The winter months in Minnesota can be difficult. Shorter days, more darkness, and cold temperatures keeping us trapped indoors all contribute to mental health struggles, and many turn to alcohol to cope with feelings of loneliness and depression brought on by the season.
“A lot of things can lead to more drinking in the winter months and drinking as a way to feel better, less isolated, and less depressed,” explains Sheila Specker, MD, addiction psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians). “But there are so many other factors, like age, socioeconomic status, and genetics, that also play a role.”
When it comes to AUD, Dr. Specker clarifies that it doesn’t just mean that someone drinks more than the recommended amount; there is a specific biological component that leads to developing a tolerance and experiencing withdrawals when not drinking.
“Addiction is a brain disease,” she says. “The crux of the disorder is the loss of control, not being able to control how much or how often you are drinking.”
Those most genetically predisposed to developing AUD are individuals with first degree relatives. Although treatment is certainly attainable after someone has developed the disorder, the most effective course of action is prevention.
“It’s not a given that because you have the genetics, you’re going to develop the disorder,” Dr. Specker emphasizes. “I talk with patients about having conversations with their kids. The longer you put off the first drink, the lower the risk of developing a disorder.”
Even for those without a family history of AUD, Dr. Specker says there is no such thing as no risk when it comes to alcohol. The only true way to guarantee not developing a disorder or dependency is to abstain from drinking altogether. However, it is possible to enjoy alcohol in moderation.
“There are all gradations of risk, so if you consistently drink less than the recommended amount, the risks go down significantly of developing an AUD. Then, if you exceed those amounts, your risk may go from, say, one in a hundred to one out of two.”
Unfortunately, a quick web search of how much alcohol is considered too much may not be as straightforward as one might hope. According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse, the definition for hazardous use is more than three drinks for women or more than four drinks for men in one sitting. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, however, says that more than two alcoholic drinks in one day is hazardous. Although there isn’t one widely agreed upon number, Dr. Specker says that knowing yourself and your limits is key.
“What you can do is watch carefully how much you are drinking. Being careful about your limits, having a healthy lifestyle, and having support people are all protective factors,” Dr. Specker says.
Those who want to cut back often participate in Dry January, a month of no alcohol consumption. Dr. Specker says this trend can be a great opportunity for people to explore how they feel without alcohol. Reducing alcohol consumption also comes with a host of benefits for the body, like feeling more energetic and sleeping better, since, according to Dr. Specker, every organ system is affected by alcohol. Heavy drinking is associated with higher rates of cancers like colon and breast, as well as negatively impacting cognitive function.
Of course, there is nothing magical about the month of January. Individuals can choose to cut back or stop drinking at any time of the year, and the benefits will be the same. If one finds that they are struggling quite a lot to reduce their consumption, Dr. Specker says it may be time to have a conversation with a support person or health care provider.
“Sometimes just sharing that you’re struggling and that your goal is to cut back will help. Going to your physician and saying, ‘Hey, I’m kind of struggling with this,’ is a great place to start. They can help connect you with resources, either in their clinic or outside their clinic to talk about it.’”