Dry January: How drinking impacts our mental health
By Karl O’Shea, Service User Participation Lead
With the festive season behind us, many of us will be looking back at a period of feasting and merriment where we’ve indulged in the usual smorgasbord of food and drink. Our new year resolutions may be about cutting back on, or giving up, some of the things we’ve overindulged in.
For this reason, Alcohol Change UK runs the Dry January campaign – a month long alcohol-free challenge. However, they are keen to point out that it isn’t about giving anything up – the challenge is about getting something back: a calmer mind, a better night’s sleep, and a renewed sense of energy.
The physical health benefits of a month without drinking are impressive. The British Medical Journal reported that an alcohol-free month lowers blood pressure, reduces diabetes risk, lowers cholesterol, and reduces levels of cancer-related proteins in the blood. Many people also report brighter skin, feeling more relaxed, and better-quality sleep.
The focus of the following piece will look at the relationship between alcohol and the body, alcohol and mental health, alcohol and the brain, and tips for healthier drinking, cutting down, or stopping altogether. You’ll also find a range of organisations at the end who can help you or a loved one with drinking problems.
Negative Effects of Alcohol on the body
Drinking too much alcohol can cause your body harm.
Short-term impacts of alcohol
In the short-term, it can cause alcohol poisoning, an upset stomach, bloating, migraines, and sleep problems. Alcohol disrupts an important stage of sleep, called ‘REM’ (Rapid Eye Movement sleep), which is essential to feeling rested and restored. Counter to popular belief, you’ll get a better snooze without booze.
Additionally, too much alcohol can lead you to behave recklessly or aggressively, which could mean injuring yourself in an accident, or being the victim of violence.
Long-term impacts of alcohol
Drinking a lot in the long-term increases your risk of health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease, and cancer. It can also lead, or contribute to social problems such as relationship issues, losing your job, financial difficulties, and homelessness. High alcohol consumption can also impair the immune system, making it easier to catch colds and other illnesses.
Alcohol and mental health
There is a close relationship between drinking alcohol and mental health. Drinking too much can be both a cause and consequence of poor mental health.
The reasons why people drink are as varied as the drinks themselves. Many of us drink to celebrate, socialise, commiserate, or even drown our sorrows. Although alcohol can help us feel relaxed and even provide a brief feeling of euphoria, these effects are short-lived. In the long-term, drinking too much alcohol can worsen the symptoms of mental health problems, especially anxiety and depression.
Alcohol has been called a ‘favourite coping mechanism’ in the UK, and many of us drink to help manage stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. During the first national lockdown, 38% of adults who were experiencing stress related to the pandemic said they had drunk more alcohol to cope.
Hangovers can be especially difficult, with headaches often being accompanied by feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. Using alcohol to deal with difficult feelings can also mean that any underlying mental health problems aren’t addressed, and may get worse as a result of drinking.
Although we might not think of it as such, alcohol is a powerful psychoactive substance. This means that it can drastically change the way we think and feel.
Alcohol and the brain
Our brains use several naturally occurring chemicals – called neurotransmitters – to carry messages between nerve cells. One of the key neurotransmitters at work when we drink alcohol is dopamine.
Dopamine plays a big role in how we feel pleasure. It is one of the so-called ‘happy hormones.’ When we start drinking, we produce more dopamine, which travels to the ‘reward centres’ of the brain – the parts that make us feel good and want to do more of whatever we’re doing.
Our first few drinks tend to make us feel good. We tend to feel more relaxed, confident, or less anxious. This feel-good factor is why people who experience mental health problems may drink in the first place. As well as making us feel good, we’re also likely to want to drink more after we’ve had a few, because of the neurotransmitters at work in our brains.
However, in addition to making us produce extra dopamine, alcohol is also a depressant. This means that alcohol depresses the body’s central nervous system – the system that lets our brain speak to our body to do things like co-ordinate movements.
So, if we continue drinking, the dopamine boost will be overtaken by the more unpleasant effects of drinking such as clumsiness, confusion, nausea, and dehydration. The positive and calming feelings associated with our first few drinks subside to be replaced with more negative emotions like anxiety, stress, and anger.
Additionally, alcohol has a dulling effect on how your brain processes information, making it difficult to know how you’re really feeling and anticipate the consequences of your actions.
In the longer term, our bodies can become used to alcohol induced dopamine boosts. To compensate, we may start to produce less dopamine when we’re not drinking. If drinking alcohol becomes a habit, we may become dopamine-deficient, and this could lead us to experiencing low mood. It can trigger a vicious cycle where we drink to relieve unpleasant feelings, which still emerge despite drinking, prompting us to drink even more – prompting a cycle of dependence.
There is a close relationship between alcohol problems and mental health problems. Research shows that you are more likely to develop mental health problems if you drink a lot of alcohol. People who experience severe mental ill-health are also more likely to have alcohol problems. This may be because they drink to deal with the symptoms of their condition. This is sometimes called ‘self-medicating’.
How much is too much?
Government guidance says that we should not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week (i.e., the equivalent of six pints of average strength beer or six medium glasses of wine).
Most of us will know when we’ve overdone it, but drinking can creep up on us and we might find that we’re drinking more than we’d like to.
If you’re worried that you, or someone close to you, is drinking too much, watch out for these signs:
- Craving alcohol frequently
- Not being able to control the amount of alcohol being drunk
- Being secretive about drinking (e.g., hiding drinking from friends and loved ones)
- Getting stressed or upset, or finding it hard to make decisions, when going without alcohol
Tips for healthier drinking
Drink and think in units
Doing so can help you to stay within the recommended 14 units per week. The NHS has guidance on calculating alcohol units.
Keep a drinking diary
Recording the amount of alcohol that you drink for a few weeks or months can help you understand your drinking pattern. You can then decide if you want to make a change. Download the free Try Dry app from Alcohol Change UK to help you keep track.
Have a few alcohol-free days every week
This is a great way to cut down and give yourself a rest. You could try extended breaks like Dry January or another dry month.
Give NOLO alternatives a go
Non-alcoholic and low-alcohol drinks are much more widely available than ever before: whatever you drink, there’s now a NOLO option. Check out the no- and low-alcohol reviews on the Alcohol Change UK website to help you get started. The Guardian has also recently published their top-three non-alcoholic picks.
Ways to help yourself cut down or stop drinking
Avoid situations where you’re tempted to drink
If you usually socialise in pubs or clubs, think about other activities you could enjoy with friends that don’t involve alcohol such as going to the cinema or taking an evening class.
Become part of a community
Club Soda – a ‘mindful drinking’ movement – have some great tips on how socialise sober. They meet in pubs so that people who are hoping to change their negative drinking habits can build up the confidence to order non-alcoholic drinks in this context.
Clubnights like MISERY are also championing sober nightlife for queer, trans, intersex Black people and people of colour – communities that are more likely to experience addiction issues, for a complex range of reasons.
Talk to people about how you’re doing
Changing your habits can be challenging. Talking to people you trust about your plans to change your relationship with alcohol can help you succeed. They can provide support and encouragement. They can also keep you company if you’re using other tactics, like exercise, to help you cope.
This NHS has lots of tips on cutting down your alcohol intake.
If you are dependent on alcohol, then stopping drinking suddenly can be very dangerous and can even kill you.
If you experience any of the following symptoms after a period of drinking, then you may be dependent on alcohol, and you should not suddenly stop drinking:
- seizures (fits)
- hand tremors (‘the shakes’)
- seeing things that are not actually real (visual hallucinations)
- difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
If you think you are dependent on alcohol, speak to a GP who will be able to get help for you to reduce your drinking safely. Change is possible, but it needs to be carefully managed with the appropriate support from trained professionals.
Useful resources for stopping drinking
If you’d like to change your relationship with alcohol, or you’re worried you might have a problem, check out the organisations below:
Alcohol Change UK campaign for better alcohol policies and improved support for people who are affected by alcohol problems. They also offer help and support if you want to change your drinking habits.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) runs free self-help groups for anyone who thinks they have a drink problem.
SMART Recovery groups help people build their motivation to change and offer tools and techniques to help with their recovery.
Drinkaware provides advice, information, and tools to help people make better choices about their drinking.
Drinkline is a free, confidential helpline for anyone worried about their drinking or someone else’s. Call 0300 123 1100.
Turning Point offers tailored support to people with drug or alcohol problems. This could be advice, medical treatment, peer support, social activities or help getting back into work, for example.
Al-Anon offers support and understanding to the family and friends of problem drinkers.
LGBTQI+ support services
The Gay and Sober website has regularly updated information on online LGBTQI+ recovery group meetings.
The LGBT Foundation provides information, support and advice to LGBTQI+ people. They offer one-to-one and group support for people concerned about their drug or alcohol use.
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Posted on: 12th January 2022