The concept of Dry January, an opportunity to take a break from alcohol, does not need to end on January 31. If it does end, dietary guidelines recommending a maximum of 1 drink or less for women and two drinks or less for men on any given day should guide subsequent alcohol use. This is because alcohol use disorder (AUD) causes over 140,000 deaths annually in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its associated social isolation, economic impact, mental health problems, and decreased access to health resources is associated with a significant increase in alcohol-related deaths. Alcohol-related deaths in 2020 among Americans soared by 25 percent when compared to rates in 2019. Young adult Americans between 25 to 34 years, especially women, show the most rapid increase in mortality rates related to alcohol over the past two decades. As January 2023 comes to a close, those who observed it have an opportunity to extend the benefits of abstinence beyond the first month, while those who did not could reassess their relationship with alcohol.
Recognizing the presence of AUD is crucial. Electronic screening and brief intervention tools can help assess drinking patterns and offer brief interventions. One of these tools, the Alcohol Screening tool, allows individuals to check their drinking anonymously, identify motivators and barriers to reducing drinking, and formulate a personalized change plan as necessary. These online tools are especially handy and convenient for this digital age.
Accessing quality treatment is necessary for those with AUD. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) treatment navigator is a comprehensive online resource that helps individuals and their families choose treatment options and care providers. Given the intersection of alcohol and virtually every organ system, health care professionals are urged to refer to evidence-based resources such as the NIAAA Core Resource on Alcohol to be better prepared and equipped to care for patients with AUD.
Governmental policies and public health interventions aimed at reducing alcohol availability would help to reduce AUD. Clear labeling on alcohol-containing beverages to indicate alcohol content, calorie, and ingredient information, an issue for which the United States Treasury Department was recently sued, would help individuals identify excessive alcohol use. Policies to reduce commercial access, social access, and economic availability would help reduce access to alcohol, especially among young adults.
Some might say that simply curbing one’s alcohol use would solve the issue. It’s not that easy: less than 30 percent of individuals with AUD are able to remain abstinent after one year. AUD is a chronic medical condition “characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” Currently available medications approved for the treatment of AUD are significantly underutilized and may not be effective in everyone. Multidisciplinary collaborations, such as the recently held Yale Conference for Alcohol Research and Education, assist in furthering the understanding of AUD and related diseases and promoting collaborative research that could save tens of thousands of lives annually in the US and worldwide.
Participants and non-participants alike are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the recommended dietary guidelines, including limits of alcohol intake, work towards destigmatizing AUD and obtaining a better understanding of the condition, and identify resources for assessment and treatment of AUD to secure a Healthy February and beyond.
Bubu Banini is a gastroenterologist.