How and why I’ve changed my drinking habits
Firstly, I want to be clear that I’m only talking about changing alcohol drinking habits and NOT alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction is a serious condition that requires specialist medical advice, which I’m not qualified to comment on.
Also, I don’t want anyone to think this is some sort of prudish, judgmental post about people who drink alcohol. I love alcohol but I think it is necessary for us all to be aware of the health implications and make informed decisions about our drinking habits.
Humans have enjoyed alcohol for centuries from the ancient Egyptians to the Victorians. Our love of alcohol hasn’t changed in modern society.
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed drinking alcohol. My first experiences of alcohol were one or two glasses of cider or Pomagne at teenage parties. As I grew older and started frequenting pubs and bars, I moved on to trying as many different drinks as I could!.
Growing up in the ’80’s, I was bombarded with advertisements from Babycham, Martini Rosso and Cinzano which aimed to glamorize alcohol (do you remember the ads with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins?).
These advertisements portrayed alcohol as decadent, luxurious and grown up. Drinking these drinks was something to aspire to – it’s amazing the power of advertising! (separate rant – this is why we need regulations on how we advertise to children).
My student years were spent enjoying as many different drinks as possible. Once I started work however, drinking alcohol became more of an occasional treat, reserved for a weekend meet up with friends in the pub.
Buying alcohol from supermarkets become more popular in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, with people drinking increasingly in their homes. It became the ‘norm’ to have a glass of wine with your meal at the weekend. Now, I think most people see it as the ‘norm’ to have a glass of alcohol every night with their meal.
In many families juggling work, childcare and domestic chores, parents see the evening glass of wine as their treat to help them unwind and relax. Sound familiar?
I know this was a habit that had developed in our household and for a long time I didn’t think twice about it.
So, what affect does drinking alcohol have on our health?
- there are studies that suggest that moderate, responsible wine consumption can lower overall health risks associated with cardio vascular disease. However this benefit is only relevant for people of middle age or older and only has a small protective benefit.
- In the Blue Zone areas of the world, particularly Sardinia, the inhabitants enjoy a glass of wine with friends every evening. Blue Zones are renowned for the longevity and health of their inhabitants, so it could be argued there is a link between their health and drinking alcohol.
Unfortunately there appear to be far more cons than pros:-
- alcohol is perceived by our bodies as a poison. Prolonged use can therefore seriously damage our liver, causing cirrhosis and liver failure. It can also damage the pancreas, causing bouts of pancreatitis.
- alcohol affects our brains, messing with our judgement, reactions and impulses. This is why it’s illegal to drink and drive a car.
- alcohol impacts our sleep patterns. New research is showing that a lack of sleep can have serious implications on our general health.
- alcohol can cause osteoporosis, making bones thinner and weakened.
- alcohol can weaken heart function.
- alcohol generally increases our risk of cancer, particularly breast, bowel, liver, mouth and throat.
- alcohol consumption during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, the baby having a low birth weight, learning or behavioural difficulties. Drinking heavily through pregnancy can result in a serious condition called foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
- alcohol can affect your mood and lead to depression, anxiety or anger.
Why I’ve changed my drinking habit
I’m sorry for the long list of doom and gloom regarding alcohol. Whilst I was aware of some of these health implications, I had never really considered my daily glass of wine could be playing havoc with my health. It’s only as I have grown older that I’ve begun noticing alcohol having a more direct affect on my day to day health.
Some of my readers will be aware that I suffer from arthritis. Over the last year, I’ve noticed that wine seems to increase the pain and swelling in my joints. I’m also at the dreaded menopausal age when hot flushes, brain fog and a tendency to gain weight can kick in. I’ve again noticed that alcohol can have an impact on these symptoms.
Lastly and most importantly, I’m concerned at the link from drinking alcohol to an increased risk of breast cancer. As my mother is a breast cancer survivor, I know genetically I may be at increased risk. Drinking alcohol could increase my risk further, but this is something I can control and change.
How I changed my drinking alcohol habit
Now, as I mentioned earlier having a glass of wine (or other alcohol) with our evening meal had become a regular habit.
The problem with regular habits is that they become very ingrained within the brain.
Simplistically, habits are formed when the brain is provided with a cue (in our case our evening meal). This then triggers the routine i.e. a glass of wine. Our brain then enjoys the reward of feeling relaxed by the release of dopamine as we enjoy our wine. Eventually, the loop of cue, routine, reward becomes automatic and we do it without thinking about it at all.
The cue and reward triggers become so intertwined, that we begin to have a sense of anticipation and even craving to get to the cue i.e. dinnertime and our expected reward – the enjoyment from the glass of wine. (source: The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg).
Have you had that craving during the day to just get to ‘wine o’clock’? Thankfully, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are an alcoholic, but just that your brain has become addicted to your evening habit and reward.
Unfortunately, trying to break this loop is really tough at first, as we have to re-train our brains. Now, in my opinion brains are a bit like toddlers. If you say “no” or change their routine, they have a complete melt down and a tantrum. If you persist with the new routine, eventually they stop fighting it and adapt to the change.
Our brains are exactly the same. When we tell our brain it can’t have a glass of wine every night, it fights back really hard and makes us crave wine even more! (most of us experience the same with food). But, with time and by replacing wine with another routine, it begins to accept this change. The time it takes to achieve a change in habits can vary from individual to individual and on the type of habit being changed. A general rule is anywhere between 21 days to 8 months but research suggests the average time is usually about 66 days to begin to see a true change.
So, just prior to Christmas 2017, I decided I wanted to change my alcohol drinking habit. I knew it would be tough over Christmas and New Year, so I just started slowly by only having a drink every other night.
Then in the New Year I went to not having any alcohol from Monday to Wednesday, slowly increasing this to Monday to Friday. These days, I go weeks without having any alcohol and amazingly I really don’t miss it.
Another trick I tried during the Christmas period, was to replace my alcohol drinking habit with low alcohol and alcohol free drinks such as Eisberg Wine and low alcohol G & T’s. Many of these drinks are much better than they were 5 or 10 years ago.
One of the biggest hurdles I’ve found though has been social expectations when I go out. It does feel very odd not drinking alcohol when we go to the pub with friends or for a meal in a restaurant. Usually people assume you must be driving but if they know that’s not the case, you do get some strange looks and raised eyebrows. Also the shadow of the marketing of the 80’s means I don’t feel very grown up if I’m not drinking alcohol.
The benefits of changing my alcohol drinking habit
Since reducing my alcohol consumption I have noticed improvements to my general, everyday health namely:-
- I sleep much better and don’t wake up from hot flushes
- I feel like I have much more energy
- I’ve noticed I am more patient and far less snappy and short tempered with the kids
- I find I can concentrate better and have far less brain fog days
- I have less joint pain
- I may have lost weight but I don’t tend to weigh myself very often, so I’m not sure.
- My skin certainly looks better with less fine wrinkles and dryness. Alcohol is known to dehydrate skin and strip skin of nutrients. It probably helps that I’m drinking more water now (instead of that glass of wine with dinner!)
- it’s also saving me money!
My conclusion on changing my alcohol drinking habits
Overall, I feel much better for reducing my alcohol consumption. I still enjoy alcohol every now and again. Certainly whilst on holiday I reverted to having a glass of wine most nights with dinner. I haven’t re-trained my brain completely from enjoying the taste of alcohol.
However, I think my brain is beginning to appreciate how much better it feels for not having alcohol and that has become it’s new reward.
Whilst, I don’t want you to see this article as a “you should do this” argument, I would suggest that if you think you have become stuck in an alcohol drinking routine that may be affecting your everyday health, perhaps you can experiment with seeing how you feel if you change your habit. There are several challenges around the world such as Dry January, Dry July, Sober October which you could join in to get you started.
Unfortunately, the downsides of alcohol drinking are rather numerous and can have huge implications for our health, so I believe it is in our benefit to kick the habit if we can!
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