Balancing the Risks & Benefits of Alcohol


The questions and answers about the pros and cons of drinking alcohol have been debated throughout history. How do we define moderation? Why does how much we drink and when (aka drinking patterns) matter? Why do the French, consumers of lots of wine, butter and cheese have lower cardiovascular disease than most? What’s the connection between alcohol and cancer? Do genetics play a role?

Leave it to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to put out this largely encompassing piece about the risks and benefits of alcohol, how to balance them and just about everything in between. Read on…

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Throughout the 10,000 or so years that humans have been drinking fermented beverages, they’ve also been arguing about their merits and demerits. The debate still simmers today, with a lively back-and-forth over whether alcohol is good for you or bad for you.

It’s safe to say that alcohol is both a tonic and a poison. The difference lies mostly in the dose. Moderate drinking seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system, and probably protects against type 2 diabetes and gallstones. Heavy drinking is a major cause of preventable death in most countries. In the U.S., alcohol is implicated in about half of fatal traffic accidents. Heavy drinking can damage the liver and heart, harm an unborn child, increase the chances of developing breast and some other cancers, contribute to depression and violence, and interfere with relationships.

Alcohol’s two-faced nature shouldn’t come as a surprise. The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, a simple molecule called ethanol, affects the body in many different ways. It directly influences the stomach, brain, heart, gallbladder, and liver. It affects levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and insulin in the blood, as well as inflammation and coagulation. It also alters mood, concentration, and coordination.

What’s Moderate Alcohol Intake? What’s a Drink?

Loose use of the terms “moderate” and “a drink” has fueled some of the ongoing debate about alcohol’s impact on health.

To read the entire article, click here.


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A Month With No Drink–Two Years and Counting

images-3Two days, ago, I completed my now annual no-alcohol September. It obviously was not as novel an endeavor as last year’s (my first go at it), which I wrote about in a post linked here and have also pasted below. But going a month without drinking still posed its challenges and continues to be an experiment–a sort of test of my energy, my self-control, my mindfulness, and my emotional state.

September has always been an exciting month for me. While it marks the end of summer–a season that is hard not to love–I have a soft spot for autumn. For me, September is a time of renewal, and harkens back to my love of fresh, clean notebooks and brand spanking new sharpened pencils at the start of each new school year. So it seems right that September is an opportunity to cleanse my system of the tasty glasses of wine and chilled pints of beer I so enjoy consuming during the year’s remaining 11 months.

September is also a month filled with Jewish holidays–some happy, some not. As we both celebrate and repent with friends and family, flanked over crowded tables of food and drink, it seemed easy to focus on the spirit of togetherness rather than the gentle buzz that often fuels my conversation at a slightly faster (read: less inhibited) speed.

I will admit that the earlier part of the month was the toughest. The house was abuzz with two kids back to school, frenetic afternoons and no more leisurely summer dinners. A glass of wine would have been just the antidote, slowing things down a bit in order to wallow in the remnants of warm nights and after-dinner walks to the park with our dogs.

Without booze, however, my focus was clear and I was able to linger in the moment, mental energy intact. As the days of September continued, I began to think of one upcoming day in particular–my son’s bar mitzvah which was taking place on September 22nd. After months of planning every detail, including the selection of wines that I did not taste but instead lined up one evening for my husband and a couple of friends to compare and contrast–I wondered how it would feel to fill my glass with seltzer rather than alcohol.

“You know, you can have a bye on the 21st,” my husband told me. “It’s your son’s bar mitzvah.”

“I know,” I answered, unwilling to commit one way or the other.

The bar mitzvah day approached, and I started to take my mental temperature–would it be easier to give a speech with some wine in my system? Yes. Would it take less effort to navigate the room, schmoozing with relatives I rarely see? Yes. Did I need a liquid boost to bring me to the center of a rousing hora? No.

So I let the decision hang in the air, waiting to see how I felt on that day. It arrived, and after a beautiful service in the synagogue, our crowd of family and friends moved into the sukkah for cocktails. The sunlight was streaming through the leaves and branches that covered the bamboo ceiling of this temporary structure, and I felt overcome with the emotion of the day. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t stressed. I was happy and calm and reveling in the moment. I walked over to the bar and ordered a glass of white wine and enjoyed every sip.

After that day, I continued my month alcohol-free. And now, I’m kind of glad it’s October.

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A Month With No Drink–Six Days To Go


calendar-crossed-outJust over three years ago, I wrote a post on Drinking Diaries, announcing that my husband and I were going to be alcohol-free on Mondays. It sounds like no big deal–and it wasn’t–but it was the first time we had made a conscious decision to keep wine off the dinner table. We’re not big drinkers, but it wasn’t strange for us to have a glass of wine with dinner nearly every night. Three years later, we’ve stuck to our alcohol-free Mondays, and often opt for seltzer or iced tea on other days too.

In my continued effort to explore the role drinking plays in my life–and in celebration of our new Drinking Diaries anthology–I decided to go alcohol-free for the month of September. I’d been looking for an excuse to try abstaining for a month, ever since I interviewed Carrie Wilkens, PhD, cofounder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City, for an article I wrote called “The Art of Mindful Drinking,” During our interview, I remember Dr. Wilkens saying that one of the first things she suggests patients do is to take time off of drinking. And so, I did.

Here’s what I learned:

  • It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
  • I missed drinking most on Friday nights, a sacred evening for our family when we have a longer-than-normal dinner and always stay home.
  • I strangely enjoyed the challenge of saying “no,” particularly during occasions when I would normally have had a glass of wine or two, such as during our book party and at a gourmet dinner out with my husband.
  • All this time, I thought it was wine that was making me tired. But it turns out I still doze off in front of the TV–even without any alcohol in my system.
  • Last weekend, I had to tell a waiter several times that I wasn’t drinking, as he refreshed the glasses at our table from a giant pitcher of red sangria. It made me empathize with other abstainers.
  • I’d expected to feel more clear-headed and energetic without the alcohol, but I basically feel the same. Perhaps the amount I normally drink isn’t enough to make me feel fuzzy and lethargic?
  • I miss drinking when I’m eating a good dinner. There is no doubt that for me, wine not only takes the edge off, but also enhances flavors, adding to my enjoyment of food.
During that same interview with Dr. Wilkens, she explained that “It’s not unreasonable to have alcohol as a part of your life, as long as you are able to assess whether or not you are relying on it too much.” The key, she added, is imageslearning to consume consciously enough to know how you’re being affected.

Consciously is the key word here. And taking the month off of drinking has made me more aware than ever of when and how much I’m consuming. Another positive factor came from a parenting perspective–it felt beneficial showing my kids that I wasn’t drinking, allowing them to see that I am mindful of my alcohol consumption.

A month without drinking has me feeling refreshed and triumphant, and I’ll probably do this again at some point in the future. I’d be lying, though, if I said I’m not looking forward to the end of the month. I can already “taste” the tannins of a full-bodied cabernet in my mind. But first, I still have six more days to go.

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Multiple Theories Behind Clinking Glasses

clinking glassesI’ve always found it fascinating that no matter where you go in the world, people clink their glasses and simultaneously voice their linguistic equivalent of “Cheers!” It’s “A la votre,” in France; “Prost” in German; “Na zdravi” in Czech, “Kanpai” in Japan, “L’chaim” in Hebrew. (For a list of how to say “cheers” in 50 different countries, click here.)

But why does this tradition even exist? And what’s its origin?According to a recent post on the Bottlenotes website, there are several theories behind the genesis of the clinking custom. They are:

1.During the Middle Ages, when deception and mistrust were commonplace, people would clink glasses so that wine would spill between cups, insuring that one reveler was not attempting to poison another.

2. The sound of glasses colliding would scare away evil spirits hovering in the midst. As written on Bottlenotes: “Many societies all over the world, including ours, practice some kind of noisemaking to scare away demons–bells rung on a wedding day, shouting on the New images-1Year–and perhaps the clinking of glasses was meant to serve the same purpose.”

3. Some believe that the wine experience is meant to satisfy all five senses–it’s color, scent, body and taste take care of four–and that clinking takes care of the fifth.

4. Clinking is meant to be a symbol of the time when everyone at a gathering drank from the same goblet. While everyone now drinks from her own glass, the tradition is a nod to the time when passing one cup around was a chance to bring people together–a sort of group bonding exercise.

Do any of these ring true to you, or do you have another theory about why we clink glasses? If so, let us know…

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A Thanksgiving Transition

by Caren Osten Gerszberg

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s everything cozy—autumn’s chunky sweaters, deep red wine and warm cider, hearty food, a roaring fire and most of all, close family and friends—jammed into one wonderful day.

I cook for days, mostly alone, and with little stress develop a fairly traditional menu, including an array of dishes that I know most at our table—foreign, health-conscious and kids included—will enjoy. With abandon, I sauté and carmelize, roast and bake and love practically every minute of it. Just like my mother once did.

This year, however, Thanksgiving will be different–a sort of unfortunate transition–as it’ll be the first one without either of my parents present. My father passed away six years ago, and my mother, who is still alive, is not invited. It’s not to say that I don’t want her here, because I do. But I’m choosing not to have her join because her acute anxiety, depression, and alcohol problem have reached such an intense level that I don’t feel like subjecting myself, my family and our friends to her behavior. It may sound cold, but truthfully, I am full of sadness about it and not sure if it’ll feel like a relief or a gaping hole come next Thursday.

This year, I will celebrate a version of Thanksgiving with my mother—one day early. My husband, kids and I will go to the assisted living community where she lives and celebrate with her on Wednesday. I’m not sure that she’ll notice or care that she’s not with us on the actual day. But all I’ll have to do is remember the difficulty of a previous thanksgiving to remind myself that I’m doing the right thing.

This is how it went previously.

Thanksgiving arrived, and although I wondered if my 24-pound turkey, which I’d named Matilda, would ever actually be done (she took about 6 hours), my hopes were high for a lovely day. My husband and kids played basketball out front in our driveway, and my dog trailed me, sensing when I was going to use the turkey baster and hoping she’d get to lick a drip of anything meat-related. Following an urge to blast some loud music, I decided to be a bit zen and put on Mozart instead of Dave Matthews. The day was going without a hitch.

And then, my mother arrived. At 77, she looked good physically, and I was glad to see her. But the predictable was only moments away.

“Can I please have a glass of wine?” she asked.

“You can have one glass, with dinner, so just wait until then,” I answered.

My mother, a French native who has always loved wine, grew to love it too much about ten years ago, and her love morphed into an addiction which continues to plague me at every event—both big and small, mundane and celebratory.

Moments later, a friend chased me through the kitchen, clutching a glass and obviously uncomfortable as my mother followed closely behind her.

“Here, Caren,” she said. “This belongs to your cousin but your mother was drinking it when he got up to go to the bathroom. I thought you may want to know.”

I looked at my mother-turned-child, and like the stern authority I needed to be—lest she get drunk, slur her words, and become an embarrassment to her grandchildren—I told her: “NO! You can have some wine with dinner and you need to wait.”

We sat down at the table. She kicked back a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and without hesitation, asked for more. Her request for more wine was relentless and continued throughout the meal. And dessert. While we talked Thanksgiving trivia and my son told some turkey jokes, friends began passing the bottles to the other end of the table, trying to make the temptation a little less for my mom. She followed me into the kitchen, asking again and again, until finally, I picked up the phone.

“I need a taxi. How long will it take?” I inquired, trying to breathe deeply and keep calm.

Ten minutes later, I ushered her into a taxi. She complained that she didn’t want to leave, but I stood firm. I was just trying to cut my losses before it got worse for both of us.

Once she was gone, I could finally relax, but not without feeling brokenhearted. I wanted my mother to be here, to share in a beautiful family tradition that we’d always shared–despite her not being born in this country. For years, she had seamlessly hosted a house full of people, where being grateful went along with a table laden with scrumptious food.

But she’s not the adoring mother I knew. I miss that mother. But I still love Thanksgiving.

Caren Osten Gerszberg, a freelance journalist, is co-editor of Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, just named one of the “Best Bathroom Books 2012 by The New York Times.


Interview with Chloe Caldwell, Author of The Essay Collection, “Legs Get Led Astray”

Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you. 

Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection, Legs Get Led AstrayHer non-fiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Nylon Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Chronogram, The Frisky, The Sun Magazine, SMITH Magazine, Jewcy, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Freerange Nonfiction and The Faster Times.She is the founder and curator of the Hudson River Loft Reading Series and has taught Creative Writing workshops at Omega Teen Camp, The Hudson Opera House, and Crow Arts Manor. Chloe splits her time living in upstate New York and Portland, Oregon.

 Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?

Chloe Caldwell: I tried sips of my dad’s beer as a kid, I’m pretty sure. Maybe around age nine. When I was twelve-ish, I had a bunch of girlfriends sleep over and we snuck into the pantry and drank some disgusting expired spirits. Or maybe we were just drinking balsamic vinegar.

How did/does your family treat drinking?

My parents both drink, but we never had an alcoholism problem in our family. Sometimes my dad will drink a beer with dinner, sometimes he won’t. My mom likes her red wine and nothing else. There’s always a decent amount of alcohol at family gatherings.

How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?

I try to be smart. I’ll ask myself if I really feel like drinking. This is new for me. I used to just drink more than I should. My eyes were bigger than my stomach. I’m trying to be more mindful in everything I do–drinking and eating, especially.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

I drank the most when I was twenty-one through twenty-three. It’s when I was living in New York City, and I was drinking something of a disgusting amount of mixed drinks most days and nights.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

Red wine. It relaxes me. Holy shit, I sound exactly like my mom.

Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?

I’ve had lots of good times drinking. But in truth, I think the best time drinking I’ve ever had was in high school. My senior class was really tight and on Friday and Saturday nights we’d always go to a  boy named Lars’s barn, to hang out. The barn was empty except for a large mirror covering one wall. We danced for hours to Kanye West and Eminem and R.Kelly and drank Budweiser and Coors Lite.

What about the worst time?

Any time I cry in public or act like an aggressive douche-bag.

Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?

I would like to read Are You There Vodka? It’s me Chelsea. I like when Elliott Smith sings, “With an open container from Seven Eleven…” and when Connor Oberst sings, “Cause there’s this switch that gets hit and it all stops making sense and in the middle of drinks maybe the fifth or sixth, I’m completely alone at a table of friends…I feel nothing for them, I feel nothing, nothing.” And Hush Arbors have a song where they sing, “There’s whiskey in that bottle and blood on the floor..”

What do you like most about drinking?

That it changes me.

Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?

I think any time we use a substance, be it coffee, alcohol, or drugs, it’s to escape ourselves a little bit. Like in The Lemonheads song “Drug Buddy” he sings, “I’m too much with myself, I wanna be someone else.”