When you do the circuit as a founder — from conference events to gatherings with your mastermind crew — alcohol is omnipresent. Perhaps it’s also part of your  office culture – a fridge stocked with microbrews for the end of the afternoon or a favorite bourbon on hand to toast the deployment of a new feature.

Alcohol is part of the social fabric for many of us. New contacts are made over a beer and new product ideas get mapped out on the back of a cocktail napkin. Business bonds and partnerships are forged during a long night of drinking. Alcohol can help relax you after a long day, ease the pain of networking, and it can be downright pleasant and tasty. There may even be possible health benefits of moderate consumption!

But alcohol can become a slippery slope- too much use can have devastating implications for our health, our relationships, and yes, our businesses. Because alcohol is so pervasive, its worth taking a moment to reflect on whether or not you’re happy with your relationship with alcohol – what does a healthy relationship with alcohol look like? Am I drinking too much? Do I need to be a drinker to make it in business? Let’s explore:

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Alcohol consumption guidelines

How much is too much? How many drinks are too many? To begin with, let’s define what a “standard drink” actually means. The volume of liquid changes depending on the percentage of alcohol in the beverage. Many people are surprised to learn that a standard measure of their favorite drink is smaller than they thought, perhaps even smaller than what you’ll typically be served in a bar.

The NIH shows us standard measures in a handy chart below:

Healthy relationship with alcohol

No doubt there are many drinking vessels available which hold large amounts of alcohol. This post goes live while I’m attending MicroConf in Las Vegas. At this very moment I’m likely to be surrounded by huge Eiffel Tower shaped cocktail cups or meter-long beer jugs. Let’s just say that these canisters are much larger than the 12 oz cup size that constitutes 1 beer.

So based on the sizes described above, here are the NIH guidelines for defining “at risk” or heavy drinking in healthy adults:

  • Women who drink more than three drinks on any single day, or more than seven drinks per week.
  • Men who drink more than four drinks on any single day, or more than 14 drinks per week.

Hmmm, adding up the after-work drinks, dinner drinks, and all the events that a founder might need to attend, you can see that it is super easy to stray into the “at risk” territory. This is not to cast judgment or beat you up, but it’s important to have an honest conversation with yourself so that you can identify whether or not you might be using alcohol in a way that is unhealthy for you.

Potential consequences of alcohol consumption

We all know the person who is the “happy drunk,” but then we probably also know people who become mean, withdrawn, or aggressive. (Incidentally, that “happy drunk” can find that over time, they become more depressed).

Sometimes, it is the reaction of other people toward our drinking habits that helps to provide the first clue that there may be a problem. For example, do you tend to get into arguments with your significant other after throwing back a few drinks? Are you sporting a beer gut? Do you spend money impulsively when you’ve had a few too many? Do you notice increased sadness, depression or anxiety after you’ve been drinking?

Let’s take a closer look at potential consequences of alcohol consumption:

Your body

Alcohol is one of the most common drugs used worldwide. It has an impact on the body at very small doses, with noticeable changes such as decreased inhibition and a subjective sense of relaxation.

Alcohol moderates mood. It can bring you up, it can bring you down.  This is due to alcohol interfering with the brain’s communication pathways. Emotions can feel bigger and more powerful and people can experience impairment in their ability to think clearly or make decisions.

Alcohol also impacts the Central Nervous System (CNS) which leads to a range of notable changes in motor functioning: stumbling, slurred speech and coordination issues come from alcohol hitting the CNS.

We often have a tendency to believe that as long as we only drink heavily sometimes, we’re not hurting our bodies too badly. In fact, heavy drinking just one time can cause lasting damage to internal organs. The heart is commonly impacted by both short and long-term heavy drinking, with problems such as arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, stroke and high blood pressure.

The liver and pancreas can also be impacted, while heavy drinking increases risk for a number of cancers. The immune system can also be lowered, leaving heavy drinkers susceptible to disease. The NIH explains that we can experience that lower immunity, even up to 24 hours after heavy drinking.

There’s mounting evidence that even small amounts of alcohol can increase risk for cancer.

As a last consequence (and there are plenty more I could mention), we know that alcohol can have a dehydrating effect on the body – this can also lead to insomnia or disturbed sleep, which takes a further toll on both physical and mental health.

The good news is that we can reduce or reverse the effects of alcohol on our bodies by cutting it out, or cutting back on the amount that we drink.

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Your relationships

Alcohol can do a number on our relationships. From that awkwardness the next day due to embarrassing behavior the night before, to straight-up ruining friendships because someone let their drunken words run too freely.

In the entrepreneurial world, what if that embarrassing behavior or unguarded speech was in front of important investors, your team members, or even customers?

American Addiction Centers lists a few other possible relationship impacts to consider:

  • Being too compromised or hung-over to be a competent partner or parent.
  • Tension and resentment in relationships, such as when your partner disapproves of your drinking habits.
  • Loss of good-standing or respect with others.

Your business

And lets talk about founders. We tend to be high on traits that make us stand apart from others (tenacity, willingness to take risks, tendency toward workaholism), these same traits can lead us to be extra susceptible to addiction. There’s also the fact that in certain circles, you might be viewed as “different” if you don’t drink. Consider this extract from an Entrepreneur article:

“In my experience, entrepreneurs are particularly at risk for substance abuse if they are responsible for sales, marketing or networking, as these are very social interactions in which alcohol is generally the lubricant,” says Dr. Jason Powers, a member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization and chief medical officer of The Right Step network of substance abuse treatment programs in Texas. “In Russia, for example, you may be viewed as untrustworthy if you refuse an alcoholic drink. That would make a non-drinker dead in the water as an entrepreneur. It’s much the same way in Japan. The point is that you can almost count on not doing business if the people who interact with you view you as suspicious or unreliable.”

Drinking socially is often how we make contacts and network with others and that’s fine, but if those drinks stray into “at risk” patterns, then you can also see impacts on your business.

  • Your decision-making or judgment become cloudy or impaired.
  • You might lose out on opportunities because of acting like an a** hole while you’re drunk.
  • You could find that team members are wary of you, or you lose respect.
  • The quality of your work may be impacted, especially if you’re often nursing a hangover.
  • You might gain a reputation that doesn’t help your business among entrepreneurial circles. People talk – if your alcohol consumption impacts behavior or decision-making, word can get around.

Healthy relationship with alcohol

Alcohol and team culture

It seems fitting here to have a quick word about alcohol and team culture in your business as a whole. Many founders host drinks after work, or other team events where alcohol is involved. It’s often a way to celebrate and is enjoyed by team members as a way to recognize their efforts.

The thing to be careful of is where alcohol becomes such an integral part of team culture, that people ask themselves “can I succeed here if I don’t drink alcohol?” Alternatively, if you start to see issues cropping up due to alcohol consumption at team events this could be a red flag. Studies back up the notion that indeed, we create “norms” around alcohol consumption in the workplace, which can make people feel that;

a) They need to drink to fit in, and/or,
b) Certain drinking behaviors (such as drinking during breaks) are acceptable.

As leaders, it is important to create a culture where we make it ok for people to decline a drink.

Perhaps it’s also worth giving consideration to the activities we do with our teams, how we celebrate, and how we team-build. There are plenty of options which don’t have to involve alcohol consumption, so if alcohol features heavily in your team, maybe it’s time to mix it up a bit.

Where to go for help

If you’re worried that you might personally have a problem with alcohol, the very first thing to do is to seek medical advice. I have to caution that, while many people think they can just go “cold turkey” and be fine, this can be dangerous.

The New England Journal of Medicine reveals that around 50% of people with an alcohol dependency will experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which can vary from mild to severe. In three to five percent of those people, severe conditions can develop such as grand mal seizures and delirium tremens, a condition where the person may experience seizures, hallucinations, high fever, hyperthermia, or cardiac arrhythmia. This can be fatal without swift medical care.

You don’t have to go it alone, and for the sake of your health, it’s better that you don’t. Your own doctor can be a good place to seek help. There are also agencies specifically set up to assist with alcohol and other addiction issues. For example:

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Final thoughts

While there are clear guidelines as to what the NIH considers to be “at risk” drinking, remember that individual body chemistry plays a role. Some people may drink nowhere near the amounts that are officially considered at risk, yet alcohol negatively impacts their life.

In general, it’s something you can often self-assess, or have a discussion with someone who is close to you about it. Has alcohol consumption led to any noticeable problems, even if you drink mildly?

Consider any situation where you or your team members might feel under pressure to drink alcohol. How can you alleviate that impression?

Finally, if you think you’re at risk, or even if you’d just like to adopt some healthier habits, seek help from a medical professional. This is not something to deal with alone and there are many good professional resources available.