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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Nov 23, 2017 - 3:36:36 PM

Alcohol and the Holidays – Consider This

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist -
Nov 25, 2017 - 7:10:46 AM

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( - Mulled cider, spiked eggnog, wine at dinner, champagne to toast the New Year –the temptation to drink too much during the holidays is everywhere you go. Did you know that every 40 minutes someone dies because of alcohol, resulting in over 80,000 alcohol-related deaths each year?

You may not be drinking but the person that just hit your car may be drunk. You may not be drinking but the person who just picked a fight with you may be drunk. Alcohol releases dopamine, a substance in the brain that gives you pleasure. Your inhibitions are lowered and your normal behavior loses its common sense monitor. At a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05% you exhibit less anxiety, have personality changes, and your driving skills are affected, but you are not legally drunk. A 140 pound woman or a 180 pound man can reach this level with 2 drinks. Not an unusual amount to drink at an office Christmas party.

Champagne is offered before the meal at a holiday party. You drink one glass, than try some eggnog. Dinner is served with wine. After dinner your host serves hot spiked cider as the fireplace roars. You are laughing more loudly, you concentrate to walk straight, and the next morning you feel dizzy and your head hurts. This scenario illustrates how quickly and dramatically alcohol affects the brain.

Your brain is an intricate maze of connections that keeps your body running smoothly. Short term, alcohol changes the way the brain works. Long term it can damage the brain, making it smaller and inflamed.  Your brain communicates with your body through a trillion tiny nerve cells called neurons. Chemicals called neurotransmitters carry messages between neurons. To keep your body working at the right pace the brain is constantly balancing between the neurotransmitters that speed things up and those that slow things down. Alcohol disrupts this system.

Researchers have identified that the regions of the brain responsible for coordination, memory, emotion, and our ability to interact socially are the most vulnerable to alcohol’s effects. Glutamate, a neurotransmitter that affects memory is susceptible to even small amounts of alcohol and may be the reason we do not remember much about a drinking episode. Serotonin regulates emotion and endorphins spark euphoria when intoxication takes over. The more you drink the more brain cells are damaged, some permanently.

Leonardo Pignataro, PhD, of  NYU Langone Medical Center, believes the only approach to responsible alcohol use is education. He suggests 5 things to consider.

  1. Keep track of how much you drink. One glass of wine a day is health promoting, while more can be a problem.

  2. Know the size of a standard drink which in the US contains 14 grams of pure alcohol or 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of table wine, or 1.5 ounces (a jigger) of 80-proof whiskey, gin, rum, vodka or tequila.

  3. Set a limit on how many days a week you will drink and how much you will drink on each day. Moderate drinking is considered 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women. For those over 60 many experts now recommend 1 drink a day as the maximum.

  4. Drink slowly. Sip drinks and alternate nonalcoholic and alcoholic drinks. Always eat while drinking because alcohol is absorbed more quickly on an empty stomach.

  5. Avoid your personal triggers that may cause you to drink too much.

You should know:

  • Coffee will not sober you up. Chase alcohol with caffeine and you feel awake and competent but you cannot think clearly or handle situations, such as driving.

  • Too much alcohol can damage your heart. Men who drink 5 or more beers a day have a 46% chance of suffering an irregular heartbeat. Women who drink 2 drinks a day have a 60% chance of having atrial fibrillation.

  • If you are over 62, think before you drink and walk. Drinking challenges the normal gait pattern of older adults. Obstacles as simple as stepping off a curb or around an uneven sidewalk can cause a fall. These would not be an issue without alcohol in their system disrupting the brain’s ability to control coordination.

Bottom line: There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for alcohol. In limited amounts it can be pleasurable and beneficial, but in excess it can be a toxin. Dose does make the poison.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of 30 books. Available as eBooks from iTunes and Kindle/Amazon:

Diabetes Counter

Calorie Counter

Protein Counter

Healthy Wholefoods Counter

Complete Food Counter

Fat and Cholesterol Counter

Available in print from Gallery Books:

Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd Ed.

Your Complete Food Counter App:


For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:

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