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Updated Monday, December 17, 2012 at 07:31 AM

Taking that holiday nip with care

By Dan Labriola
Special to The Seattle Times

On Health

This is the time of year for parties and socializing with colleagues and friends, and also a time of increased alcohol consumption. With a little planning and understanding how alcohol affects us, however, holiday cheer can be enjoyed without guilt.

Alcohol starts out as a stimulant (the holiday-cheer part). But in time, it becomes a depressant and the more you drink, the greater the effect.

The initial euphoria or high, reduced sensitivity to pain and decreased inhibition can last anywhere from minutes to hours depending on your liver metabolism. When the stimulating effect wears off, the alcohol becomes a depressant affecting mood, energy, mental capacity and coordination.

In a famous test demonstrating this stimulant/depressant effect, professional typists’ speed and accuracy were measured with no alcohol as a baseline. They were then each given a glass of wine. In every case, typing speed and accuracy briefly increased but then quickly fell far below the baseline. It’s the same effect on skill and judgment when driving or telling your boss how the business should run.

Here are some strategies to help keep you in control of the side effects:

Don’t over-drink. Most individuals can tolerate a single drink, 1 ounce of hard liquor or 3 ounces of wine, with minimal impact. If you use online references that try to predict blood-alcohol level based on your weight and number of drinks (known as DUI tables), keep in mind that they are not a guarantee. These numbers can change remarkably depending on an individual’s absorption and metabolism.

Have a high-fat high-protein meal before drinking.By slowing the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream your blood-alcohol level will not get as high

Adjust medications. If you are on insulin or other medications, adjust them accordingly. Your doctor can help.

Alcohol metabolizes to sugar and water and can play havoc with blood sugar. Blood sugar is raised initially but can drop precipitously 6 to 36 hours after drinking. Protein and (hopefully healthy) fats help stabilize hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) effects.

Recognize the effect alcohol has on mood. Alcohol use can worsen depression (including holiday depression), bipolar disorder or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). If you feel sad, depressed or out of control after a certain number of drinks, keep alcohol intake below that level. Avoid drinking in circumstances such as holidays or locations that bring up painful memories. This is especially important during the holiday season when stress can already be a problem.

Get plenty of rest. Sleep loss and fatigue amplify the depressant effects of alcohol, and alcohol has the net effect of interfering with sleep even though you may nod off more quickly after drinking.

If you are an abstainer I do not encourage you to start drinking, but if you are planning to have an occasional nip of holiday cheer these simple strategies can help keep you healthy and safe.

Dan Labriola, N.D.: Labriola is director of the Northwest Natural Health Specialty Care Clinic and medical director for naturopathic services, Swedish Medical Center’s Cancer Institute; the clinic website is


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