Their cup runneth over

Young adults have never been known for moderation in their drinking habits, but a new study by British researchers suggests there may be more to their behavior than mere youthful recklessness.

When researchers surveyed a group of secondary and university students to assess their knowledge and beliefs about alcohol consumption, fewer than half were able to give correct answers. Most of them didn’t do much better when asked to demonstrate what a “usual” drink should be; they consistently poured more than government guidelines recommend for daily consumption of alcohol.

The findings suggest many young drinkers don’t really know what constitutes sensible drinking behavior, concluded Richard de Visser of the University of Sussex, the lead author of the study. “There may be a need for more and/or different alcohol education in schools and the media,” he said in a news release accompanying the study.

The study appears in the March issue of the Drug and Alcohol Review journal and provides some interesting insight into the ability of young drinkers to estimate the size of a drink.

For instance, university students who participated in a drink-pouring exercise underestimated the size of the drink 65 percent of the time; secondary school students underestimated 52 percent of the time. In many cases, they poured more than the recommended daily guideline but were unable to recognize this. Overall, university students were more accurate in their estimates than the younger students – but even so, they were within 10 percent of the drink’s actual size only 25 percent of the time.

The questionnaire portion of the study also revealed that many of the participants didn’t know the guidelines for safe alcohol consumption and weren’t knowledgeable about how much alcohol is contained in a drink.

This was a small study, involving 309 secondary students and 125 university students, so the findings are limited. It’s also hard to know whether similar findings would apply in the United States, where the drinking culture is different from that in Great Britain.

It’s a little eye-opening to realize, however, the disconnect between what young drinkers see as a standard drink and what a standard drink actually is. If we want young adults to drink moderately, perhaps we need better techniques to help them understand what “moderate” means, the researchers concluded.

The darker side of holiday spirits

At this time of year, warnings abound about overdoing the alcoholic holiday cheer. For the most part, it’s a lesson we know almost by heart.

What’s a little surprising are the myths that seem to persist – such as the one about drinking coffee to sober up, or that you aren’t really impaired unless you’re stumbling or slurring your speech.

Here’s a little myth-busting from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

- Myth: Alcohol doesn’t lead to impairment until after several drinks have been consumed. Reality: Alcohol’s effects begin quickly and can diminish critical decision-making and driving skills long before the physical signs of intoxication show up.

Drinking initially acts like a stimulant, causing the drinker to feel upbeat. But those first couple of drinks soon begin affecting inhibition and judgment. As more alcohol is consumed, reaction times become slower and behavior becomes less controlled. Continued drinking can lead to the slurred speech and loss of balance typically associated with being drunk. At even higher levels, alcohol acts as a depressant, causing people to become sleepy or pass out.

Myth: Once you stop drinking, the effects of alcohol go away. Reality: Alcohol continues to affect the body and brain long after the last drink has been downed. Even after someone stops drinking, the alcohol in their stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, impairing judgment and coordination for hours.

Myth: Drinking coffee will sober you up. Reality: Caffeine can help reduce drowsiness but it won’t do anything for the effects of alcohol on decision-making The only real cure is time while the body metabolizes the alcohol that’s been consumed and returns to normal.

From Narconon International comes this bit of myth-busting about wine:

Myth: You’re less likely to get drunk when you’re drinking wine. Reality: Alcohol is alcohol and it all holds the same potential for getting drunk, whether it’s poured from a bottle of fine wine, a bottle of single-malt whiskey or a can of beer. Serving sizes might vary but the alcohol content in each case is mostly the same – about six-tenths of an ounce of pure alcohol.

Here’s something that isn’t a myth: Alcohol-related traffic crashes increase during the holiday season. Statistics in fact suggest Americans are more likely to die in an alcohol-related holiday crash than at any other time of the year. About 40 percent of fatal crashes over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays involve at least one driver who has been drinking, according to statistics analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many people enjoy a drink or two during the holidays but moderation is the key. Experts offer this advice: If you’re going to drink, pace yourself. Know what constitutes a standard drink and have no more than one per hour. Have “drink spacers” – make every other drink a nonalcoholic one.

Finally, have a plan to get home safely. The designated driver in the group should be the one who hasn’t been drinking, not the person at the party who drank the least.

For more information, check out the federal government’s Rethinking Drinking website.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Two simple questions

Asking kids two simple questions about alcohol use can have considerable power in the medical setting to help reduce the rate of underage drinking.

Of the many professionals who work with teens, clinicians are in one of the best positions to spot when a young patient’s drinking behavior might be headed in an unsafe direction. Up until now, however, time constraints often have kept pediatricians and family doctors from asking kids about their alcohol use.

Look for this to start changing. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse recently published a guide for clinicians on how to identify and intervene with teens at risk of problem drinking. It isn’t every day that a screening comes along that’s both quick and effective, but this seems to be one of them.

The two questions:

1. Do you have any friends who drank beer, wine or any beverage containing alcohol in the past year?

2. How about you – in the past year, on how many days have you had more than a few sips of beer, wine or any beverage containing alcohol?

How kids respond can indicate their level of risk for problems related to alcohol. Hanging out with friends who drink is strongly associated with risk of future drinking, according to the NIAAA. Among teens who already drink, the amount of alcohol they consume and how often they consume it can help predict how likely they are to get into trouble because of their alcohol use.

Drinking tends to be seen as a rite of passage for American adolescents. But it’s a path that also can send them in an ultimately harmful direction.

There’s been a fair amount of research on underage drinking, and the statistics aren’t encouraging. The teen years are when many kids start experimenting with alcohol; nationally, the number of youths who have more than one sip goes up dramatically with age, from 7 percent of 12-year-olds to almost three-fourths of 17-year-olds.

Evidence suggests that when kids start drinking at age 15 or younger, they may have a higher risk of developing alcohol-related problems in adulthood than kids who waited until 21 to start drinking. Underage alcohol use also is frequently a marker for other issues such as poor performance in school, social difficulties, and risk of injury or death.

Some factors appear to make adolescents more susceptible to underage alcohol use. Kids who smoke cigarettes, for instance, are also more likely to drink. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD or conduct problems are associated as well with a higher risk of underage drinking.

The NIAAA’s guide for clinicians was developed with the help of the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers and health professionals with expertise in substance abuse and adolescent health. It’s designed to be used in any number of clinical settings – routine doctor visits, an urgent care clinic, even the emergency room.

What makes it especially innovative is a “youth risk estimator” – a chart that helps classify young patients into low, moderate or high risk of alcohol-related problems. The guide also gives clinicians some tools for how to talk to kids in ways that are sympathetic and nonjudgmental yet nudge them toward quitting their alcohol use, or at least reducing the riskiest drinking behavior.

I don’t think underage drinking has ever been considered OK. But these days we know so much more about the impact of alcohol on kids, including what it can do to their still-developing brains. There seem to be fewer and fewer reasons to tolerate it as “kids will be kids” and more reasons than ever to address teen drinking sooner rather than later.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Holiday spirits

Here’s an alcohol-free toast to the holidays.

The Kandiyohi County Drug-Free Communities Coalition recently posted several recipes for non-alcoholic drinks on their blog, and they sound delicious.

Here’s the ingredient list for Frosty Mocha: chocolate ice cream, half and half, coffee, cinnamon, semisweet chocolate and almond extract. Chocolate ice cream? Pour me a double helping, please.

Some of the other recipes call for sparkling combinations such as cranberry juice, lime juice and ginger ale,  or cranberry-grape juice, orange sherbet and ginger ale.

Alcohol tends to hold a central place in many Christmas festivities. Not everyone wants to or is able to join in, though – women who are pregnant, for instance, or people who are on prescription medication that doesn’t mix well with alcohol. And what about those who are recovering alcoholics?

The Drug-Free Communities Coalition has posted several holiday hosting tips for families with children that are worth sharing:

  • Let your child know what you expect.  Tell your child that adults may be drinking during the holidays but under no circumstances are they allowed to consume alcohol.
  • Plan a nonalcoholic holiday party with your child so children learn that they can have fun without alcohol. Send out invitations with alcohol and drug free messages on them, and make sure the guests know that yours will be a substance-free event
  • For your holiday meal, let your child help you prepare and serve traditional drinks without alcohol. You can make nonalcoholic cider, eggnog, or punch
  • Make sure your holiday festivities involve lots of delicious-and nonalcoholic-food, which your child can help you make.
  • If your older child is going to a holiday event, call ahead to make sure that the event will be alcohol and drug free. Check in with the party planner to see what measures are in place to keep alcohol out.
  • Good examples for kids also tend to result in good examples for grownups.

    How much work does it take to mix up a cranberry cooler? Here’s a video, courtesy of Lakeland Broadcasting and Q102, that shows you how.

    More videos featuring other mocktail recipes can be found on the Q102 website. Here’s to your health!

    Taming the hangover

    By the time the upcoming weekend is over, a certain percentage of the people reading this post (although a very small percentage, I hope) will probably experience the miserable symptoms of a hangover.

    Hangovers can happen all year long, but they’re often more likely around the holidays, when the partying and the eggnog can sometimes flow a little too freely.

    What exactly is a hangover? The Mayo Clinic offers this rather understated definition: "A hangover is a group of unpleasant signs and symptoms that can develop after drinking too much alcohol." (The term itself appears to have originated in the 1800s as a descriptor for something unfinished or left over. In the early 1900s it also started to be applied to the after-effects of too much drinking.)

    Although the hangover is a common experience, surprisingly few studies have scientifically addressed the mechanisms of hangover or evaluated how to treat it. Here’s what we do know, however:

    The symptoms of a hangover – dehydration, headache, grogginess, fatigue, nausea – are the body’s physiological response to alcohol itself, as well as to the body’s efforts to process alcohol and counteract its impact on the central nervous system.

    The dry, cottony mouth? That’s due to the diuretic effect of alcohol, which can lead to thirst, dehydration and dizziness. Nausea (or, worse yet, vomiting)? Alcohol can irritate the lining of the stomach and increase stomach acid production; it also delays emptying of the stomach, with predictable consequences. Headache? This is usually due to alcohol-induced dilation of the blood vessels.

    Feeling groggy and exhausted is another common symptom. Although having a few drinks can feel stimulating to many people, alcohol is in reality a depressant. Eventually the drinker will feel sleepy, but he or she won’t sleep well, hence the fatigue that often comes after having a few drinks too many. Staying up too late or overdoing it on the dance floor can add to the fatigue.

    Several risk factors appear to contribute to the severity of a hangover. The Mayo Clinic explains how this works:

    Anyone who drinks alcohol can experience a hangover, but some people are more susceptible to hangover than are others. A genetic variation that affects the way alcohol is metabolized may make some people flush, sweat or become ill after drinking even a small amount of alcohol. Research hasn’t clearly shown whether light drinkers or heavy drinkers are more likely to experience hangovers.

    Factors that may make a hangover more likely include: drinking on an empty stomach; using other drugs, such as nicotine, along with alcohol; having a family history of alcoholism; drinking darker colored alcoholic beverages; drinking champagne or alcohol mixed with carbonated beverages.

    A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine some years back suggested that extra fluids, vitamin B6 and aspirin or ibuprofen can relieve hangover symptoms. There’s no lack of home remedies for hangovers. Drinking sauerkraut juice (!!) is one I’ve heard; so is black coffee with lemon juice. The only sure cure, however, according to the experts, is time and rest.

    An even better remedy: Try to avoid getting hung over in the first place. This means drinking in moderation (or not at all), taking it slowly and not drinking on an empty stomach. In the case of the hangover, it seems prevention is usually the best medicine of all.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons