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Demystifying the Myths of Alcohol

Some Sobering Facts for Alcohol Awareness Month

In observance of Alcohol Awareness Month, we have highlighted some of the major facts and statistics pertaining to alcohol use in the United States while defusing the stigmas surrounding alcohol use disorder, and we have provided diagnostic screening tools to help you determine whether you or your loved one have a drinking problem.

Here we explore ten common myths or misconceptions concerning alcohol and alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol use disorder is a potentially deadly illness, and we want to dispel these myths as part of our educational endeavors targeted to this month’s mission.  

Ten Myths vs. Reality of Alcohol

1. Myth: Alcohol can help keep you warm.

Reality: Although alcohol may make you temporarily feel warmer, it actually lowers body temperature overall. The reason is that alcohol is a vasodilator, which means that it causes the blood vessels to dilate, or expand, especially the capillaries right below the surface of the skin. The initial wave of warmth and flushed face is caused by the extra rush of blood rising to the skin. However, this is actually the heat leaving your body, providing a short-lived sensation of warmth that will be quickly cooled by cold air. Plus, the rapidly warmed skin will trigger sweating, further decreasing body temperature. Finally, drinking alcohol will inhibit the mechanism underlying shivering, removing yet another means by which the body keeps warm in cold weather.   

2. Myth: Alcohol is a stimulant.

Reality: In general, a substance counts as a stimulant if its primary effects excite the nervous system, boosting energy, while a depressant slows down the nervous system, with tranquilizing or sedative effects. Alcohol works primarily as a depressant, though it may feel like it has some initial stimulant effects. At the start of small measures of consumption, alcohol triggers the release of dopamine (the ‘happy hormone’), inducing the feeling of being stimulated. However, after these early effects wear off, alcohol works as a depressant, slowing down the central nervous system, decreasing blood pressure, heart rate and cognitive capacities.

3. Myth: Alcoholics drink every day.

Reality: Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) can take a variety of forms, not all of which involve daily drinking. Some struggling with AUD drink every day, others drink excessively on the weekends and those who drink in binges can have substantial stretches of abstinence in between. The main behavioral and psychological mark of AUD is the inability to control drinking once it starts, accompanied by the unmanageability in other areas of life resulting from it. Physically, the signs of alcohol addiction are tolerance (needing more alcohol to achieve the same effects) and later, withdrawal symptoms. Whether you’re a daily drinker, a binge drinker or a weekend warrior, you can fall prey to alcohol abuse by any these criteria.

4. Myth: Coffee and a cold shower sober you up.

Reality: Unlike other foods and drinks we consume, alcohol bypasses the digestive system, being processed instead by the liver. Nothing else we consume, such as food and coffee, or impose from the outside, like the shock of a cold shower or induced vomiting, can hasten the liver’s rate of metabolism. Thus, coffee will contribute caffeination and quicker digestion to intoxication, while a cold shower would simply leave you wet.

5. Myth: Drinking isn’t so dangerous.

Reality: According to a long-term global study published in top medical journal The Lancet, there is no amount of alcohol that is safe or healthy. To be sure, the authors of the study do not deny the often-touted claim that moderate consumption of red wine can combat heart disease. However, their results indicate that such benefits are outweighed by the relative harms of alcohol and driving accidents, destructive and impulsive decision-making, causing harm to yourself and others. With heavy use, alcohol can also contribute to other medical disorders, even contributing to cancer.

6. Myth: Drinking is an effective way to treat chronic pain.

Reality: Some of those who suffer from chronic pain turn to alcohol as a way of managing it. This can be dangerous and counterproductive for several reasons. First, if you are also taking pain medication, mixing it with alcohol poses serious risks, including liver damage, stomach bleeding, overdose and death. Second, it sets you up for alcohol use disorder, given that as your alcohol tolerance goes up so does the amount you to have consume to feel the same effects. Third, heavy drinking can actually increase pain by generating a painful small fiber peripheral neuropathy—the most common neurologic complication associated with alcohol misuse—and through the heightened sensitivity to pain experienced during alcohol withdrawal.

7. Myth: Beer has less alcohol than liquor.

Reality: While there is some variation, a single drink of either wine, liquor or beer contains approximately the same amount of alcohol. Specifically, 12 ounces of beer with an alcohol by volume of five percent (or 10 proof) is effectively equivalent in alcohol to five ounces of wine at 12 percent alcohol by volume (or 24 proof), both of which are on par with a one and a half ounce shot of liquor at 40 percent alcohol by volume (or 80 proof). Put simply, you can expect a standard serving of either five oz. of wine, 12 oz. of beer or 1.5 oz. of liquor to have the same alcohol content and with similar effects. Also keep in mind that many cocktails contain more than 1.5 oz. of alcohol. For example, a Long Island Iced Tea has at least two oz. of alcohol.

8. Myth: It is possible to drive safely after a few drinks.

Reality: A familiar form of rationalization holds that it is acceptable or safe to drive, as long as your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level is below the legal limit. In all fifty states, the BAC is .08, which, on average, is reached by a 120-pound woman after two drinks in an hour and a 180-pound man after four over one to two hours. At a BAC level of .08, research has shown a driver to be 11 times more likely to get into an accident. That said, there is considerable research indicating significant risk at successively lower levels. At a .05 BAC, there is loss of coordination, diminished perception of moving objects and a reduction in response time. At .02 BAC, there is impaired visual awareness and an inability to focus on complex tasks. The bottom line is that the only safe BAC is 0.

9. Myth: Liquor before beer, in the clear. Beer before liquor, never been sicker.

Reality: The wish behind this myth is that a certain sequence of consumption can prevent hangovers. The reality is that the order makes no difference to that looming threat. The reason is simple. Alcohol is absorbed immediately, first by the mucosal lining in the tongue and mouth by the stomach and the small intestines. So all the alcohol from last night’s drinking will be absorbed well before the hangover the next day. If the total amount of alcohol is the same regardless of the particular combination or of the types of drinks, the progression and variety of consumption will make no difference to blood alcohol levels.

10. Myth: Alcohol kills brain cells.

Reality: Contrary to popular belief, alcohol itself does not kill brain cells. Nevertheless, alcohol is a neurotoxin that damages dendrites (the ends of neurons), as well as causing other kinds of harm to the brain. The dendrite disruption interferes with the brain’s capacity to process and relay information, generating poor concentration and coordination. In the long term, heavy drinking can cause shrinkage of the hippocampus, the center of the brain that controls memory and reasoning, as well as impeding neurogenesis—the generation of new brain cells. The good news is that in all but the most severe cases, much of this damage is reversible over time once someone stops drinking.

It is worth adding here that although alcohol itself does not kill brain cells, alcohol withdrawal can kill you. It is another myth, then, that you can’t die from alcohol withdrawal.

Are You Concerned about Your Drinking Habits?

Whether you’ve harbored some of these misconceptions about alcohol, of find that you or a loved one have a troubling pattern of drinking, Recovery Centers of America can provide lifesaving help now. For your consideration, here are some of the services offered by our world-class facilities.

  • Medically monitored detoxification. After a prolonged period of heavy drinking, the physical and psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be difficult to endure, even deadly. RCA allows for alcohol detox in a secure, comforting place.
  • Residential inpatient treatment. Once the body is safely detoxed of alcohol in a medical setting, typically over a period of three to seven days, AUD patients then standardly move to residential or inpatient care.
  • Outpatient or digital health treatment. Outpatient programs (including digital health options) let patients maintain their personal and professional schedules while receiving various numbers of individual and group sessions per week, at least for the first year of recovery.
  • Ongoing recovery support. Patients can also maintain recovery by participating in a recovery community, such as a 12-Step program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, as well as RCA’s Alumni Association, which allows its patients to stay committed and connected for a lifetime of recovery.

If you or a loved one is struggling with drugs or alcohol, call Recovery Centers of America now 844-242-7956.

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