When you think about excessive alcohol consumption your mind probably fills with images of drunken 20 somethings falling out of pubs and nightclubs. But the truth is women aged 45-59 tend to drink more than their younger counterparts and well above recommended levels.
You may not be out as much, but those relaxing glasses of red after a long day soon add up, particularly if your glasses are the bucket size affairs we’ve all become accustomed to.
Just to put it out there from the off – I am not t-total. I love an ice-cold glass of cava and don’t usually need my arm twisting when some bright spark suggests a shot on a night out from time to time. So – this is not a lecture on the evils of alcohol from a wellness professional with an alcohol-free agenda. Whether you drink 2 glasses a night/week/month/year it’s your choice. I just think it’s important it’s an informed choice and one you have genuine control over.
Because for me that’s the thing with alcohol. It’s not always what is being drunk, it’s why and how….very much like food if we’re honest. Yes – emotional eating / emotional drinking….it’s all part and parcel of the same potential problem. If you think you may struggle with emotional eating then head to my blog ‘Overcoming Emotional Eating in Midlife’.
Why Do People Drink?
Individually, we may have multitude reasons for our drinking behaviours, but researchers have identified 5 key motives for adult drinking.
In truth, many of us probably cycle through all these motives at different times. That doesn’t necessarily point to a significant issue with alcohol, but if it becomes your only (or main) coping strategy, you’re regularly drinking to get drunk, or you feel pressure to drink to conform socially, then it may be time to re-evaluate your drinking habits.
Understanding your motives is empowering as it allows for conscious decision making. By recognising the driving forces behind your choices, you can find support and adopt healthier approaches to managing stress, pleasure seeking, and socialising.
At my clinic, alcohol is consistently the biggest sticking point with clients. I‘m pretty sure I have never suggested someone give it up, but the mere mention of alcohol often elicits some very defensive responses. And I can’t count the number of times a client questionnaire has suggested consumption of 1 glass of wine per day, but a more detailed conversation reveals 2 or 3 on weekdays with more at weekends. And if you asked me the one thing most of my clients are most reluctant to reduce? Go on, ask me. Yep – alcohol.
I’m not judging. I am simply observing what I see. My clients would be more likely to discuss being addicted to chocolate or crisps than Pinot or Merlot. They will also readily (and often frequently) have tried to eliminate sugar/carbs/junk food etc etc but never alcohol. They’ll tell me that it’s not a problem..whilst simultaneously not being able to comprehend a couple of nights a week relaxing with a herbal tea rather than a Pinot Noir.
Why Do Midlife Women Drink More?
On a simple level-we are creatures of habit, and we just have a number of years behind us for building those habits. What might have started as an occasional treat can easily become a nightly must-have if your brain starts to associate a glass of red with relaxation and stress relief. And then 1 glass becomes 2, as we require more alcohol to get the same impact.. and so on.
And alcohol is so ingrained in our culture, for socialising, celebrating commiserating and relaxing, that by midlife it has often just become a part of who we are and what we do – without us even thinking about it. So much so, that it can be very difficult to assess yourself or others when the balance is tipping towards some level of dependence.
And when there is no acute impact? Where is the impetus to sit back and evaluate your relationship with alcohol? Indeed, many alcohol reduction campaigns focus on the darker side of drinking such as violence and disease. Whilst completely valid messages, they do not resonate with many midlifers who maybe don’t have any obvious health concerns and who frankly feel like alcohol makes their life better.
Let’s face it, a glass of wine is a very handy and quick stress reliever for taking the edge off the seemingly endless demands for our time, energy and resources. That is why alcohol has even been described as the UK’s favourite coping mechanism. For some women, it feels like a friend, reducing loneliness and isolation in a life where they may be feeling unseen, unheard and unsupported. Heck – it is less demanding than some friends and doesn’t require conversation or effort when you’re already feeling completely wrung out.
Honestly, I get it. And I do it. And even after writing this there will be nights where I head to the bath with a large glass of something for the specific purpose of taking the edge off. And other nights where I sit down with a glass of something because I just really fancy a glass of something. And I’m OK with that.
Why? Because I do it consciously. I know the impact, I have an ever growing bank of more positive coping strategies, and I try hard to balance them all out. Alcohol is not an immediate go to. It was in the past – I recognised and acknowledged that, and I worked to find a balance. I would encourage everyone to do the same, as I feel more empowered and confident in my ability to handle life’s ups and downs, and have also got to know myself much better now I am not continuously escaping from my problems and myself.
The Health Effects of Alcohol at Midlife
Whether you drink alcohol or not is a personal choice but it’s important to recognise the potential impact it is having on your body so that you can make choices around the frequency and quantity of your alcohol consumption from an informed position.
The recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption in the UK are no more than 14 units per week, which is less than 1 and a half bottles. It is recommended that these units are spread over 3 or more days but that there are alcohol free days. These recommendations are in place due to significant evidence that excess alcohol consumption can contribute to many serious conditions such as stroke, heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, impaired immune function, cancer of the mouth, throat and breast, and liver disease.
And you do need to bear in mind that they also cover all adult age groups and like most health recommendations do not account for physiological and metabolic changes due to ageing. And the simple truth is that as we age, we become less tolerant of alcohol. And of course ladies – a chunk of that is to do with our hormones.
Yes, hormonal fluctuations and metabolic shifts can affect how alcohol is processed and its impact on various organs. Whilst a few glasses might have gone unnoticed in the past, they may hit you like a brick now or contribute to symptoms you’ve just never experienced before. In a nutshell – alcohol is not good for us, like chips, sweets and bad relationships. How not good, depends on you as an individual and how much you are drinking.
Alcohol and Menopausal Symptoms
And there is no getting away from the fact that alcohol can also have a significant impact on menopausal symptoms – yep, a glass of red is basically a fast track to a hot flush for many women. However, it can be hard to spot the influence of alcohol, as it might depend on what sort of merry dance your hormones are doing at any given time, what your diet and lifestyle look like and the cumulative influence of it all. Nothing works in a vacuum.
For example, I started suffering from menstrual migraines a couple of years ago during perimenopause. They are brutal. And I know that alcohol is a contributing factor. I may be able to have a glass of wine some months just before my period, but only if my stress levels are low, my nutrient intake is high and I’m sleeping ok. If not- forget it! I also know that if I go crazy and have wine and coffee (hedonistic I know!) that’s fast track to a migraine, as it’s too much for my liver to process at that time of the month. For other women- alcohol may be the primary trigger for their symptoms. It’s a bit of a lottery.
Here are some specific ways alcohol can influence menopausal symptoms:
- Hot Flushes and Night Sweats: Alcohol dilates blood vessels and increases body temperature. This can trigger or intensify hot flushes and night sweats.
- Sleep Disturbances: Alcohol can disrupt the natural sleep cycle, leading to difficulties in falling and staying asleep. On top of menopause induced insomnia? Well…expect to be tired!
- Mood Swings and Emotional Well-being: Alcohol is a depressant that can affect neurotransmitters in the brain. The same neurotransmitters that are under fire from menopausal hormone fluctuations. Therefore, alcohol may intensify mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
- Bone Health: Hormone decreases at menopause make women more susceptible to bone loss and potential osteopenia and osteoporosis. Excessive alcohol consumption can further weaken bones and increase the risk of fractures.
- Weight Gain: Alcohol is high in calories and can contribute to weight gain, particularly around the middle (which is implicated in increased risk of many chronic diseases. Changes in metabolism associated with menopause may already impact weight management efforts – particularly insulin resistance but consuming alcohol regularly can exacerbate this issue and make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight.
The Bigger Picture
For me, to really assess the impact alcohol may be having on your wellbeing, you need to take a step back and look at your overall lifestyle and health.
There is no denying that alcohol is like any other empty calorie food/drink we love to consume in the standard Western diet – nice but ultimately somewhat toxic and nutrient draining. But how it impacts you specifically will depend on a number of things. Your metabolism and physiology, your genetics, but probably most importantly for many of us, other regular nutrition and lifestyle choices.
To illustrate this let’s head to the ‘Blue Zones’. These are five regions of the World with the most people living until over 100. And all but one have a culture of ‘wine at 5’ every day.
However, they also move a lot, they eat a predominantly plant-based whole-food diet, their wine at five is always part of a social gathering and they value rest and relaxation. If you live in a Blue Zone or live like a Blue Zonian (I made that up), then cheers to your wine at five – enjoy and have one for me!
If on the other hand you wake at 6 am, head straight into a stress-filled, mostly seated, working day before collapsing through the door flinging something in the microwave and crawling to the sofa…..then that wine just puts you another sip closer to chronic ill health and premature death.
Sorry – but that’s the long and short of it. Because let’s face it – after THAT day you’re definitely reaching for the second glass. And that is why finding your balance is key. If you want the alcohol then what can you do to make sure it’s part of an overall lifestyle that supports your wellbeing?
Reflecting on Why You Drink
So to wind up, the next time you raise your glass, maybe take a moment to consider why you are choosing to drink, how that glass of wine fits into the rest of your day and what that might mean for your health now and in the future.
If some of the following statements resonate then consider seeking support:
- You regularly drink alone
- You regularly binge drink
- You rely on alcohol when stressed, depressed, or having intrusive thoughts
- You avoid socialising with friends who do not drink
- You drink more than planned
- You crave alcohol
- You drop the ball in different areas of your life due to alcohol
- Alcohol cause friction in your relationships but you continue to drink
- You are sometimes embarrassed by your behaviour whilst drinking
- You can’t stop drinking, even if you consider yourself a moderate drinker
Maybe consider giving up alcohol for 1 month and assess how that makes you feel….honestly. If that alone is enough to induce a hot flush then maybe it’s time to reflect on your relationship with alcohol. Having that honest look might then help you seek support or consider some alternative coping strategies you can lean on if you feel alcohol has become too much of a crutch in your life.
For those wishing to explore their relationship with alcohol further, these resources have been tried and tested by midlife friends of mine:
Let me know in the comments if you have re-evaluated your relationship with alcohol in midlife and how it has impacted your life.
Don’t forget, if you like what you’ve read and would like more practical information and tips on nutrition, lifestyle and mindset for midlife women then I’d love it if you followed me at motherflushingmidlife at the social links below. And, feel free to spread the word.