, only socially
The image of the solitary alcoholic, nursing his bottle all alone while avoiding company, is a stereotype often found in movies. In contrast, drinking with others, in a social setting and just sharing a good time, is usually portrayed as normal and legitimate behavior. The truth is, however, that social drinking can lead to equal, and even greater, excess, than drinking alone. It can be much harder to avoid drinking a lot when everyone all around is indulging heavily. And it can be much easier to kid yourself about your relationship to drink. “I only had one more because he bought another round,” or, “I wouldn’t have done all those shots if she hadn’t started it!” It is perfectly possible to have full-blown alcoholism and simply drink in a public setting, quite often in the company of others who like to drink in the same way.
While isolating in order to drink alone is a worrying tendency, there is no “safety in numbers” – dangerous drinking habits can be formed in no time when a person associates alcohol in their mind with the thrills and pleasures of revelry.
Myth #5: Hangovers are caused by mixing drinks
When people start looking for ways to drink more while still enjoying themselves, they are on a slippery slope. When they look for ways to explain away hangovers, the same may be true. A popular saying is, “Never mix the grape and the grain,” while others claim you should only drink beverages in order of increasing strength. Certainly, if you mix a lot of drinks, and ingest large amounts of sugar, you may feel sick the next day for those reasons. But hangovers are only ever caused by the amount of alcohol consumed, and the rate at which it is drunk.
When the liver is processing alcohol, it struggles to keep blood sugar at normal levels, and this can cause headaches. Also, when the nervous system is recovering from alcohol-induced sedation, it may go through minor withdrawal. Grape, grain, or potatoes, the bottom line is, that hangovers are caused by too much alcohol!
Myth#6: Coffee can counteract intoxication and help me sober up
Coffee cannot accelerate how quickly alcohol is metabolized. The only thing coffee and other caffeinated drinks do is act as stimulants on the nervous system – while alcohol acts as a depressant. Coffee simply makes inebriated people wide awake. It is not a remedy for being drunk, nor a way of drinking more safely because you can just snap out of drunkenness and be sober once again. Ultimately, it just overloads the system further and gives the liver one more job to carry out, when it is already working overtime to deal with alcohol.
As a society, we are addicted to all manner of substances, from alcohol and illegal drugs to prescription medication. The preamble to Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the 12-step tradition states that many drug users have thought of alcohol as different, but, “we cannot afford to be confused about this. Alcohol is a drug.” And it is.
A brief Google search on alcohol will reveal some of the things people most often want to find out about it. It immediately becomes apparent that a great many are concerned about how much they drink, whether they admit it (either to themselves or to others) or not. “How much alcohol is too much?” “How long does it take the liver to recover from alcohol abuse?” “Can alcohol cause liver cancer?” or even, “How many times a week can I get drunk?” and countless more questions, show that people are both worried about the effect of drink on their health, and obsessed with trying to find safe ways to keep on drinking, and continue to enjoy the well-being, relaxation and freedom from worry that alcohol provides.
Kembali Recovery Center can help
If you’re visiting our website and reading this blog, you may be feeling worried about somebody’s drinking– either your own or that of a loved one or friend. Being open to finding out more about alcohol abuse is a very positive sign, and here at Kembali, we welcome your inquiries. Sometimes, the biggest myths of all are the ones we tell ourselves. Deep down, we know if alcohol has become our escape, or a crutch, but the story that it enhances our lives can be far more attractive – with devastating consequences.
Contact us to learn more about our treatment programs
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, contact us today to speak with one of our counselors. Remember, you never have to do this alone.