The coronavirus drives us to drink
If you’ve attended a Zoom happy hours or your cocktail hour is getting earlier in the day, you’re not alone. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are turning to alcohol to cope with the ongoing isolation and stress. A September study published in JAMA network opened found that among all adults, alcohol consumption had increased by 14 percent from a year ago, and drinking by 17 percent for women. Women also seem to drink more heavily, according to the study’s findings.
While alcohol may seem like a tempting escape, the buzz is only temporary and can come at a hefty price. “In the short term, alcohol can impair judgment, memory and motor skills. It can wreak havoc on your mind and body,” says Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, a practicing family physician in Durham, North Carolina.”[Alcohol] affects your weight, liver function, mood and metabolism. It’s especially risky for people with other underlying medical conditions.”
The good news is that some non-alcoholic or low-alcohol drinks can be just as tasty and provide you with some feel-good moments. (Learn more about safe alcohol levels.)
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Alcohol, stress and your brain
Pandemic or no pandemic, stress and alcohol can dance in a toxic mutual relationship. “Alcohol provides positive reinforcement,” says Julia Chester, a professor of psychological science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. You feel good, so you do it again, but that can lead you to the dark side if you drink to relax. “Your brain adapts to the alcohol. If we don’t have alternatives to the effects of stress, we use alcohol as a drug and that’s not a good one.” That’s because it mimics the effects of stress and activates the stress axis. Then you want another drink to lower the stress again.
A better resource is to go with non-alcoholic drinks that remind you that you’re drinking to the real thing. “You can mimic what happens in your brain by making a drink that basically shares all of the drink’s characteristics that you enjoy with the absence of alcohol,” Chester says. “This will remind your brain and you that you feel good drinking this particular drink, but without the alcohol.”
Here are a few expert-recommended non-alcoholic and low-alcohol drinks that taste like booze and will help you curb your drinking.
Add bitters to a fizzy mix
Interestingly, bitters started out as a medicine (of sorts) in the 1800s. But since then, they have become a popular alcoholic cocktail ingredient. Adding bitters like Angostura to tonic, sparkling water, or any other fizzy drink can be a low-alcohol way to de-stress.
“We are seduced through our senses to the color of the drink, the taste of the drink, and the smell,” explains Sharon Zarabi, RD, bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Bitters is basically a tonic of spices and herbs and some botanicals that give it a pungent taste. You have an alcohol content of 35 percent, but if you add a little bit of that to a virgin drink, you won’t get the toxic effects of alcohol You can also use the spice rack in your kitchen and put some cinnamon, cardamom, mint or basil in it.
Carbonated water and lime
This is perhaps 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 in the oral sensory realm,” Chester says. Or add a splash of pomegranate or cranberry juice, says Amanda Beaver, RDN, a wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Lime is acidic and has many of the same effects on the tongue as salt. “Some drinks contain more salt than others, for example margaritas,” Chester says. “If you do lime, you can mimic a lot of those flavors of a salt margarita. That’s also part of the reason why people also use tonic, instead of just sparkling water. It will give it more depth in flavor.”
Another option is to dilute wine by half with sparkling water, Chester suggests. It’s basically a wine spritzer.
Melon infused water
While alcohol can dehydrate, this drink will rehydrate. “Some research suggests that even mild dehydration can negatively affect both your mood and even cognitive/brain function,” says Ginger Hultin, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Champagne Nutrition, in Seattle.
To make a batch that you can keep in the fridge, Hultin recommends combining a cup of ice cubes and a cup of chopped cantaloupe in a pitcher, then add the rest of the 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 an undertone of flavor, Zarabi says. Combine your fruit of choice with water and let it marinate in a pitcher. You can also use your creativity to make variations on the theme: add a little 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 brains are influenced by the smell, sight, and colors of food,” she says. “If these drinks have an aroma, your taste buds are really satisfied.”
Dressed up tea
The herbs in store-bought tea bags can be alchemized into spicy drinks. Ginger and chamomile are two possibilities. Both have health properties, with ginger for soothing the stomach and chamomile for relaxation. “You can make these ice creams or you can 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 banana,” Zarabi says. Coconut and almond milks contain both vitamin D and calcium. “All these aromatic spices and herbs can be added to these virgin drinks that are easy to make at home,” she adds.
This translates to “apple rose water with cinnamon and ice and light sugar,” Zarabi says. The Persian drink subtly mimics the sweet taste of many alcoholic libations. You can buy rose water or boil dried rose or hibiscus leaves in water. “Every time you cook a plant, its flavor breaks down,” Zarabi says. Add some shaved 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 and vitamin C and also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Cucumber, mint and jalapeño medley
“This is almost a spicy margarita for a side dish to Mexican dishes,” says Zarabi, who recommends adding cucumbers, a little mint, and some muddled (chopped) jalapeño. Put the ingredients in some fizzy seltzer or club soda and add a little sugar and lemon juice for an extra kick, she suggests.
Beware if you have a sensitive stomach, as the jalapeño can backfire. “If you have acid reflux or you can’t tolerate spicy foods, you can just leave it as a mint-cucumber mixture,” Zarabi says. And be careful not to add too much sugar, especially if you’re watching your weight or have diabetes, cautions Dr. Miese Malchuk.
Pomegranate ginger mocktail
One of Hultin’s favorite creations, this cocktail relies on pomegranate: The fruit has a rich dreamy color and is packed with antioxidants, and may contribute to better exercise performance, brain health and less inflammation, she says. A little agave gives the brew sweetness and the ginger soothes. Mix it in sparkling water. It is not only an alcohol-free drink, but 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 (to taste), and one teaspoon of freshly ground ginger root. Place all ingredients in 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 playing bartender, check out the best mocktails money can buy or these non-alcoholic beers.
You don’t have to stick to soda if you choose not to drink alcohol. And you don’t have to sacrifice your taste buds either. These non-alcoholic (and low-alcohol) drinks are a nice alternative if you want to cut back on alcohol, are a designated driver, or if you don’t really drink much alcohol.
Then try these other mocktail recipes.