Think about the image of an alcoholic. A late middle aged man perhaps, unshaven, asleep in a shop doorway with his empty bottle by his side. A couple of scruffy looking individuals sitting on a park bench each with can of strong lager. The truth is that alcoholics, or problem drinkers come from all walks of life.
Nowadays, women are just as likely as men to have problems with alcohol. Increasingly women are using alcohol just as their male counterparts do. They may be juggling the demands of stressful managerial positions with running the home and looking after the children.
How many of you reading this will be looking forward to cracking open that bottle of wine? Whether we are cooking, sighing a collective sigh having just got the children to bed, trying to come down from 40.000 feet to relax at the end of the day. Or whether we are just enjoying a glass of wine or two over dinner at home. Having is drink is such a part of our culture.
In my private practice I see women from many different backgrounds and from all walks of life and help them to overcome addiction to alcohol. There are many reasons why women drink to excess. Naturally, how much you drink will depend on a number of factors; Personal circumstances, upbringing, family background, genetic make-up, family and friends’ drinking habits or just simply lifestyle. When it comes down to it alcohol gets a lot of bad press, but it has probably been used as a self prescribed “medication” for as long as it has been used as a vehicle to have fun. Whether it used as a painkiller, tranquilizer, sleeping draft, a relaxant or something to provide dutch courage, it has many uses. Many of the women I see drink as a way of coping with stress or to block out painful emotional issues and give themselves a lift. The downside though, is that alcohol can only provide short-term relief as it will in the long-term magnify depression and anxiety. Many people use alcohol to assist with sleep and while it may help you to get off to sleep, the result will be poor quality and often broken sleep.
Because women are generally smaller than men their capacity to drink is less. The major organs too, are smaller. The stomach, intestines and in particular the liver which plays a major role in breaking down alcohol, is also smaller. The result is that alcohol concentration in the body tends to be higher than that of males consuming the same volume. Also the effects of alcohol will also be much greater during menstruation and in the premenstrual phase as it takes longer for the body to break down alcohol. Taking oral contraception may also have a bearing on the ability of the body to break down alcohol.
The other big downside is that alcohol is very high in calories and can lead to weight gain. But even more worrying is that being inebriated can put women at risk of dangerous situations that ordinarily they could avoid. The risk of accidents is greater as is the increased risk of health problems. Heavy consumption can lead to cognitive impairment, liver damage, eyesight damage, stomach problems as well as increases to blood pressure, which may also lead to heart disease, strokes and certain types of cancer. Some research even links increased alcohol consumption to increases in breast cancer. Families too, can be ripped apart as a consequence of alcohol. From arguments to assault, excess drinking can have a major effect on family relationships.
If you want to get your drinking under control, here are some useful tips:
- Keep a diary. Over the course of a week keep a note of the amount and type of alcohol you consume (one unit of alcohol is roughly the equivalent to half a pint of ordinary strength beer, one single measure of spirits or one small glass of wine). This will show how much you are drinking and when.
- Switch to lower strength alcoholic drinks over several weeks and record your success.
- Sip your drinks, don’t “glug.” and do not try to match other people drinking. Slow down and put down your drink between sips.
- Deliberately have a fruit juice, coke or other non alcoholic drink between alcoholic drinks.
- Add into your week some other activity such as swimming or jogging and explore ways to relax and socialise which do not include drinking alcohol.
- Set a drinking goal and limit the amount you drink. For example one alcoholic drink per day if you are a woman, or two drinks if you are a man.
- Eat before you drink as food will help to absorb alcohol. Eat before you go out for the night and have a good meal first. Snack while you are drinking.
- Have at least one alcohol free day per week, ideally two. This will give your liver a chance to recover.
If you are concerned about your drinking and would like help, talk to your doctor. Alternatively, find out if there is a local voluntary agency who may be able to provide you with counselling and support you while you take steps to reduce your drinking.
Here are a number of voluntary agencies specialising in providing advice and support:
Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist