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Coping with COVID-19: Alcohol Isn't the Answer

Mental Health

How are you coping with the pandemic?

Some of us are eating more during these stay-at-home times, leading to weight gain that social media pundits call the “Quarantine 15.”

And some of us popping yet another tab on a can of beer, pouring yet another glass of wine or mixed drink, or doing yet another shot of our favorite liqueur. In fact, we’re drinking more than we should, research shows.

With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, here are some sobering thoughts on how to drink responsibly.

‘Coping’ May Lead to ‘Addiction’

When the pandemic caused a lockdown throughout the country, businesses such as restaurants, bars, and liquor stores were closed but sold their products via drive-thru, curbside-pickup or home delivery services.

It wasn’t long before smartphone apps began popping up that let homebound customers order their favorite beverages from their local haunts, too. Indeed, online sales increased 262 percent from March 2019 to March 2020, according to Nielsen’s market data.

In fact, national sales of alcohol for the same period jumped 54 percent.

The increase in consumption of alcohol across the globe prompted the World Health Organization to warn that alcohol use during the pandemic could worsen health concerns and risk-taking behaviors.

“Based on the information that is being reported, we’re concerned that many of us are using alcohol and other substances to ease the pain and isolation caused by the pandemic,” says Catherine Murtagh-Schaffer, a Lee Health physician assistant who serves as the program lead for the opioid disorder treatment and substance abuse response team.

“The concern is that long after the pandemic passes, people will have developed excessive drinking habits that lead to alcohol addiction while they're isolating at home,” Murtagh-Schaffer explains.

“Besides the negative physical health associations, excessive alcohol use may lead to or worsen existing mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, which may themselves be increasing during the pandemic.”

Hurting Your Immune System

Chronic alcohol consumption poses significant risks during COVID-19, potentially making people more vulnerable to disease, Murtagh-Schaffer says.

“Alcohol can impair the body’s immune system, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and impair sleep, which is critical to maintaining the immune system. Also, people with substance use disorders are more likely to develop  COVID-19 and experience worse COVID-19 outcomes, according to the research.”

Another risk associated with drinking too much alcohol is that people tend to let their guard down about distancing, hand-washing and other safety protocols, she adds.

How much alcohol is too much?

“That depends on a variety of factors, including your weight and gender,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “In general, ‘moderate’ alcohol consumption means one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.”

Sixteen percent of all adults said they were drinking more, reports another poll, with higher rates among younger adults. One in 4 Millennials and nearly 1 in 5 Gen Xers said they had upped their alcohol intake.

According to federal dietary guidelines, the far end of the spectrum defines binge drinking as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in a two-hour period. One recent study reported that binge drinking increased from 22 percent in February to 27 percent in April.

Here are some alcohol-free strategies for coping with pandemic stress:

1. Stay physically active

2. Getting plenty of sleep

3. Eat healthy foods

4. Try practicing yoga, meditation and deep breathing techniques.

If you find yourself drinking excessively on a regular basis, seek prompt professional help in person or via phone or video chat.

‚ÄčCatherine Murtagh-Schaffer, PA, is a cardiothoracic physician assistant. She serves as the program lead for the opioid disorder treatment and substance abuse response team.


Lee Health Addiction Medicine Clinic offers treatment for alcohol and substance abuse and can be reached at 239-343-9190

The Lee Health Behavioral Health Clinic also offers treatment for a variety of mental health issues including depression and anxiety.  Call 239-343-9180.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Disaster Distress helpline is available at 800-985-5990.

For those in recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous provides a listing of online meetings at aa-intergroup.org.

If you or someone close to you needs help for a substance use disorder, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit FindTreatment.gov, SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.