Each New Year, “reducing alcohol consumption” is one of the top resolutions among Americans. Some even go so far as to designate the first month of the year (when this article is being published) “Dry January,” giving up alcohol for the month.
I would like to share the journey of my relationship with alcohol, in hopes that it will invite you to think about your own.Brent Sweitzer, Owner, Sweitzer Counseling
Why I Gave Up Alcohol
I had what most people would consider a healthy relationship with alcohol – I didn’t drink until I was an adult. And when I did, I was a light drinker and rarely drank to the point of not being able to drive, much less being intoxicated.
I had a dysfunctional upbringing, but fortunately didn’t learn to cope with that pain by using alcohol or drugs. I experienced tremendous healing in a counseling relationship. I invited the woman I was dating (who is now my wife) to see the counselor I had seen for years.
As we worked on our relationship, our counselor shared more of her clinical experience working with people who for years had a “healthy” relationship with alcohol that changed for the worst. She had been mentored by specialists in alcohol recovery that saw over and over again how alcohol undermined good marriages, how it undermined otherwise healthy parent/child relationships – regardless of whether the person ever identified as an alcoholic.
My wife and I were skeptical – we both practiced good self-control and figured we would never let alcohol use get out of hand. Our counselor was compassionate but direct: “it’s not about willpower,” “everyone is susceptible to its effects,” “it never makes people kinder.” She shared brain scans from The Amen Clinics that showed how alcohol affected the brain long after the temporary effects wore off.
Both my wife and I are the grandchildren of alcoholics, and I knew from schooling that addiction runs in families. Eventually, we decided that whatever we were getting from our alcohol wasn’t worth the risk. We both decided to give it up 11 years ago.
Alcohol’s effects showing up in clinical work with families
In my clinical work, I began to notice the role alcohol played in the majority of conflicts that brought couples to therapy. I began to see that even if it wasn’t the main issue, it was always a contributor. I saw the role it played in affairs and other painful behaviors in relationships. I began to see children, teens, and young adults negatively shaped by alcohol use that would never have been considered serious enough to warrant addiction treatment.
I began to see the emotional and relational cost of the “everything in moderation” public health messaging we’ve gotten in the US for so long.
Research Emerges that Challenges the Moderation Argument
In 2018 a study was published in the prestigious journal Lancet that challenged conventional wisdom about alcohol consumption – namely that it is fine in moderation.
The study looked at data from 195 countries over a 26 year period. It’s considered the most comprehensive estimate of the global burden of alcohol use to date. Their findings were clear…and controversial. No level of alcohol consumption is good for you. The risks of even light drinking, especially cancer risks, outweighed any possible health benefits.
Another study released in May 2021 looked at the brains of more than 25,000 participants in the UK using MRI scans. They found that moderate and even light drinking resulted in a decrease in brain volume. Not surprisingly, the more someone drank, the worse their brain got. To quote directly from the study: “Our findings suggest that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption for brain health.”
But What About Alcohol’s Benefits?
One of the reasons alcohol is still so widely consumed is the number of studies that have highlighted the health benefits to the heart. After all, heart disease is still the number one killer of Americans. So anything that reduces the risk of heart disease should be encouraged, right?
Not so fast.
First of all, all studies that have connected alcohol to a lower risk of heart disease are observational – they follow a group of people, ask them about their drinking habits, and then see if they develop heart disease. But researchers have cast doubt on these results because there is a tendency for people who are already unhealthy to stop drinking — skewing the non-drinking group toward unhealthiness. This video from nutrition research expert Dr. Michael Greger provides clarity on why previous studies have shown that those who gave up alcohol had more health problems than drinkers.
What’s really needed is a high-quality controlled study where people are randomly put into two groups where one group drinks and the other doesn’t. Studies like this are very expensive to conduct.
And that leads to another troubling problem with alcohol research. In March of 2018, the NY Times published a bombshell report showing how alcohol enthusiasts within the NIH tried to recruit the alcohol industry to fund a $100 million study intended to show that moderate alcohol use is safe and lowers the risk of heart disease.
Not surprisingly, the alcohol industry, like the tobacco and sugar industries, have spent huge sums of money on research for which they have a vested interest in the outcomes. Lest we forget, from the 1920s up through the 50s, mainstream medicine encouraged people to smoke. Phillip Morris funded at least 100 studies that showed the health benefits of smoking.
It’s worth noting that the studies referenced above were funded by public health organizations.
Problem with the “Any Benefit” Approach
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the case that we shouldn’t decide that it’s ok to do something just because it has some benefits. Newport makes the case that unquestioned embrace of social media because “it helps me stay in touch with friends and family” obscures the real costs of it for many people (loss of productivity, increased feelings of loneliness, etc.).
Most people apply this same “any benefit” approach to alcohol consumption. We tell ourselves, “I know it’s not the best thing I could do for myself, but it helps me relax and I don’t do it very often…so what’s the big deal?”
How Alcohol Affects Well-Being and Relationships
Alcohol affects the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the most human part of the brain and our “CEO.” It’s responsible for judgment, insight, empathy, forethought, and self-control. So not surprisingly, under the influence of alcohol our judgment is impaired and our empathy is diminished.
Since alcohol affects the decision-making functioning of the brain, it’s not surprising that alcohol consumption correlates with infidelity in relationships. This study and others have highlighted this.
But the brain effects of alcohol don’t just wear off once the alcohol leaves your system. Remember the MRI study referenced above? Even light drinking practiced over time lowers the volume of the brain. And that includes the prefrontal cortex.
There is general consensus in public health that excessive alcohol use is harmful. What emerging data and clinical experience is showing is that perhaps we should rethink the conventional wisdom about moderate or even light drinking.
Less Judgment, More Reflection
If you’ve made it this far, there may be some feelings stirring up in you. My intent in sharing what I’ve discovered is not to make anyone feel judged regarding their drinking habits. I’m reminded of the words of Carl Rogers, a pioneer in psychotherapy: “The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true.”
I’m grateful my own counselor was courageous enough to share her experience and knowledge about giving up alcohol with me, knowing that I might feel offended and not come back. She trusted me with the facts so that I could make my own decisions about my health. I want to trust you to do the same.
As we contemplate the year ahead and the changes we’d like to make, I invite you to get curious about what life could look like with less alcohol or potentially with giving up alcohol entirely.
In part two of this article, I will explore some of the reasons people resist changing their relationship with alcohol and offer up practical ideas of enjoying life without alcohol (or with less of it).