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The darker side of holiday spirits

At this time of year, warnings abound about overdoing the alcoholic holiday cheer. For the most part, it's a lesson we know almost by heart.

What's a little surprising are the myths that seem to persist - such as the one about drinking coffee to sober up, or that you aren't really impaired unless you're stumbling or slurring your speech.

Here's a little myth-busting from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

- Myth: Alcohol doesn't lead to impairment until after several drinks have been consumed. Reality: Alcohol's effects begin quickly and can diminish critical decision-making and driving skills long before the physical signs of intoxication show up.

Drinking initially acts like a stimulant, causing the drinker to feel upbeat. But those first couple of drinks soon begin affecting inhibition and judgment. As more alcohol is consumed, reaction times become slower and behavior becomes less controlled. Continued drinking can lead to the slurred speech and loss of balance typically associated with being drunk. At even higher levels, alcohol acts as a depressant, causing people to become sleepy or pass out.

Myth: Once you stop drinking, the effects of alcohol go away. Reality: Alcohol continues to affect the body and brain long after the last drink has been downed. Even after someone stops drinking, the alcohol in their stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, impairing judgment and coordination for hours.

Myth: Drinking coffee will sober you up. Reality: Caffeine can help reduce drowsiness but it won't do anything for the effects of alcohol on decision-making The only real cure is time while the body metabolizes the alcohol that's been consumed and returns to normal.

From Narconon International comes this bit of myth-busting about wine:

Myth: You're less likely to get drunk when you're drinking wine. Reality: Alcohol is alcohol and it all holds the same potential for getting drunk, whether it's poured from a bottle of fine wine, a bottle of single-malt whiskey or a can of beer. Serving sizes might vary but the alcohol content in each case is mostly the same - about six-tenths of an ounce of pure alcohol.

Here's something that isn't a myth: Alcohol-related traffic crashes increase during the holiday season. Statistics in fact suggest Americans are more likely to die in an alcohol-related holiday crash than at any other time of the year. About 40 percent of fatal crashes over the Christmas and New Year's holidays involve at least one driver who has been drinking, according to statistics analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many people enjoy a drink or two during the holidays but moderation is the key. Experts offer this advice: If you're going to drink, pace yourself. Know what constitutes a standard drink and have no more than one per hour. Have "drink spacers" - make every other drink a nonalcoholic one.

Finally, have a plan to get home safely. The designated driver in the group should be the one who hasn't been drinking, not the person at the party who drank the least.

For more information, check out the federal government's Rethinking Drinking website.