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Medical staff answers question on drinking

Students and other members of the MIT community have asked some interesting and helpful questions about alcohol use during the past month. Below are their questions along with answers provided by the MIT Medical Department and Health Education staff.

Q: Isn't drinking a personal, private matter?
A: It is a personal choice, but it is not an isolated one. Alcohol use has effects not only for the drinker but also for many other people. Ripple effects of alcohol use include messiness, noise, vandalism, drunk driving, unsafe or unwanted sex, fights and unwanted changes in personal relationships.

Q: Isn't asking about how much someone else drinks an invasion of privacy?
A: Our goal in building a healthy community is to make sure everyone has a voice and a place it can be safely and respectfully heard.

Again, if you are concerned about behaviors resulting from someone else's drinking, rather than ask directly how much they drink, you might communicate your feelings of concern either to the drinker or to someone other than the drinker.

One tip: Talking to someone about drinking while they are drinking alcohol is known as "talking to the bottle." Your time is better spent focusing on the safety of the drinker and those around him or her.

Q: Is it true that beer is safer than shots or hard liquor?
A: It is safer to drink beer slowly than it is to drink shots rapidly. But per drink, both contain the same amount of alcohol (a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a 1-ounce shot of hard liquor).

Q: What foods can I eat before or during drinking alcohol so I won't get too drunk?
A: Your liver can metabolize about one drink per hour. If you are drinking alcohol, sip the drink and alternate drinks of alcohol with uncarbonated beverages (carbonation speeds absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream). Eating non-salty, high-protein foods such as cheese can slow the rate of absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

Q: My friend's drinking has gone up and up since she broke up with her boyfriend. She also is asking me to cover for her a lot. What is really helpful? I don't want to get her in trouble. And I want to stay friends.
A: Among the ripple effects of alcohol use are changes in personal relationships. You are describing a typical kind of change that can occur. Your question about what's helpful shows you are concerned for her and for your relationship with her. Talking with a counselor can help you clarify your own standards and values and suggest how to aid most effectively your friend and your friendship.

Q: Isn't talking to someone else about my concern for a friend's drinking also known as gossip and backstabbing?
A: An honest expression of concern, shared with an appropriate person, is not gossip. MIT has many resources for those who would like to clarify their own feelings and ideas about drinking and about what kinds of action to take if anyone's alcohol use is troubling.

Q: Why should anyone who drinks listen to me, a non-drinker?
A: In this community, each person has a valuable voice. Also remember that not everyone wants to drink, even if they do so. Your offers of other activities and your example of living without alcohol can be very helpful.

Q: I am not American, but after living here it seems that drinking alcohol is a necessary social skill. How can I learn to drink?
A: Drinking alcohol is not a course you want to get an A in. It is not a skill at all. It is a risk that many people take, and there is no magic formula for determining your tolerance or limit. But if you analyze the risks compared to the benefits of drinking alcohol, the risks outweigh the benefits. Compare the benefits of drinking for one night with, say, the risks associated with behavioral changes -- such as injuries or pregnancy -- that may last well beyond the party.

Q: Is it true that a hangover is the body's way of saying it needs more alcohol?
A: No, it is not. It is a myth. A hang-over (headache, queasy stomach, jitters, dry mouth) is the body's way of reminding us that alcohol is a toxin. A hangover is the result of ethanol's dehydrating and toxic effects.

Q: My living group has certain traditions that include drinking. I don't drink that much, but I don't want to be left out. What can I do?
A: Perhaps you are not alone in your discomfort with the traditions that have built up around alcohol use. Expressing your unease to a trusted friend, a MedLINK or a tutor may help you find support for suggesting changes for how your living group does things.

Q: During the week I'm very tense and competitive. I like who I am when I've had a few drinks. Why is this bad?
A: "Bad" is not the issue here. "Risky" may be. A pattern of relying on alcohol to lift your self-esteem can become problematic because (a) alcohol is basically a depressant, so its euphoric effects don't last, and (b) relying on it or any substance to feel good about yourself or to relax can lead to dependence.

Q: I've been going to off-campus parties where alcohol is available. What about designated drivers?
A: Designated drivers are people who have had no alcohol at all. Generally, they volunteer at the beginning of a party to remain alcohol- and drug-free and to drive others home safely. Remember that having a designated driver does not give anyone a license to drink excessively.

For people who are not relying on cars, alcohol can still have very risky effects on those traveling through the city on foot or by public transportation. It can compromise judgment, reflexes, balance and common sense.

Q: How does the buddy system work?
A: Like the designated driver system, the buddy system involves making a choice about how much control of your own life you want to place in another's hands. The buddy system itself relies on setting up a relationship in which one person who remains alcohol-free assumes responsibility for the safety of others who have not made that choice.

Q: Does coffee get rid of alcohol -- at least, its effects -- so one can drive?
A: No. Caffeine is a drug which increases alertness, but it does not "get rid" of the negative effects of alcohol on judgment, coordination or common sense. You are never safe to drive with alcohol in your blood.

Q: How about vomiting -- does that get rid of alcohol?
A: No. Alcohol is primarily absorbed beyond the stomach through the small intestine. Once in the bloodstream, alcohol will run its unpredictable course of physical and psychological effects. Vomiting will remove the contents of the stomach. Only the vomitus is unavailable for absorption.

Q: How can I find out what effect alcohol will have on me if I'm taking other medications?
A: You can ask your doctor or pharmacist. Remember, alcohol is a drug. No one can afford to be confused about this. When you take one drug, including over-the-counter cold medicines, and add alcohol, you are taking two drugs. Drug interactions can be lethal.

Q: I'm over 21 and I've been asked to buy alcohol for 20 year-olds. What can I say? What should I say? These are my friends.
A: Just say no. Buying alcohol for people under 21 is illegal.

Q: When I got to MIT, I stopped doing the hobbies I had at home and started into partying with my new friends. Now I'm sick of it but have no other friends. Who can I talk to without being laughed at?
A: It is quite normal to let go of old behaviors in a new environment, and it is a positive sign that you can have strategies and activities that have reduced stress in the past. You may want to use your friends or an adult to brainstorm which activities you might like to try again. And in the meantime, invite others to join you.

Q: I've heard all about the pressures on students to drink. Adults face the same pressures (i.e., from advertising, media, etc.), but they give in, while we're expected just to study and not to drink. Isn't there a double standard here?
A: Many students have challenged current MIT alcohol policies on various grounds. It is important and very positive that you are aware of cultural and media pressures to drink alcohol. It is also important to be aware that those very powerful pressures seek to affect all age groups, from minors to adults. Awareness of outside influences is the best way to make responsible personal decisions.

Q: I think about drinking a lot. Am I an alcoholic?
A: Anything that weighs on your mind deserves attention. You do not need to diagnose yourself. The first step here is to talk to someone in our Mental Health Services or Counseling and Support Services. Health Education (Rm E23-205) and MedSTOP (fifth floor, Student Center) have excellent materials. The MedLINKS web site is at <>

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 19, 1997.

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