Why Having “Just One” is Really, Really Hard.
“Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation” — St. Augustine
You wake up and it’s 3 am. You look over at your alarm clock and then stare at the ceiling trying to figure out why you didn’t leave at 9 pm as you originally planned.
You told yourself when Sarah called that you were going to meet her at Don Julio’s for ONE margarita and then go home. You have a big presentation tomorrow and could not afford to be out all night drinking.
It had been a long day, however, so when she called at 6:30 pm and asked if you wanted to come out, you began thinking you deserved a little treat to take the “edge off” a pretty tense day at the office.
You told her that you would meet her, but you would only have ONE drink, and then you would have to go. You needed to be in bed by 10 pm at the latest, so you could get that needed seven hours of sleep to be up at 5 am and on your way to the office by 7 am.
Instead, you came home and crashed in the bed at midnight and now are wide awake 3 hours later dreading your 5 am alarm going off.
Why does this always happen to you???
This is ironic because the problem isn’t exactly about YOU as much as it is about you putting yourself in a position to fight a battle you’re likely to lose. Contrary to your 3 am late night thoughts, it’s not because you lack willpower or self-discipline that causes you to fail.
It’s that when you go out with a mindset of moderation and tell yourself that you’re only going to have one drink, it’s like playing a game of poker against someone with a stacked deck. And not only is alcohol your opponent, but it’s also dealing the hand. Let me explain.
First, let discuss exactly what moderation is to make sure we’re all on the same page. Many people feel people that since they don’t have a drinking problem “per se”, then they are practicing moderation. Maybe…but let’s define it to make sure.
True moderation is being able to stay within the daily recommended maximum of one to two drinks on a consistent basis. Maybe having a tad bit over two drinks won’t completely throw you off, but any partaking in what is considering binge drinking takes you out of the realm of moderation.
Binge drinking is when you consume anywhere from 4 -5 alcoholic beverages in a 2-hour span and bring your blood alcohol level above 0.08 at least one time in a month. It has been estimated that one in six US adults binge drinks about four times per month.
Therefore, if you are able to only relegate yourself to one or two beers during the week (or not drink at all), but you go out on a Friday or Saturday night out with the boys in which you crush that two-drink maximum, then you are NOT practicing moderation.
This type of consistent behavior actually feeds into what changes your relationship with alcohol over time and turns it from a nice-to-have to a must-have. If we don’t binge, however, and stick to the daily recommended maximum, there is a chance that our dependence won’t escalate.
However, there’s another scientific reason that explains how alcohol pulls from two separate directions that makes it increasingly more difficult for us to stick to this maximum each time we drink.
THE FIRST DIRECTION
Chemically, the way alcohol affects your brain is as well formulated as anything created by food scientists in a lab. Food scientists are those groups of individuals whose job it is to make a product so appealing to your brain that you inexplicably want it all the time.
When Pringles came up with the slogan, “You can’t have just one,” it wasn’t just a slick marketing campaign and wishful thinking. It’s because they had a group of food scientists in a lab somewhere working on the recipe to include the right mix of artificial enhancers that lit up your dopamine receptors to want more and more with each bite.
It’s the same way many social media apps have scores of engineers who are consistently looking for ways to make their platform more addictive with every click and scroll.
Alcohol does the exact same thing but at a much deeper level. As shared in The Science of WHY You Should Quit Drinking Alcohol when alcohol hits your brain, it begins this cycle of endorphin and dynorphin creation that slowly creates a need and dependence to drink alcohol.
As our body learns from the increase in dopamine that it likes, it creates cravings to affect our psyche and make us desire alcohol to get that feeling again. This cycle is what creates the feelings of cravings when those certain times of the day come along or certain situations happen in which we typically would have an alcoholic beverage, e.g., weekends, weddings, happy hour.
Therefore, the obvious reason it can be difficult to moderate is that by drinking, we are only adding fuel to this craving fire. When alcohol hits our lips, our endorphins receptors will go through the roof and our brain will tell us that we need more and more to keep the feeling going.
This is similar to what people feel when they eat that first Pringles chip or scroll through that Instagram feed that makes them want another or keep scrolling. So why is it so much easier for some people to stop themselves from eating a full can of Pringles or spending hours liking and commenting on Tik Tok videos, but they can’t seem to only have one or two alcoholic beverages at a time?
The answer lies in the additional way alcohol attacks you from a different angle that requires you to have tremendous willpower for moderation.
THE SECOND DIRECTION
When you drink, alcohol also jacks up a neurotransmitter known as norepinephrine. This increases your levels of arousal and impulsivity, making it harder for you to consider the potential consequences of your actions. This is one of the reasons that some people find themselves in bed with someone they wouldn’t have expected the night after drinking.
Related to this, alcohol greatly decreases activity in your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that is involved in decision making. It is involved in a number of different decisions related to understanding the consequences of one’s actions as well as planning for the future.
When this is decreased by alcohol, the mind is altered a bit and your ability to think about what it will truly be like to try to muscle through that presentation tomorrow hungover is warped. Therefore, you begin to tell yourself that you’ll be okay to have just ONE more and still be at the top of your game the next day.
Now, however, when you get close to the end of this second drink and have to make this decision all over again, your prefrontal cortex is impaired even further, making it more difficult for you to comprehend the long term consequences of having another and you begin to think, “just ONE more won’t hurt.”
It’s like you have someone pushing you from the back while pulling you from the front at the same time. Think about if Facebook or Pringles had some kind of effect that no only made you want more of it but also impaired your ability to think clearly at the time you’re using it.
How could you say no?
This is the trap that alcohol sets for you. It’s the constant battle of trying to fight this chemical change in your brain that is making it very difficult for you to stop drinking after we start.
Now, there are some people who can do this. For whatever reason, when alcohol hits their brain, the dopamine and serotonin spikes are not enough to push them into a frenzy and make them crave that second or third beer.
You may be one of these people, which is why in the AINYF article Why You SHOULDn’t Immediately Stop Drinking Alcohol If You’re Thinking About Quitting, one of the steps that you should always take first is moderation to see if you are.
However, even with this step, you need to be careful, as your ability to moderate today can slowly become an intense desire for alcohol over time. Many people think they are very much in control in their 30s and 40s, only to find themselves not able to control themselves at all in their 50 and 60s.
In fact, there has been a growing group of individuals who are developing what is known as late-onset alcoholism. These individuals have had a “moderate” relationship with alcohol for most of their lives, and it is only in their later years that they begin to experience more of a need and dependence on it.
Most of the time this is caused by some major change or dramatic event in one’s life that causes the person to use alcohol as a coping mechanism. This could happen to anyone who is not consistently conscious of their drinking to ensure it doesn’t spill over into this danger zone.
And while no one is saying this is inevitable, hopefully, this makes you aware that moderation isn’t hard because you’re weak but rather because alcohol just doesn’t play fair.