Food/Nutrition Columnist
Alcohol and the Holidays – Friend or Foe?
Dec 2, 2013 - 12:04:00 AM

( - 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. 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.

At a holiday party champagne is offered before the meal as appetizers are being passed. 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 The College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, 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. A standard drink equals: 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.

4.     Drink slowly. Sip drinks and alternate nonalcoholic and alcoholic drinks. Always eat while drinking, 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:

There is no one size fits all recommendation for alcohol. In limited amounts it can be 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 the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.

Look for:

The Diabetes Counter, 5th Ed., 2014

The Fat and Cholesterol Counter, 2014

The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013

The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013

The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012

The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011

The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010

The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008

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