As temperatures (finally) begin to creep back up, evenings stretch out before us and a hint of summer is visible on the horizon, it’s easy to get excited by the prospect of social events, holidays and festivals that lie ahead in the coming months. Our minds conjure up images of sunny backyards with smiling people sharing stories, or fields filled with revellers moving as one to their favourite music – ah yes, fun times.
Take a moment to look more closely at some of these memories, revisit them and start to notice some of the details; the smoking barbecue, the mud underfoot … the alcohol. Of course we consume alcohol at different times throughout the year and there is nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with friends, however, it is interesting to examine how much of our drinking has an element of mindlessness about it.
April is Alcohol Awareness Month, providing a perfect opportunity to improve our awareness of our drinking, before we get carried away on a wave of weddings, beer gardens and World Cup watching. The Alcohol Awareness Foundation of Ireland (also known as Drink Aware), advise that in Ireland we underestimate how much alcohol we drink by 60%, so it seems we could all do with trying to get a clearer picture. If you’re reading this thinking “oh for goodness sake, I enjoy the odd drink, it’s no big deal”, just park that thought for a moment and allow yourself to become a little curious about alcohol and your relationship with it. There’s no judgement here, just the chance to deepen our understanding.
How does alcohol affect our brains?
Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt the delicate balance of chemicals our brains rely on, thereby affecting our thoughts, feelings and actions. Many of us will have a glass of wine to relax after a long day at work, or notice that a drink in a social situation can help us to feel less anxious. These changes are down to how alcohol is affecting our brains. Small changes due to a little alcohol are, broadly speaking, fine, however, the more we drink, the more our brains are affected and what started off feeling relaxing or pleasurable can change and more negative emotional responses can manifest themselves. Over time, heavy drinking can significantly interfere with the chemistry of our brains and contribute, or exacerbate, poor mental health.
There are many other ways in which alcohol can affect us – both short and long term – including:
- Impaired judgement
- Disturbed sleep
- Mood changes
- Memory loss
- Liver disease
- Stomach ulcers
- High blood pressure
How much is too much?
In Ireland low-risk alcohol guidelines are as follows:
- For women – 11 standard drinks
- For men – 17 standard drinks
These drinks should be spread out across the week and we should all be having a minimum of two alcohol-free days every week.
We are all familiar with the term ‘binge-drinking’, but what does it mean? Drinking six or more standard drinks in one sitting is classed as binge-drinking. Just to put that in context, the average pint of beer contains two standard units … so any night you can remember drinking three or more pints, you were binge-drinking.
Try making a note in your phone or diary of how much alcohol you drink in a week or two and see if you fall within the low-risk guidelines. Regular binge-drinking, drinking every day, or saving up units for use over the weekend, are all things that can increase your risk of illness and other alcohol related harms. If you notice patterns like this in your drinking, it’s worth looking at ways in which you could reduce your alcohol consumption.
Top tips for reducing your alcohol intake
There are so many ways in which we can reduce the amount of alcohol we consume, many of them quick and easy changes that will have a significant impact.
- For every one alcoholic drink you consume, have one glass of water.
- Take notice of the percentage of alcohol in bottles of wine and beer and choose those containing less.
- If a group of friends always go for a drink (or two) after work on a Friday, why not mix it up and suggest going for a game of 5-a-side or to the cinema occasionally instead.
- If you usually drink pints, try shifting to half pints or bottles. If you like a glass of wine, try making it a spritzer instead.
- When sharing a bottle of wine, it can be easy to top-up each other’s glasses. Avoid this and finish a glass before filling another, it will help you to keep track of how much you’re drinking.
- Never pour spirits at home without using a measure, it’s all too easy to overestimate and end up making a much stronger drink than you had intended.
- Slow down – be more mindful in your drinking, don’t just have a drink out of habit. Ask yourself ‘do I want this drink’ and then if you do, really savour it; the weight of the glass, the smell, the flavour and how you feel as you drink it.
Will it make a difference?
In a word, yes. Being more aware of our relationship – and in some cases reliance – on alcohol, is hugely positive. We may discover that we use alcohol as a coping mechanism or that we’ve gradually developed drinking habits that could be classed as high-risk.
If you choose to make a conscious effort to reduce your alcohol intake, record any changes you notice – you might be surprised! Some of the positive changes people report include (but are not limited to):
- Improved mood and general mental health
- Healthier appearance
- More energy
- Hangover free mornings for fun activities
- Better sleep
- More money in the pocket!
To learn more about alcohol, how it affects us and how we can manage our relationship with it, visit www.drinkaware.ie for helpful quizzes, tips and advice.
If you think you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol, you can contact the St Patrick’s Support & Information Line, staffed by experienced mental health nurses on (01) 249 3333 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Continue to…Anxiety: fight, flight and future-focused fears