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 It is absolutely possible to practice harm reduction for any substance, regardless of legality or reputation. That includes alcohol.

What do you think of when you hear the term “harm reduction?” If the first things that come to mind are syringe exchanges, naloxone distribution, or supervised consumption sites, you’re not alone. To the general public, the term “harm reduction” has become almost synonymous with “making IV drug use safer.” But the actual concept of harm reduction is much, much broader. Even seat belts are harm reduction! 

Harm reduction for alcohol already has one positive factor on its side that many other substances do not enjoy in the United States: Alcohol is legal. Of course, that wasn’t always true. And when alcohol was prohibited, we saw many of the same problems we see now with other drugs, like tainted supplies. These days, you can buy legally manufactured, government-regulated booze from the store. So you don’t have to worry that it’s going to be way stronger than expected, laced with other substances, or produced improperly. If you are over the age of 21, you don’t have to worry about running into legal trouble just for buying it, either. 

Here are some other harm reduction tips to help keep your drinking safe and in moderation if you wish to use alcohol:

Drink plenty of water.

I know, it sounds so basic! But you would be surprised what a huge difference drinking enough water can make. And people so often forget to do it. Staying hydrated will help you better process the alcohol you’re drinking, and prevent a terrible hangover the next day. Try having a glass of water in between drinks. In addition to helping you stay hydrated, this practice will also help you slow down and moderate your drinking. Ending the night by chugging a sports drink like Gatorade, Vitamin Water, or something else high in electrolytes like coconut water, can also help you avoid a hangover the next day.

Don’t drink on an empty stomach.

If you’ve ever engaged in chaotic alcohol use, you probably followed the opposite rule. Drinking on an empty stomach can help you feel more intoxicated faster. But if you’re trying to use alcohol in a safer and more conscientious manner, it’s a good idea to eat while you drink, especially food that is high in fat. Yes! You do have a good reason to binge on fries tonight! Having some heavy, fatty food in your stomach will slow down your body’s absorption of the alcohol. This in turn will help prevent alcohol poisoning or other types of over-intoxication. Keyword: help. Eating a burger doesn’t mean you can then take ten shots in two minutes and expect to be fine!

Arrange safe transportation in advance.

The advent of ridesharing has made the concept of designated drivers something of a relic. But it’s still a good idea to know how you’re getting home in advance. Make sure you have your preferred app set up and ready to use, your phone charged, and enough funds to get you home. Or if you are utilizing a designated driver, set that up clearly in advance. It’s a good idea to make sure your designated driver really wants to play that role, or at least is genuinely willing not to join you in having a couple of drinks.

Have a plan—Set a limit in advance.

If you have a history of chaotic alcohol use and know you might have trouble moderating your use, it’s a good idea to plan for this in advance. It’s going to be a lot harder to tell yourself to stop when you’re already feeling woozy, and a lot easier to tell yourself to keep going. Before you even get near the alcohol, create a plan for yourself. Figure out your safe limit. You can base this on past use, or measure it by personal factors like gender, weight, and health. Determine how you want alcohol to make you feel that night—are you going for a buzz, tipsy, or drunk? (You’re probably not practicing harm reduction if you aim for blackout wasted.) Pick your goal and then set a limit as to how much you’ll need to drink to reach it, and what you’ll be drinking. If you can, tell someone you trust so that they can help keep you accountable

Try to also plan around your potential triggers. What might cause you to drink to excess? Think about them in advance and come up with a response using the tools you prefer. This might be a mindfulness practice, phoning a buddy, ordering tasty virgin drinks, leaving the party early, or something else.

Don’t try to match other people’s drinking.

If you were using heroin, it would be considered crazy and reckless to try to match a more experienced user’s shot. Everybody understands that heroin is based on personal tolerance. People don’t try to inject each other ‘under the table.’ They understand that whoever ended up under the table might never get up again. 

But for some reason, with alcohol, it’s super common for people to attach weird bravado to being able to consume more than someone else. They often engage in dangerous drinking contests to try to see who gets way too drunk first. It’s okay to play drinking games if you’re able to watch your limits, but don’t try to match other people’s drinking in order to feel cool. It’s not shameful to have a lower tolerance than your friend! Nor is it wrong to just not want to get super drunk that night—even if your friends do. There will always be more opportunities to go out, have fun, and drink booze. You do not have to consume all the alcohol in the room in one sitting.

Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer with an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. She is a journalism fellow with TalkPoverty and a recipient of the 2021/22 Unicorn Fund. She is also a regular contributing writer for HealthyPlace’s trauma blog. Her work has appeared on Vice, Vox, Stat News, The Fix, and others. When she isn’t working, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. Workit Health, Inc. and its affiliated professional entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.

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