What About Alcohol?
Updated: Jan 27
Some of you requested that I to do a piece on alcohol, so what better time to do it than when we are at the end of Dry January.
After the general over-indulgences of the festive season climaxing in New Years Eve celebrations, it is not surprising that the idea of Dry January is a very appealing one. Especially when all the money saved on booze can go to a charity of your choice.
Going off alcohol for a month is a brilliant way to assess your relationship with alcohol and how you feel without it. But what do we do post-January when we decide to bring it back into our lives?
For many of us, having a drink is a part of our life. A glass of wine with a good meal or a sundowner with good friends, is a part of our social fabric.
When it comes to alcohol moderation is the key. It is very easy to go over the recommended weekly guidelines. Alcohol can quickly become addictive and while many of us consider ourselves to be social drinkers it is often in these situations where we end up drinking more than we should.
It may be helpful to explain a bit about alcohol and what it does in the body, including the brain. And then give some guidelines on how you may fit alcohol into your life.
What is Alcohol
Alcohol in its pure form is ethanol all alcoholic beverages have to state how much percentage is pure ethanol. Ethanol is produced when yeasts act on the natural sugars found in grapes (wine) or grains (beer) Other plants and substances can be used, for instance in making mead honey is the natural sugar used.
Alcohol is quickly absorbed into the body from the stomach. It is seen as a toxin (intoxicated) and the liver needs to process it and neutralise it. When alcohol consumption is high the liver cannot keep up with neutralising it and over time a condition known as fatty-liver may occur. Long term heavy drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver. The liver is permanently damaged and instead of healthy liver tissue the liver becomes scared.
If the liver cannot keep up with the amount of alcohol consumed the levels of blood alcohol concentration stay raised. This makes it inevitable that the alcohol in the blood will cross the blood-brain barrier.
In the brain, it activates a pathway that releases dopamine the feel-good/pleasure-seeking neurotransmitter. Over time this pathway becomes embedded and you need more alcohol to keep it stimulated. That is when alcohol becomes addictive.
We have a drink to help us unwind, take our mind off our troubles and help to boost our mood. Often if we are anxious, especially socially anxious alcohol helps you to calm down and also to lower your inhibitions, turning you into a social butterfly.
While initially alcohol will make you feel good and give you a lift it also acts as a sedative and a depressant. Once the feel-good factors from the alcohol have worn off we can often feel depressed and our anxiety returns.
Which makes you want to grab a drink and so the cycle continues, you may not feel that you are addicted and may only notice the difference when you stop having it.
As we get older we get more sensitive to alcohol and our tolerance may subside. It can make any inflammation worse so if you suffer from joint pain you may want to go without for a while to see if it makes a difference. Gout attacks are often brought on by alcohol consumption.
Heavy drinking (3 drinks a day) can cause the brain to shrink, it affects our memory and can impact on our ability for planning, goal setting, making decisions and staying motivated. It has also been linked to dementia.
Alcohol is no friend of the menopausal woman, it will often make some of the most common symptoms even worse such as hot flushes and night sweats.
Yes, there is a reason why it is called a beer belly, because as men gain weight it tends to happen around the middle. Alcoholic drinks have calories especially beer and it all adds up in the end. A hard round belly is because of visceral fat. This is fat that is stored around the organs. Visceral fat is not good and has been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, healthy disease, raised cholesterol, fatty liver disease and erectile dysfunction.
But it isn’t all bad news. Moderate consumption of alcohol does have some health benefits most significantly it can increase your life span, Along with improving good cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure and reducing blood clots.
What to Drink
If you want to maximise the health benefits of alcohol choosing red wine or dark bitter ales for their anti-oxidant properties. If you prefer hard liquor then be aware that the mixers may make your drink high in sugar.
How much to Drink
Like all aspects of our life we need to mix things up a little so having some alcohol free days every week is a good idea. Try for 3 - 4 alcohol-free days a week. That doesn’t mean you should drink more on the days you are drinking.
Working out how much alcohol is recommended can be a bit of a mind field because it all depends on the amount of alcohol in each drink, your uniqueness and how sensitive you are to alcohol.
A basic guide to moderate alcohol consumption in a week is considered to be:
6 glasses of 13% wine (175ml)
6 pints of 4% beer (570ml)
14 tots of 40% hard liquor (25ml)
You don’t want to be exceeding this and you can certainly have less.
How to Keep a Healthy Attitude to Alcohol
For many having a drink is very much a part of our social life. So how do we continue to have that social life while not overdoing it?
I think it is always good to have a plan because that way you can stay in control and you know what works for you.
Eating before drinking can help lower the effects of alcohol then again if it is a rich heavy meal your liver already has a lot to deal with.
Do you like to have sundowners, or sip on a glass of wine while cooking, or have a couple of glasses of wine with your partner over dinner, fancy a nightcap?
These are all options but whatever you do be mindful of how much you are drinking. For example, sharing a bottle of wine will be 2 of the 6 weekly units gone, doing that 3 times a week will take you to your total. That is 3 bottles of wine a week for two people, so you better make them good ones.
Or if you prefer not to share your wine then pour a glass and put the bottle away you should be getting a generous 4 glasses out of one bottle. One bottle of wine and two beers will be you done for the week.
It takes a bit of effort to work it out but by being mindful you can make sure you are not overdoing it.
Other options are to dilute alcoholic drinks such as a wine spritzer or find non-alcoholic option such as non-alcohol gin or beer. Have sparkling water or tomato juice instead. A rock shandy or lime and soda are sweeter indulgences.
Remember that alcohol is a diuretic and can make you dehydrated so having a glass of water in between drinks is a good way to stay hydrated. Or have a glass of water before you drink and one before bed. It also helps your body get rid of the toxins.
If you are on medication alcohol may affect the meds you are on and make your liver work much harder.
Probably one of the best attitudes to have towards alcohol is to treat it as something special. Have it because you are happy, for a celebration, a special moment or a pause in the day, a moment to express gratitude.
So raise a glass, sip is slowly and enjoy the small pleasures in life, cheers.
This is me celebrating Christmas with a glass of my
home made Sloe Gin. Blackthorn berries picked
in the autumn pricked and frozen then place them
in a glass bottle add them and gin and some sugar.
Leave until Christmas.
I found a tot with a little ginger ale is delicious,
it's Christmas in a glass!