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Why Do We Drink More Alcohol in Winter?

Alcohol winter cold climate

Read the Science: the link between cold weather and alcohol consumption

A strong link has been found between living in cold countries with few hours of sunlight and the amount of alcohol that people drink. The study printed in the Journal of Hepatology followed data from 190 countries and demonstrates why binge drinking rates and rates of alcoholic liver cirrhosis are so high in countries with colder climates and harsher winters.

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Why does cold weather make us binge drink?

So is there some truth in the stereotype of the vodka-drinking Russian or the Scotsman who keeps a hipflask of whisky while out shooting or fishing?

The study’s author, Dr Peter McCann, believes that this may be down to drinking cultures that have formed in different countries around the world over centuries. Alcohol is a vasodilator that increases warm blood flow in the skin – we have all heard that alcohol is ‘warming’ and the effects of the ‘beer jacket’. Could it be that this cultural perception of the warming effects of alcohol is fuelling a culture of binge drinking? Or is it simply that the lower levels of sunlight mean that we look for ways to lift our mood in the winter months?

“We can’t change the weather, we can’t all move to Spain,” says Dr McCann, suggesting that we face the fact that it is an environmental influence on our culture that predisposes us to heavy drinking and, as a result, alcoholic cirrhosis.

“At the end of the day, we all have a choice about how much we drink, how we cope with the dark winters, what we look forward to at the end of a cold day. If you feel that you don’t have a choice, that there is no choice other than drinking alcohol to cope with your seasonal depression or feelings of isolation and hopelessness, you should consider seeking professional help.”

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Ten Ways To Drink Less Alcohol in Winter

Here are some ways to cope with cold, dark winters without reaching for alcohol.

1. Expose yourself to as much sunlight as possible

Even though the days are cold, make sure you get outside at some point to get some fresh air, build up some Vitamin D. There is plenty of research that shows how getting enough Vitamin D plays an important role in regulating moods and warding off depression. Being outside in nature and among other people does wonders for mental health.

2. Get moving

You might not feel like it in winter, but ensure that you get enough exercise, preferably outdoors. Exercise has been proven to boost physical and mental health in the winter months. Exercise releases endorphins, which in turn can improve your mood. It’s a great natural stress-reliever and has a major impact on depression and anxiety. 

3. Enjoy a warming herbal tea rather than alcohol

Herbal tea is infinitely warmer and healthier than an alcoholic drink. Herbal teas are beneficial for both your physical and mental wellbeing and are great for naturally supporting your immune system during the winter period. Many people turn to alcohol in the belief it can help with sleep. However, herbal tea is far better at aiding relaxation and improving the quality of sleep. 

4. Embrace Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge, tells us that for years Scandinavians have focussed on ways to increase happiness and well-being in the winter months by focussing on mindful wellbeing, gratitude, self-soothing and ‘cosiness’. The feelings of well-being and comfort from Hygge are achieved without alcohol or binge-drinking.

5. Take time for self-care

Winter plays havoc on our skin and we naturally lose the glow of summer. Keep on top of your self-care regime to avoid dry skin, parched lips and keep up the positivity. Self-care involves doing anything that makes you feel good. This could include spending time with friends, spending some time alone, or indulging in some pampering. 

6. Get busy, but avoid burnout

Winter of course means Christmas and New Year and all the activities that go alongside them. The end of the year is also a busy time at work while we race to finish projects and plan for the year ahead. There is often a lot to take on with no summer holidays around the corner to look forward to. Make the most of being busy to take your mind off alcohol, but at the same time make sure you plan your time properly and don’t overstretch yourself. 

7. Take Vitamin D and other supplements

Vitamin D or the “Sunshine Vitamin” is known to be severely lacking in people from colder, darker climates. Vitamin D is proven to support the immune system and brain and nervous system health. Incorporating supplements into your daily routine is a great habit to get into to keep your immune system strong during the winter months. 

8. Take up wild swimming

It may not be for everyone but the impact on our energy levels from taking a dip in icy waters have been backed up by scientific research. Some of the main benefits of wild swimming include improved circulation and metabolism and reduction of body pain and inflammation amongst many others. 

9. Book a sauna experience

Spas and saunas don’t have to be reserved for warm weather. In fact, look to our Scandinavian cousins and the benefits of outdoor saunas for reducing stress and boosting sleep, especially during winter. 

10. An LED light for an hour each morning

Bright Light Therapy has been proven to help relieve symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder with people reporting that it helped improve their mood considerably. Bright Light Therapy impact the brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, ultimately easing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

If you want to stop drinking alcohol but don’t know how to then click here to speak to one of our caring team members, or learn more about alcohol rehab here.

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How to Avoid Alcohol in Winter:

Commentary by study author, Dr Peter McCann, MSc, MBBS

“The news cycle often highlights the stark differences in drinking cultures in different parts of the world.

“The binge-drinking culture of Great Britain leading to animalistic Friday night scenes on the streets is contrasted with the Southern European practice of sipping a glass of wine while enjoying a meal with friends in the evening.

“The vague notion of culture is often used to explain these differences in drinking patterns.

“Perhaps it is some combination of our characteristic reserve as a nation, the importance of pub culture and historically relaxed alcohol use laws.”

New Research About the Impact of Weather on Alcohol Abuse

“We now have new evidence that the weather, and in particular the temperature, and amount of sunlight that we are exposed to has a strong influence on how much alcohol we consume.

“Furthermore, this cold-weather alcohol consumption is directly linked to our chances of developing the most dangerous form of liver disease, cirrhosis which can ultimately end in liver failure and death.

“I recently co-authored a study looking at multiple countries around the world and the US, comparing average annual sunshine hours and average temperature with overall alcohol consumption, rates of heavy drinkers and rates of liver cirrhosis attributable to alcohol.

“The findings were impressive. There is a direct relationship between reduced sunshine and cold weather and alcohol consumption, heavy drinking and alcoholic cirrhosis.

“Essentially as the weather gets colder and sunlight hours decrease, you are more likely to drink alcohol and drink it in a harmful way which could lead to the development of liver disease.

“While there has always been an assumption that this is the case, this new study provides useful evidence, and confirmation, that there is a strong environmental factor that influences their drinking habits.”

How Can We Drink Less in Winter?

The Question Inevitably Follows: Can Anything be Done About This?

We can’t change the weather, we can’t all move to Spain.

Perhaps subsidised holidays to sunnier climes, or GP prescribed box lights for people in the North of the country.

A more sensible approach might be for us to address the fact that as a nation, we are more predisposed to heavy drinking and cirrhosis due to our environment – and adjust our alcohol and health policies accordingly.

Stricter Laws on Alcohol Abuse Needed to Prevent Liver Cirrhosis

Stricter laws on alcohol pricing are surely justified when we consider the devastating effect of low sunlight and cheaper alcohol on consumption.

Advertising laws should be addressed with restrictions during winter months strongly considered.

Societal changes are harder to achieve but examples from countries such as Iceland, which have addressed problematic drinking and drug use amongst teens by increasing youth activities and programmes have had promising results. Sweden is another country worth looking at, where alcohol is highly taxed and can only be bought in special government shops.

Finally, this report gives us more evidence that Alcohol Use Disorder is a disease with causes outside of people’s control.

We should be providing the highest quality treatment to achieve abstinence and reduce relapse rates through inpatient rehabilitation units using a twelve-step programme.

Cirrhosis is a devastating disease with a high cost to the individual and to society, and we should be doing everything in our power to help those with Alcohol Use Disorder to avoid this outcome.

Dr Peter McCann is a medical advisor to the Castle Craig Hospital Group. He graduated from Kings College London with an MSc in Neuroscience and is currently a Medicine-Psychiatry Resident at Duke University.

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Published research: Colder Weather and Fewer Sunlight Hours Increase Alcohol Consumption and Alcoholic Cirrhosis Worldwide; Hepatology, VOL. 69, NO. 5, 2019

References:

Vitamin D and the Immune System; Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 Aug 1. 

A little warmth goes a long way – the science of hot drinks; The Guardian

Read more on:

Why Christmas is the perfect time to go to rehab

Alcohol and Depression

Page published: November 16, 2018. Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked January 25, 2022