When it’s been a long day, when you’re celebrating a work win, when it’s Friyay!
Before you know it you’re quaffing a glass of wine (or several) every night of the week and easily overshooting the recommended weekly alcohol allowance. (14 units in case you were wondering)
While we know about the physical health risks of slurping the sauvignon every day, less discussed is the impact on our mental health.
But the effects of drinking alcohol regularly on our mental wellbeing are actually pretty real. Recent statistics revealed that the number of people admitted to hospital with alcohol-related behavioural disorders has risen in the last 10 years by 94% for people aged between 15 and 59, and by 150% for people over 60.
The truth is those wind down wines could actually be doing some serious harm to our mind.
“This sustained level of alcohol intake can have a significant effect on our mental health, even if you are not binge-drinking on a regular basis,” warns Dr Julianne Barry from private GP clinic, London Doctors Clinic.
“Taking a drink to help calm the nerves can lead you in to a vicious cycle of heightened anxiety and alcohol intake and so it is really important to try to avoid going down this path,” she says.
According to Dr Barry alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters in your brain.
“These are the chemicals that transfer messages from one nerve to another,” she explains. “They are dependent on a status quo within the brain for proper functioning. When this balance is disrupted by this chemical change, there may be a resultant initial calm feeling and what is essentially a false sense of wellbeing.”
As anyone who’s discovered their bravado after a few beverages will understand, alcohol suppresses the area of the brain responsible for inhibitions, making people feel more confident and relaxed.
The problem is that fluctuations in mood can occur as alcohol lowers serotonin levels in our brain.
“Serotonin is a hormone which helps regulate our mood, levels of which tend to be lower in people with depression,” Dr Barry continues.
“If you are prone to stress or anxiety, alcohol intake can be particularly harmful, in that it is a known depressive, often escalating symptoms of depression or anxiety. The link between the two is well documented. Those with mental health problems are more likely to drink alcohol, in a self-medication type effort while those who drink alcohol regularly are more at risk of developing mental health issues.”
And drinking alcohol every day can have a pretty major impact on your sleep too.
“The greater amounts of alcohol you consume, particularly as you near bedtime, the greater negative impact there is on your sleep,” Dr Barry says.
“Alcohol interferes with our sleep pattern, suppressing melatonin levels. Melatonin helps regulate the sleep/wake cycle or our ‘circadian rhythm’.
“REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is compromised, limiting how refreshed and clear thinking you are, come the morning.”
Cue the morning after fog!
“You are not your sharpest and it can often be a groggy start to the day, ultimately affecting mood and performance.
And poor sleep can spark a negative sleep-less/stress-more cycle.
“Suboptimal sleep can have a significantly negative impact on our ability to manage anxiety and stress levels,” explains Dr Barry.
So now that we know how much daily drinking is affecting our mental health, what can we do about it?
To mark Alcohol Awareness Week, here’s five alternative ways to wind down Monday to Wednesday and beyond…
Get your fit on
Swap your beer for barre. “Exercise is well known to have a very positive impact on mental health, boosting serotonin levels, reducing stress levels, anxiety and helping to improve your mood,” explains Dr Barry.
But dragging yourself away from Bake Off to bust out some burpees isn’t necessarily an easy switch.
“The hardest part is getting a regular routine started,” says Dr Barry. “Coming in to the dark winter months, the last thing you want to do when you get home is to trek off out to a class or the gym.”
She suggests taking your gym gear to work with you so you can head straight off post-work. “Once you get in to an exercise routine, you will absolutely realise the mental as well as the physical benefits.”
Walk it off
Catching up doesn’t have to be done over a bottle of Malbec you know. “Rather than sitting on the couch/in a bar with a bottle of wine, grab your friend or partner and your trainers and get a good long walk in. This is ultimately more refreshing, energetic, satisfying and good for your mental health,” says Dr Barry.
Breathe it out
“Yoga, Meditation, Pilates all have great relaxation properties and when practiced regularly can have very positive results for the mind and body,” explains Dr Barry.
Go out, out alcohol-free
Who says you need alcohol to have a great night out. “The UK is great for late evening events, that do not have to centre around alcohol,” says Dr Barry. The recently formed movement ‘Sober and Social’ facilitates great alcohol-free social events where you can meet other people trying to cut alcohol down or out altogether.
“If you feel that your alcohol intake is becoming problematic and having a negative impact on your day to day life, work, relationships and general health, or if those close to you have expressed concern about your levels of alcohol consumption, it may be time to talk to a professional, such as your GP, about this,” Dr Barry warns.
“It can be challenging to get yourself out of a spiral of drinking without professional help and advice, but there are lots of resources out there.”
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