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Colder, darker days increase alcohol intake, Pitt study says

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If you drink alcohol, it’s the time of year when the mental weight of 4 p.m. darkness and freezing temperatures could very likely send you in search of a late afternoon or evening martini.

People living in colder regions of the country and the world consume more alcohol than their warm-weather counterparts, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology

The study recently published online in “Hepatology,” a publication overseen by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, reports that as temperatures drop and sunlight hours decrease, alcohol consumption rises. So does binge drinking as well as cases of alcoholic liver disease.

“It’s something that everyone assumed for decades, but no one has scientifically demonstrated it,” said senior author Dr. Ramon Bataller, Pitt professor of medicine and chief of hepatology at UPMC. “Why do people in Russia drink so much? Why in Wisconsin? Everybody assumes that’s because it’s cold. But we couldn’t find a single paper linking climate to alcohol intake or alcoholic cirrhosis.”

But now, armed with data from the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization, among others, Bataller’s group has found a clear negative correlation between climate circumstances, including average temperature and sunlight hours, and alcohol consumption, measured as total alcohol intake per capita, percent of the population that drinks alcohol, and the incidence of binge drinking.

It’s due in part to the fact that alcohol is a vasodilator increasing the flow of blood to the skin, which is full of temperature sensors, meaning that drinking can increase feelings of warmth.

“This is the first study that systematically demonstrates that worldwide and in America, in colder areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis,” said Bataller.

These trends were confirmed when comparing countries around the world and counties within the United States. So how do Allegheny and Westmoreland counties stack up in this study?

“Let’s just say, I will never be out of work in this state because of the alcohol consumption in this (area),” said Bataller. “We have a lot of patients, a lot of young patients, younger and younger, with alcoholic cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, it’s an epidemic in America.”

While the data shows that people are turning to alcohol more often in these dark, cold months in part to ease their seasonal depression, Bataller calls it a vicious cycle because alcohol is itself a depressant.

“In the short term, alcohol makes you feel better and healed and euphoric but in the long term it leads to mental disorders and depression so alcohol is not the solution in the long term,” he said. “On the contrary it can exacerbate mental disorders.”

But Bataller believes the results of his study will ultimately help people who are struggling with alcohol abuse.

“Knowing the parameters of the determinants to predict alcohol abuse are important for health policy,” he said. “Knowing that colder places have more drink related problems could be helpful to the efforts in these areas to determine better policies. If you have a genetic pre-disposition to alcohol abuse, maybe you should avoid super cold areas.”

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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