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Alcohol consumption is a charged topic. We constantly see bars and alcohol advertisements — as well as cautionary, if sensationalized, tales in the media — but we rarely have the necessary and difficult discussions about safety, addiction, and abuse. Education and open communication can, however, go a long way to ensure that we consume responsibly and pass on healthy habits to future generations.

It’s important to know how alcohol works in order to understand its power. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows the function of the central nervous system and alters the drinker’s perception, emotion, movement, vision, and hearing. When you drink alcohol, about 20% is rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream. The rest absorbs into your gastrointestinal tract.

Here are things that alcohol consumption can make us feel at first:

  • Relaxed
  • Self-confident
  • Happy
  • Sociable

Time and/or further consumption can lead to:

  • Slower reflexes
  • Poor coordination
  • Impaired thinking
  • Poor decision-making
  • Depressed mood
  • Memory lapses
  • Reduced ability to operate a vehicle

As you can see — and perhaps know from personal experience — alcohol can produce good feelings but also can, in excess, lead to negative feelings and experiences. The reality is that alcohol consumption is associated with a litany of problems, including:

  • Violent behavior and unprotected intercourse in teens and young adults
  • Sexual assault
  • Car accidents (in 2013, roughly 31% of car accidents were caused by drinking)
  • Suicide
  • Relationship issues
  • Drowning
  • Cirrhosis, ulcers, stomach bleeding, and pancreatitis
  • Heart-related issues such as cardiomyopathy, myocarditis, and arrhythmia
  • Bone deterioration and osteoporosis
  • Neuropathy (a common nerve condition)
  • Cancers, including of the liver, breast, esophagus, pancreas, mouth, larynx, and pharynx

All of this might be less worrisome were drinking not so incredibly common: about 87% of people 18 and older have consumed alcohol, with about 70% doing so in the last year and 56% in the last month. More worrisome is the frequency of binge drinking (defined as drinking 5 or more drinks in one sitting) and heavy drinking: roughly 25% of those 18 and older said they had a binge drinking incident in the past month and 7% said they participated in heavy drinking in the past month.

Okay so we have all of this information — now what do we do about it? The National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides excellent resources for identifying, avoiding, and addressing alcohol abuse and alcoholism, including the following tips for moderation and talking to your teen about drinking. Check out the condensed versions below and then head to NIAAA’s website for more information.

Moderation can be hard for all us — especially when it comes to an addictive substance like alcohol. NIAAA recommends the following techniques for reducing and moderating your drinking (full list here):

  • Keep track.
  • Count and measure.
  • Set goals.
  • Pace and space.
  • Find alternatives.
  • Avoid “triggers.”
  • Plan to handle urges.
  • Know your “no.”

Talking to your teenage child about drinking is vital to avoiding problems down the line and resolving them if/when they do arise. NIAAA suggests doing the following when talking to your child about alcohol (full list here):

  • Treat the discussion as a two-way conversation — not a lecture.
  • Ask about their own views on alcohol.
  • Explain important facts about alcohol.
  • List the many good reasons not to drink.
  • Dispel the “Magic Potion” myth.
  • Discuss methods for resisting peer pressure.
  • Think about how you will or would answer the question “Did you drink when you were a kid?”