The coronavirus drives us to drink
If you’ve attended a Zoom happy hour or your cocktail hour is getting earlier in the day, you’re not alone. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people turn to alcohol to cope with prolonged isolation and stress. A study published in September JAMA network open found that alcohol consumption was up 14 percent year-on-year among all adults and 17 percent among women. According to the results of the study, women also seem to drink more.
While alcohol may seem like an enticing escape, the intoxication is temporary and you can pay a heavy price. “In the short term, alcohol can impair judgement, memory and motor skills. It can have devastating effects on the body and mind,” says Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk, general practitioner in Durham, North Carolina. “[Alcohol] affects your weight, liver function, mood and metabolism. It is especially risky for people with other underlying medical conditions.”
The good news is that some non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beverages can be just as tasty and give you some feel-good moments. (Learn more about safe amounts of alcohol.)
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Alcohol, Stress and Your Brain
Pandemic or no pandemic, stress and alcohol can dance in a toxic two-way relationship. “Alcohol creates positive reinforcement,” says Julia Chester, a professor of psychology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. You’re feeling good so you do it again, but that can lead you to the dark side if you drink to relax. “Your brain adapts to alcohol. When we don’t have alternatives for the effects of stress, we use alcohol as a tool, and that’s not a good tool.” This is because it actually mimics the effects of stress and activates the stress axis. Then you want another drink to relieve the stress.
A better tool is soft drinks, which remind you to drink a real drink. “You can mimic what’s happening in your brain by creating a drink that basically shares all the characteristics of the drink you like, sans the alcohol,” says Chester. “This will remind your brain and you that drinking that particular drink will make you feel good, but without the alcohol.”
Here are a few expert-recommended non-alcoholic and low-alcohol drinks that taste like booze and will help you cut down on your drinking.
Add bitters to a bubbly mixture
Interestingly, bitter substances started as (a kind of) medicine in the 19th century. In the meantime, however, they have developed into a popular alcoholic cocktail ingredient. Adding bitters like angostura to tonic water, sparkling water, or another carbonated beverage can be a low-alcohol way to relieve stress.
“We are drawn to the color of the drink, the taste of the drink, and the smell through our senses,” explains Sharon Zarabi, RD, bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Bitter is basically a tonic made from spices and herbs and some botanicals that give it a pungent flavor. They may have an alcohol content of 35 percent, but if you add just a little bit of it to a virgin drink, you don’t have the toxic effects of alcohol.” You can also use the spice rack in your kitchen and add some cinnamon, cardamom, mint or basil put in.
Carbonated water and lime
This is possibly the easiest way to trick your brain into thinking you’re actually drinking alcohol (e.g. champagne or beer). It looks convincing, and the bubbles “provide more stimulation to the oral senses,” says Chester. Or add a squeeze of pomegranate or cranberry juice, says Amanda Beaver, RDN, wellness nutritionist at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Lime is acidic and has many of the same effects on the tongue as salt. “Some drinks have more salt than others, like margaritas,” says Chester. “By using lime, you can mimic a lot of those flavors of a margarita with salt. This is also one of the reasons why people also use tonic as opposed to just sparkling water. It gives more depth to the taste.”
Another option is to dilute wine to half strength with sparkling water, Chester suggests. It’s basically a wine spritzer.
While alcohol can be dehydrating, this drink is rehydrating. “Some studies suggest that even mild dehydration can negatively impact both your mood and cognitive/brain function,” says Ginger Hultin, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Champagne Nutrition in Seattle.
To make a serving you can refrigerate, Hultin recommends combining 1 cup of ice cubes and 1 cup of chopped cantaloupe in a pitcher, then adding the remaining ice and water. Cantaloupe benefits include lots of fiber, vitamins A and C, minerals like potassium, and not many calories, she says.
For this drink, you can use your favorite fruit — grapefruit, a slice of orange, watermelon, strawberries — for a flavorful undertone, says Zarabi. Combine your fruit of choice with water and let it marinate in a pitcher. You can also use your creativity to vary the theme: add some cucumber to make it more refreshing or lime juice to make it tart and tangy.
If you’re looking for something creamier, add coconut milk and cinnamon, Zarabi suggests. “The satiety signals in our brain are influenced by the smell, appearance and colors of food,” she says. “When those drinks have flavor, your taste buds are actually satisfied.”
The herbs in store-bought tea bags can be alchemized into upbeat drinks. Ginger and chamomile are two choices. Both have health properties, with ginger calming the stomach and chamomile helping to relax. “You could actually make these ice cold, or add a nut milk like coconut milk or almond milk, nutmeg or cinnamon, or pumpkin spice,” says Zarabi. “If you want to make it even thicker, use mashed bananas,” says Zarabi. Coconut and almond milk contain both vitamin D and calcium. “All of those aromatic spices and herbs can be added to these virgin drinks that are easy to make at home,” she adds.
Translated, it means “apple and rose water with cinnamon and ice and light sugar,” says Zarabi. The Persian drink subtly mimics the sweet taste of many alcoholic libations. You can buy rose water or boil dry rose or hibiscus petals in water. “Every time you cook a plant, its flavor is destroyed,” says Zarabi. Add some grated apples and some crushed ice and put it in the blender. This gives the drink a frothy texture. Think daiquiris.
Apples are a great source of fiber as well as vitamin C and also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Cucumber, mint and jalapeño medley
“It’s almost like a spicy margarita to accompany Mexican dishes,” says Zarabi, who recommends pairing cucumbers with some mint and adding some muddled (chopped) jalapeño. Dump the ingredients into some fizzy seltzer or lemonade and add a little sugar and lemon juice for an extra kick, she suggests.
Be careful if you have a sensitive stomach as the jalapeño can backfire. “If you have heartburn or can’t tolerate spicy food, you can just stick with mint and cucumber mix,” says Zarabi. And be careful not to add too much sugar, especially if you’re watching your weight or have diabetes, warns Dr. Bad Malchuk.
Pomegranate Ginger Mocktail
One of Hultin’s favorite creations, this cocktail is based on pomegranate: the fruit has a rich, dreamy color and is loaded with antioxidants and may contribute to better athletic performance, brain health and reduced inflammation, she says. A little agave adds sweetness to the brew and the ginger calms it down. Mix it in sparkling water. Not only is it a non-alcoholic drink, it’s also vegan.
Hultin’s recipe makes six drinks. Combine one cup of pomegranate juice with three cups of plain sparkling water, one teaspoon of agave syrup (tinker to taste), and one teaspoon of freshly ground ginger root. Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Garnish with half a pitted pomegranate and serve in a martini glass.
If you don’t feel like bartending, try the best mocktails money can buy or these non-alcoholic beers.
take that away
You don’t have to stick to soda if you don’t want to drink alcohol. And you don’t have to sacrifice your taste buds either. These non-alcoholic (and low-alcohol) drinks are a fun alternative if you’re looking to cut down on alcohol, are a designated driver, or don’t really drink much alcohol.
Next, try these other mocktail recipes.