If a visitor from another planet happened to stop by ours this December, it’s likely that the alien would assume that our holiday season is dedicated to excessive drinking. Just look at our box office fare: the ads for Bad Santa 2 featured the titular character, portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton, dressed as St. Nick, passed out with a bottle of whiskey in hand, and the trailer for Office Christmas Party made it clear that the film is primarily about the copious consumption of booze. In both cases, over-drinking is the ultimate punch-line, suggesting that there is nothing more amusing than inebriated folks stumbling about in good cheer.
At the risk of sounding like a Grinch, there is nothing funny about excessive drinking, or about the way it is portrayed on television and in film. So, as we head into the holiday season—traditionally a time to raise a few glasses in good cheer—it is helpful to take a moment and think about drinking and what it does to our bodies.
Like everything else in life, indulging in alcohol is all about knowing how much is too much: according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks daily for men. Contrary to what we are seeing in the aforementioned holiday films, “a drink” doesn’t mean a plastic cup filled to the brim with booze. The Centers for Disease Control helpfully remind us that a standard drink is about 14 grams of pure alcohol, or about the amount you’ll find in 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits like gin, vodka, or whiskey. Binge drinking is when we consume more than the recommended amount in a single day—four or more for women, five or more for men. When fictional characters drink their booze from glasses the size of small ponds, the binging limit is reached quickly.
These are helpful guidelines that, sadly, too many of us have been ignoring: as a 2014 survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism discovered, as many as 24.7 percent of Americans age 18 and older reported that they have engaged in binge drinking at some point in the past month.
Excessive drinking is bad not only for our livers, but for our brains as well. Alcohol affects the parts of the brain that are the biggest users of glucose, like the cerebellum, which assists in coordination and balance. Processing memories is also a glucose hog—no wonder that blackouts, or having a blank spot in your memory, can occur with excessive alcohol use. Another big energy user in the brain is how we weigh the potential rewards and consequences of our actions. No wonder that poor judgement that comes with intoxication is the stuff of comedies.
Observing people who abused alcohol and have stopped, we can see a marked improvement in brain function in as little as 30 days.
The more we drink, the smaller our brains get: our dendrites, or signal receivers, get pruned by long-term alcohol misuse. Therefore, while constant heavy drinking might not cause you to lose brain cells at first, it does impact the connections among cells and with it our overall cognitive function. Observing people who abused alcohol and have stopped, we can see a marked improvement in brain function in as little as 30 days.
As we enter the final stretch of the year, a time for resolutions, let us consider two in particular. The first is personal: a commitment to enjoy alcohol responsibly and mindfully. The second, and closely related, is societal: let us resolve to take a hard look at the way we depict drinking in popular culture, and agree that just as we have learned to curb our portrayal of smoking—a successful public health campaign that has raised awareness to tobacco’s perils—we must also restrict our representations of drinking and refrain from glorifying excessive drinking as desirable or entertaining. If we succeed in doing both of these things, we might be able to enjoy the holidays for what they really are, a time to be grateful for family, friends, and good health—including brain health.