The holidays are all about family get-togethers, parties, gift-giving, Christmas songs, an ugly sweater or two and a whole lot of food and drinks. Alcohol is often present at holiday events, but for some, it’s far too easy to drink excessively this time of year.
Excessive alcohol or substance use can be deadly, especially when driving is involved. During the 2017-2021 December months, there were more than 4,500 people killed in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes according to the United States Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).In December 2021 alone, 1,013 people died in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes.
Here are some important points about substance use to consider before celebrating the holidays this year.
How alcohol impacts health
When the body processes alcohol, multiple organs are affected in different ways – all of which have negative impacts on the immune system. Alcohol affects how different immune cells in the brain express themselves, altering the molecular pathways that regulate neuroinflammation. This can lead to riskier decision-making, increased drinking and decreased behavioral flexibility.
Cells in the gastrointestinal system can be damaged by alcohol, which disrupts the gut’s function as a barrier and allows bacterial products from the gut to leak out, leading to liver inflammation and potentially liver cancer. Alcohol can also weaken airways in the lungs and when used excessively, lead to these chronic conditions:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Heart disease and stroke
- Liver disease
- Cancers including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon and rectum
- Depression and anxiety
Binge drinking, which occurs when a person has four drinks or more in one sitting, affects the body in the ways listed above but can also lead to other behavioral and physical effects. Short-term, this can include blackouts (alcohol-induced amnesia), memory loss, lower inhibitions, mood swings, nausea or vomiting – which can put a person at a higher risk for motor vehicle crashes.
How cannabis affects the body and mind
Though it remains illegal at the federal level, Michigan was one of many states to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Cannabis products have a wide range of effects on the brain and body.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), long-term cannabis use can negatively impact the heart and lungs, as well as a person’s brain development and overall mental health. Even consuming cannabis casually at a party can do harm, especially if the person decides to get behind the wheel. Recent marijuana use – defined as within 24 hours – directly affects parts of the brain responsible for decision-making, coordination, emotions and reaction time and can impair important skills required for safe driving.
Importance of driving sober
No one should ever drive while drunk or high. Preventing unnecessary tragedies starts by planning ahead, especially when celebrating during the holidays. Before going out to a holiday party, consider:
- Making a plan to get home before the event: This can include designating a sober driver ahead of time, planning to use public transportation, or ordering a taxi or rideshare.
- Setting limits on consumption: Set a maximum number of drinks to consume before arriving at a party and stick to it. Alert a friend of that limit for accountability’s sake, if necessary. Also, pacing at a party where a lot of alcohol is present is important. Try having a glass of water – also known as a “spacer” – between drinks. Consider eating before and while drinking, avoiding highly alcoholic drinks and drinking out of a smaller glass.
How to navigate substance use at holiday events
Drug and alcohol use at a holiday party can be triggering for those recovering from an alcohol or substance use disorder. It’s possible to have fun at a party while sober, but to do that individuals need to identify those triggers and assess how they cope with cravings. Then, try crafting a plan that helps avoid those cravings, including:
- Bringing a friend who is also sober
- Bringing non-alcoholic beverages (if the party doesn’t have any)
- Arriving later if it’s a dinner party to avoid the social drinking portion of the event
- Setting a maximum amount of time to be spent at the party ahead of time
- Choosing an activity that keeps one busy, like playing board games, playing with kids, or helping to prepare or put away food in the kitchen.
The holidays are meant to be a happy and joyous time. For individuals with substance use disorder, they can be difficult to navigate. Remember to follow any treatment plan as prescribed by a provider, and to seek out care immediately if needed.
William Beecroft, M.D., D.L.F.A.P.A., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health news and information visit MIBluesPerspectives.com.