BY ALEEN ARSLANIAN
Healthcare workers have noticed a substantial increase in alcohol-related illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of Americans have formed harmful drinking habits as a way to relieve the stress of isolation and uncertainty brought on by a worldwide pandemic.
Los Angeles-based physician Dr. PJ Benyamini, General Surgeon at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, has personally witnessed a rise in alcohol related illnesses, more specifically in cases of alcohol-induced pancreatitis—inflammation of the pancreas caused by chronic alcohol consumption.
In an interview with Asbarez, Dr. Benyamini addresses the rapid increase in alcohol consumption during COVID-19, its risks, and ways in which community members can confront the issue.
Aleen Arslanian: What do you consider to be the main cause of increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic?
Dr. PJ Benyamini: Many abrupt changes have come about in the daily lives of people since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple factors, such as financial uncertainty, job loss, social isolation, depression, anxiety, loneliness, psychological stress, and lack of support have led to an increase in alcohol consumption. These stressors have turned some to alcohol consumption as an outlet. Several media reports and research studies* have also identified an increase in alcohol sales during the pandemic. These behavioral changes have raised significant concerns regarding the long-term physical and psychological health implication of alcohol dependency for this patient population.
A.A.: How much alcohol is safe to consume per day?
P.B.: According to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, adults of legal drinking age are recommended to drink in moderation. As per current recommendations, men are advised to limit their alcohol intake to two drinks or less per day and women are advised to consume one drink or less per day. Furthermore, alcohol consumption is not recommended for those who are under the legal age for drinking (under 21 years), women who are pregnant or might be pregnant, and individuals with certain medical conditions or those taking certain medications.
A.A.: What are signs of unhealthy alcohol use?
P.B.: Individuals may be over-consuming alcohol or have an “alcohol use disorder” if they develop problems at work, school, or home because of their habit, have a strong urge to drink alcohol regularly, are regularly sick from alcohol consumption or hangover, drink more or longer than planned, and have difficulty in cutting back or stopping alcohol consumption. These signs should be identified as soon as possible to seek help before the condition worsens.
A.A.: What are potential short-term and long-term health risks related to over consumption of alcohol?
P.B.: Over consumption of alcohol has many associated health risks. Heavy drinking or binge drinking has been associated with chronic liver disease such as cirrhosis (where liver cells become damaged), pancreatitis (both acute and chronic), psychological disorders, cancer, and dehydration. Individuals who consume alcohol are at risk for injury because of their altered state which may cause motor vehicle accidents, falls, drowning, aspiration, and altercations.
A.A.: What should community members do if they are concerned about their own alcohol use?
P.B.: If you are concerned about your drinking habit, you should seek assistance as soon as possible. There are many resources available for those who may have a problem or those who need help. A good idea would be to start by talking with your physician who can refer you to a support group or provide counseling. Sometimes a treatment plan may also include medication or behavioral therapy. At CHA HPMC, we provide advanced medical care to diagnose, manage, and treat patients with alcohol-induced health concerns. Our multidisciplinary team uses the latest technologies and treatment therapies to ensure the best possible outcomes and offers lifestyle recommendations to help patients maintain their health and improve quality of life.
A.A.: What are suggested alternatives to drinking, or ways to set alcohol limits?
P.B.: Alternatives to drinking begin with finding a few ways to replace alcohol from your daily life. Exercise is a good way to help limit your alcohol intake and improve your overall health. It also helps with stress relief, improves mood, and self-esteem. Other activities such as walking, running, jogging, cycling, swimming, gardening, and various other sports are good for the body as well as the mind.
A.A.: Do you have any advice or resources for family members or friends who are concerned about a loved one’s drinking habits?
P.B.: Talking with a loved one who may have a drinking habit can be very effective and constructive. Avoid approaching them while they are under the influence of alcohol but take time to talk to them when they are sober. Expressing your concern and engaging with them with compassion can lead to constructive conversations. Seeking help from your primary care provider or government help centers is beneficial. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) also has a free national helpline (1-800-662-4357) which offers confidential referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
- Study on altered alcohol consumption during lockdown published in Nutrition Journal: https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12937-021-00699-0 (May 11, 2021)
- Study on alcohol dependence during COVID-19 lockdowns published in Psychiatry Research: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178120333370 (February 2021)
- Study on increased binge drinking during lockdown published in Science Daily: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201207091306.htm (Dec., 7, 2020)
- Study on increased alcohol use and consequences during the pandemic published in JAMA: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2770975 (Sept., 29, 2020)
Dr. PJ Benyamini, MD is an active staff surgeon at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center (CHA HPMC). Dr. Benyamini is a board-certified surgeon who specializes in Acute Care Surgery, Minimally Invasive Laparoscopic and Robotic surgery, General Surgery, and Continent Ileostomy Surgery. He has participated in multiple presentations and publications of journal articles over the years and is well recognized within the community.
CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center is a nationally recognized acute care facility that has cared for Hollywood and its surrounding communities since 1924. Today, CHA HPMC offers comprehensive health care services with a 434-bed acute care facility, including 89 skilled nursing beds. The hospital has a medical staff of more than 500 physicians and specialists, representing 69 specialties and 75 different countries. It also employs more than 1,300 nurses, technicians and staff from the community.
CHA HPMC embraces the area’s diverse, multicultural patient populations by providing all who walk through its doors quality care in a compassionate manner. CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center is a member of CHA Health Systems. A dynamic global healthcare organization, CHA Health Systems also owns acute care hospitals, fertility clinics, wellness and specialty clinics, and medical research facilities.
CHA HPMC has been nationally recognized with the following quality awards from Healthgrades: Patient Safety, Labor and Delivery, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Back Surgery, Hip Fracture Treatment, and Treatment of Heart Failure. For more information, visit the website.