Many of us look forward to celebrations during the holidays, yet it is also a time when some people are more likely to drink beyond their limits than at other times of the year. Some will suffer adverse consequences that range from fights to falls to traffic crashes. Sadly, we often put ourselves and others at risk because we don’t understand how alcohol affects us during an evening of celebratory drinking.
Despite the potential dangers, myths about drinking persist, which—for some—can prove fatal. Scientific studies supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provide important information that challenges these widespread, yet incorrect, beliefs about how quickly alcohol affects the body and how long the effects of drinking last.
Holiday revelers may not recognize that critical decision-making abilities and driving-related skills are already diminished long before a person shows overt signs of intoxication.
Initially, alcohol may appear to act as a stimulant, so people who drink may feel upbeat and excited. But don’t be fooled. Alcohol decreases inhibitions and judgment, and can lead to reckless decisions.
As we consume more alcohol, reaction times get longer and behavior becomes poorly controlled and sometimes even aggressive—leading to fights and other types of violence. Continued drinking causes the slurred speech and loss of balance that we typically associate with being drunk.
Alcohol can also cause blackouts—which are gaps in a person’s memory while they were intoxicated. These gaps happen when a person drinks enough alcohol to temporarily block the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage—known as memory consolidation—in a brain area called the hippocampus. At higher blood alcohol concentration levels, alcohol acts as a clear depressant, which can cause people who drink to pass out if the dose is high enough. At even higher levels, people who drink face the danger of life-threatening alcohol overdose due to the suppression of vital life functions.
During an evening of drinking, it’s also easy to misjudge how long alcohol’s effects last. For example, many people believe that they will begin to sober up—and be able to drive safely—once they stop drinking and have a cup of coffee. The truth is that alcohol continues to affect the brain and body long after the last drink has been finished. Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, resulting in impaired judgment and coordination for hours.
Of course, we don’t intend to harm anyone when we celebrate during the holiday season. Yet, violence and traffic fatalities associated with alcohol misuse persist, and myths about drinking live on—even though scientific studies have documented how alcohol affects the brain and body.
Because individuals differ, the specific effects of alcohol on an individual will vary. But certain facts are clear—there’s no way to make good decisions when you are intoxicated and there’s no way to sober up faster.
So, this holiday season, do not underestimate the effects of alcohol. Don’t believe you can beat them, or they may beat you.
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you host a holiday gathering:
Offer a variety of nonalcoholic drinks—water, juices, sparkling sodas. Nonalcoholic drinks help counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol. Also, the other fluids may slow the rate of alcohol absorption into the body and reduce the peak alcohol concentration in the blood. They also provide your guests with alternatives to alcohol.
Provide a variety of healthy foods and snacks. Food can slow the absorption of alcohol and reduce the peak level of alcohol in the body by about one-third. Food can also minimize stomach irritation and gastrointestinal distress the following day.
Help your guests get home safely—use designated drivers and taxis. Anyone getting behind the wheel of a car should not have ingested any alcohol.
If you are a parent, understand the underage drinking laws—and set a good example.
Have a safe holiday season!
Sobering Up – Myths and Facts
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). The Truth About Holiday Spirits. Accessed by web November 2020. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/truth-about-holiday-spirits
Underage Drinking is preventable, not inevitable.
Life is full of celebrations – proms, graduations, birthdays, holidays, and more. Many of these events may include alcohol. It’s important to remember that underage drinking is preventable, not inevitable.
Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that changes the way you feel by tapping into the brain’s communication system and influencing the way nerve cells send, receive and process information. Alcohol is also a depressant – it slows the system down, decreasing heart rate, breathing and ability to think, move and react to things happening around you.
Consumption of alcohol by a minor is dangerous no matter how it is done. Underage drinking is the cause of many deaths and injuries each year. Research has shown that people who start using alcohol before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.
Drinking can lead to:
- Falls, sometimes causing serious injuries.
- Sexual assault.
- Car crashes, sometimes causing death.
- Doing and saying embarrassing things you regret later.
- Hurting or damaging relationships with people you care about.
- Tolerance – drinking too much too often can build up your tolerance to alcohol, which means you need to drink larger amounts in order to feel the effects. Tolerance can lead to a sense of dependence. When you start to depend on alcohol or any other drug, it gets harder to make healthy choices.
Factors that Increase Risk
- More alcohol equals more risk – drinking large amounts or drinking more often increases risk substantially.
- Younger age equals more risk – the human brain is not fully formed until well into adulthood and alcohol affects the development of young brains, especially if used regularly in large amounts, example: binge drinking.
- Places, times and activities influence risk – drinking a glass of wine at a family celebration and then playing chess with grandpa is less likely to result in harm than drinking alcohol with a group of classmates and then riding bikes or skateboarding.
What You Need to Know About Alcohol and the Developing Teenage Brain
By Marisa M. Silveri, PhD. February 23, 2019.
During the teenage and early adult years, the brain is still developing, making it more vulnerable to alcohol than the adult brain. Moreover, research indicates that the earlier a person starts drinking, the more likely that person will develop serious problems with alcohol or drug addiction later in life.
Because of the serious short- and long-term effects of alcohol use and misuse, it is essential that teens, parents, teachers, and health professionals gain a deeper understanding of teenage drinking and brain development, and we must all work together to dispel common misconceptions about teens and alcohol.
Alcohol is the most commonly used and misused drug among young people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reports that excessive underage drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among individuals each year. According to the CDC’s 2015 “Youth Risk Behavior Study,” when high school students were asked about their activities during the previous 30 days, 33% said they drank some amount of alcohol, 18% reported binge drinking, and 8% said that they drove after drinking alcohol.
Moreover, more than 90% of the alcohol consumed by young people is in the form of binge drinking. The CDC defines binge drinking as a drinking pattern that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% or above. Binge drinking for someone who is biologically male means consuming five or more drinks in about two hours, or four or more drinks for someone who is biologically female. The dangers associated with binge drinking include increased risk of drunk driving, violent behavior, being a victim of sexual assault, transmitted diseases, and long-term alcohol addiction.
Adding to the concerns are studies providing scientific evidence that alcohol significantly impairs learning and memory in teens. Adults who drink also experience problems. However, learning and memory are considerably more compromised by alcohol in adolescents than in adults. This is because the brain is undergoing important development toward maturity, including improvements in decision-making functions and associated connections with the memory center, which lasts throughout the teenage years and into a person’s early 20s—the exact period of time that alcohol use, and misuse, begin.
Studies have debunked the widely held notion that adolescents can be kept safe and learn how to handle alcohol if they drink under adult supervision. For example, underage drinking in Europe, where consuming wine and other alcoholic beverages is permitted at younger ages than in the U.S., and assumed to be more ingrained in the culture, is just as dangerous as it is in the U.S. In fact, rates of binge drinking and alcohol misuse problems in youth are higher than rates in the U.S.
Further, research shows that the younger a person is when they start drinking, the greater the likelihood of an alcohol problem later in life. For example, findings from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that “adults aged 21 or older who had first used alcohol at age 14 or younger were more likely to be classified with alcohol dependence or misuse than adults who had their first drink at age 21 or older.”
The chance of an alcohol addiction disorder is never zero, unless someone has lifetime abstinence from alcohol consumption. And the risks are even more pronounced if there is a family history of alcohol use disorder. Overall, it is important to better understand the impact of teenage drinking, because most of the U.S. population will go on to have some relationship with alcohol: a third of the population does not drink or has low levels of use, a third drink socially and in moderate levels, and a third are heavy, dangerously risky drinkers.
Though problems associated with teenage alcohol use are clearly serious, parents, teachers, and others who interact with adolescents know that a “just say ‘no’ to alcohol” approach is not enough to deter drinking. Thus, it is important to educate teens and their caretakers about the impact of use on the teen brain and the protection that comes with waiting to drink until teens make the neurobiological transition into adulthood. A firm understanding of the science behind teenage drinking and brain development is helping to encourage adolescents to make better decisions about drinking and to give adults better tools to discourage risky behaviors.
It is important to understand that adolescence is a notable age period, a time when an individual is growing and maturing at rapid and dramatic rates relative to other ages. In the first decade of life, many changes happen in the brain’s neural systems, areas that control vision, hearing, and motor functions. However, the last region of the brain to come online is the frontal lobe, which controls higher order abilities such as abstract thought, impulse control, and decision-making. This part of the brain undergoes a dramatic fine-tuning during adolescence. Because their minds and bodies are still developing, teens have different responses to the effects of alcohol than adults.
A better understanding of the nature of these responses has been revealed through research at my laboratory at McLean Hospital—the Neurodevelopmental Laboratory on Addictions and Mental Health (NLAMH). Through this work, which is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, we have come to believe that one of the keys to understanding the effects of alcohol on the teenage brain is γ-amino butyric acid or “GABA.” GABA is found throughout the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe, the late-maturing region of the brain responsible for planning, organization, short-term memory, cognitive control, and decision-making.
During adolescence, the brain undergoes major remodeling, including maturation of the GABA system. Research shows that healthy adolescents aged 12-14 years have lower levels of GABA in their frontal lobes than young adults aged 18-22 years. By late adolescence, frontal lobe GABA receptors mature to reach adult levels, which is associated with improved cognitive control, better decision-making, and less impulsiveness—factors that play into whether and how much a young person drinks.
Using MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a type of magnetic resonance imaging), a non-invasive brain imaging technique, researchers in my lab are measuring brain GABA levels, along with the development of the structure and function of the brain, to identify important milestones in brain development during adolescence. With these measurements, we hope to identify vulnerable brain circuitry that may suggest risk factors that could lead to the use of alcohol, as well as misuse of alcohol and other substances. We also hope to identify risk factors for depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric problems that frequently develop during adolescence.
In addition to looking at the effects of alcohol use on adolescent brain development, we are also looking at the impact of binge alcohol consumption. Our understanding of the developing brain tells us that teens likely seek out risky experiences like binge drinking because they are wired for “novelty seeking.” Seeking out new experiences is believed to promote their “leaving the nest” in order to make the transition to independence. This same drive often overlaps with risk-taking behaviors, such as using and misusing alcohol and other drugs.
A look at brain chemistry and structure offers a deeper understanding of binge drinking. My staff and I have investigated the impact of binge alcohol consumption on frontal lobe neurochemistry and cognition during emerging adulthood (18 to 24 years old) and found significantly lower levels of frontal lobe GABA in binge drinkers relative to light drinkers. GABA levels were even lower in those who had experienced an alcohol-induced blackout. In addition, verbal learning was uniquely impacted by binge drinking between bouts of intoxication.
Investigations conducted using animal models (because it is unethical to administer alcohol to human youth), have revealed that adolescents are less sensitive to some of the impairing effects of alcohol, like sleepiness and loss of motor control, than adults. In adult humans, these impairing effects of alcohol serve as internal cues that tell them they have had enough to drink. Teens, however, are significantly less affected by sleepiness and loss of motor control, and so they end up binge drinking and achieving higher blood alcohol levels.
It can be hard to determine whether a young person has been drinking compared to an adult. In general, adults more quickly experience impaired motor skills, but not always problems with memory, when they have been drinking. For teens, drinking impairs memory and learning, but motor control is significantly less affected. For instance, in animals, it takes adolescents about 50 minutes to recover from a sleep-inducing dose of alcohol, whereas adults take three times as long to recover. In contrast, when administered alcohol prior to a memory test, adolescents are significantly impaired, whereas adults remain intact. Taken together—and given a lack of sensitivity to the outward signs of intoxication in teens—it can be difficult, not only for an adult to know if their teen has been drinking, but also for teens to have insight as to their own impairment.
Low GABA levels could be one reason why adults and adolescents react to alcohol effects in such different ways. Regardless of age, in terms of neurobiology, alcohol promotes sedation, controlled by GABA in the brain, and blocks excitation, controlled by glutamate in the brain. One reason teens may be less affected by alcohol sedation is due to having less GABA in their frontal lobe, which could promote binge drinking in order to get the desired effect from alcohol. A combination of low GABA and binge drinking also sets up teens up for greater risk-taking, which can lead them into dangerous and sometimes fatal situations that their still-maturing brains do not always recognize as dangerous. Boosting GABA in the brain could be a potentially effective way for protecting the teenage brain, staving off behavior that could lead to drinking and other risk-taking behaviors. One promising, natural means of boosting GABA is through the practice of yoga. Investigations, including studies conducted at McLean, into yoga as a way of boosting teenage brain GABA are currently under way.
Research into GABA levels, binge drinking, and the long-term impacts of underage drinking are deepening our understanding of why teenage alcohol consumption is dangerous. Through this work, we aim to identify who is at greatest risk for addictive and psychiatric disorders later in life. Presenting this research to the community through educational outreach may help teens delay onset of that first drink during the crucial period of teen brain development, which in turn may serve to protect their mental health in the long run. Armed with scientific findings on teenage drinking and brain development, teachers, parents, and others who influence and work with adolescents may find better strategies for discouraging risky behaviors like drinking.
Silveri, M. M.. (2019)
What You Need to Know About Alcohol and the Developing Teenage Brain. McLean Hospital. Accessed by web June 1, 2020.
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Summer is typically a wonderful season for outdoor activities and spending additional time with family and friends. For some people, these activities include drinking alcoholic beverages. In light of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the negative consequences associated with drinking, it is particularly important this summer to take measures to protect your own health and that of your loved ones.
Alcohol impairs judgment and increases risk-taking, a dangerous combination for swimmers. Even experienced swimmers may venture out farther than they should and not be able to make it back to shore, or they may not notice how chilled they’re getting and develop hypothermia. Surfers could become overconfident and try to ride a wave beyond their abilities. Even around a pool, alcohol can have tragic consequences. Inebriated divers may collide with the diving board, or dive where the water is too shallow.
Be smart this summer—think before you drink. Practice measures to avoid the spread of the coronavirus to yourself and others. Avoiding alcoholic beverages while piloting a boat, driving a car, exploring the wilderness, and swimming or surfing can also help keep you and your loved ones safe. If you are a parent, understand the underage drinking laws—and set a good example.
NIAAA: Risky Drinking Can Put a Chill on Your Summer Fun
By National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Herald Mail Media
July 8, 2020
BETHESDA, Md., July 8, 2020 /PRNewswire/
For more information on preventing problems with alcohol this summer, and tips on cutting back, visit: https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov
1 U.S. Coast Guard. 2018 Recreational boating statistics. https://www.uscgboating.org/library/accident-statistics/Recreational-Boating-Statistics-2018.pdf. Accessed May 20, 2020.
2 Smith, G.; Keyl, P.; Hadley, J.; et al. Drinking and recreational boating fatalities: A population-based case-control study. JAMA 286:2974–2980, 2001.
As part of our Safe Celebrations initiative, we asked our community to join us in creating a community video message – sending our warmest congratulations
to our very special Hunterdon County graduates.
Special thank you to all of the supportive and caring community members for their video messages to help us wish congrats to our grads of 2021.
This video is from the first of our “Safe Celebrations” initiative focused on preventing underage drinking.
Thank you to Hunterdon Central High School, Delaware Valley High School, North Hunterdon High School and Harper’s Table, Voorhees High School, South Hunterdon High School, Autodrill, Baja Burrito, Bishop’s Plaza, Bourbon Street, Cafe Maria, Corner Store, Clinton Community Center, Clinton Municipal Building, Everitt Farms, Home-brew Supplies, Hun Val Dairy Farm, Kingwood Liquors, Little Brother’s Liquor Store, Marinelli’s Pizza, Russ’s Wrench, Sorella’s Pizza, ShopRite, Sunset Food Market, St. Magdalen’s, and residents for helping us congratulate class of 2020.
Thank you to Hunterdon Central High School, Delaware Valley High School, North Hunterdon High School, Voorhees High School, South Hunterdon High School, Te Rail, Everitt Equipment, Red Barn, Rago, Hunterdon Wellness, PNC Bank, Amwell Valley Diner, T&T, Schaffer Farms, Ritas Whitehouse, A Mango Galleries, Kingwood Liquor, Basil Bandwagon, Corner Store, Larison Church, and residents for helping us congratulate class of 2021.
About This Initiative
Safe Celebrations is a collaborative initiative between Safe Communities Coalition, One Voice, Positive YOUth, and Partnership for Health Drug-Free Task Force intended to prevent and reduce underage drinking by changing social norms and increasing perception of harm around alcohol.