A recent study conducted by Rehabs.com, a website facilitated by American Addiction Centers, says 50% of West Virginians reported increased alcohol consumption during winter months.
Rehabs.com, described as a leading provider of addiction treatment resources, conducted the survey in January. Participating were 3,000 American adults.
In addition to the findings regarding West Virginia, the survey found 83% of participants said they’re more likely to turn to alcohol when experiencing issues with mood or mental health during the winter than in the summer.
Additionally, 36% of respondents said they prefer to consume alcoholic beverages in the winter rather than in the summer.
The survey results also indicated 12% of Americans believe drinking in the winter will “warm them up,” and 1 in 10 drinkers also believe drinking alcohol can help protect them against hypothermia.
Dr. Gordon Smith, professor of Epidemiology at West Virginia University School of Public Health, commented on the misconceptions surrounding alcohol’s effects on the body revealed by the survey.
Smith spent a large portion of his career prior to his employment at WVU studying alcohol and injuries. He has examined alcohol’s relationship with motor vehicle accidents and how alcohol affects recovery from physical trauma.
Smith said while increased alcohol consumption in the winter is a nationwide issue, reported alcohol consumption in West Virginia is generally lower than the national average.
He also said the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the increase in drinking among Americans, which could be exacerbating numbers related to the reported annual increase of drinking during the winter.
“The main thing about drinking in the cold weather is that the risk is greater in drinking if you’re going outside in the cold,” Smith said.
He said alcohol dilates blood vessels, making an individual more likely to lose body heat. The same process can, however, make an individual feel warmer or develop a flushed or red face, which contributes to the misconception that alcohol will keep an individual warm.
Smith said drinking alcohol paired with participating in outdoor winter activities, such as hunting or fishing, can put an individual at increased risk of developing hypothermia. Smith said performing those activities while intoxicated also puts an individual at risk of tripping, falling and becoming stranded in the snow.
As for the reason behind increased alcohol consumption annually, Smith said it may derive from boredom.
“A lot of your activities that you normally do – getting outside, those kinds of activities – you’re less able to do those in the cold, in the winter. So people are stuck inside, and [drinking] is one of the activities you can do,” Smith said.
Smith said heightened availability of “drinking-related” sports events, such as the Super Bowl, could also contribute to the increase in drinking in the winter.
He said additional short-term consequences of excessive alcohol usage include injury risks from falling, tripping or driving while under the influence. The long-term effects of alcohol consumption can be serious, according to Smith.
“We worry much more about the number of studies showing that excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of some different cancers, especially cancers of the stomach and the esophagus, and some other cancers,” Smith said.
Another, more serious long-term effect of prolonged alcohol consumption is the development of cirrhosis, in which alcohol continually damages the liver, resulting in scarring and decreased liver function, which can lead to liver failure, Smith said.
Olivia Pape, director of the WVU Collegiate Recovery Program, examined the emotional aspects of winter drinking.
She said the increase in drinking reported as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may be “compounded” by the onset of the winter season.
“People are feeling isolated, and isolation and loneliness, depression – those are reasons why sometimes people do drink. People drink to feel good, or to … lessen feelings,” Pape said.
The cold and unpleasant weather during the winter has prevented even socially distanced meetups or outdoor activities, furthering the feeling of isolation for many individuals, Pape said.
“I don’t think it’s just unique to this year. I think we see this every year, this seasonal drinking … this seasonal affect disorder,” Pape said.
To read more about the winter drinking study, visit https://www.rehabs.com/blog/winter-drinking/