The booze-soaked festive season can trigger problems throughout the New Year and beyond. So “play the tape forward," as they say in AA, and think about what those problems could be - the hangovers, the pain you might cause others, the shame, the physical and mental costs, before focusing on what the positives of giving up alcohol could bring.
Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell is one of the UK’s leading experts on alcohol addiction.
He offers his top 10 pieces of advice on how to give up alcohol in the run-up to Christmas and into Dry January - and beyond.
“The post-war generation in particular – baby boomers – are drinking more,” he says. “We also know that men and women drink more at home nowadays, and the increasing ease with which you can add a couple of cheap boxes of wine to the weekly online shop is fuelling the problem.
“Some major supermarkets are selling wine for as little as £3.50 a bottle.
“Female ‘baby boomers’ drank more when they were younger, because more went out to work where the drinking culture was already established by men, and then they continued to drink more as a group.
“Sometimes people are ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol for stress – from looking after ageing parents, and debt-ridden adult children who have returned to the family home, while all the time holding down an exhausting paid job. Or they are caring for grandchildren. Women and men might begin drinking more after a forced early retirement because the sudden abundance of free time can leave people with the feeling they've lost purpose in life. They might have suffered from loneliness after the death of a spouse, or friends, or divorce.
“But this sort of drinking habit can have devastating consequences as you get older. In two-thirds of the cases of alcohol abuse in later life, people have had a drinking problem that got worse over the years.
“And I would strongly urge people in their fifties and sixties, and older, to ‘think before they drink’, especially if on medication. Excessive consumption is leading to early deaths from liver disease, heart disease, stroke, and cancer, and fuelling depression and anxiety. Men and women may also have problems managing diabetes and high blood pressure, and heavy drinking exacerbates dementia. And women don’t tolerate alcohol as well as men, and start to have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than men. We also know that the body's ability to process alcohol decreases with age. Even if you were a moderate drinker in your youth, you may find that the same amount of alcohol you used to drink will lead to trouble when you're older.
Top ten hacks to give up alcohol
The ‘look yourself in the mirror’ moment
Dr Campbell, from Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, said: “I see lives devastated by alcohol. You need to look honestly at your weekly alcohol consumption. Keep a drink diary if you don’t know. Familiarise yourself with what a ‘unit’ consists of and what the alcohol unit guidelines are (no more than 14 units a week). It’s not as simple as one drink, one unit. Large wine glasses hold 250ml, which is nearly three units or more in a single glass. Likewise, one pint of strong lager can contain more than three units of alcohol. A 750ml bottle of red, white or rosé wine contains around 10 units. By knowing what you consume, you can make the decision to stop. (If you are a heavy drinker and stop suddenly, you can get withdrawal seizures so you should always consult a doctor.) I often see people whose drinking levels have crept up on them over several years and who use alcohol to cope with unreasonable work pressures, or life crises such as divorce or bereavement. But drinking is not a coping strategy.
Know your ABVs
When looking at your consumption, consider the ABV of what you were drinking. Wine that says ‘13 ABV’ – ABV stands for ‘alcohol by volume’ - on its label contains 13% pure alcohol. The ABV of popular 'new world' wines from New Zealand and Australia can be more than European wines. You won’t have to worry about any of this when you stop drinking.
What’s your real motivation for stopping?
Ask yourself why? I say to patients at the Priory that they should assess alcohol’s true toll on their physical, mental and emotional health. Remind yourself of your worst or most embarrassing hangover. Do you constantly feel lethargic and foggy-headed? Do you lose days to hangovers? Do you find it hard to kick-start yourself in the mornings? Thinking about these things will help you decide you really want to change, because the benefits of giving up alcohol are manifold.
Talk to a friend and, if possible, get them to give up alcohol at the same time as you - then support each other. You might take up a sport at the same time, go running together, or swap your lagers for lattes. Discuss times when you might be tempted to go the pub and opt for the cinema or coffee bar, or binge watch Netflix. Discuss your mutual motivations for giving up alcohol. Even a Phone App might be useful as your supportive buddy. Spend time with friends who don’t drink.
Avoid social functions and resist peer pressure
It is very hard to attend social functions where alcohol is plied and you are under peer pressure. Stay away. No one will really care whether you are there or not. If you do go, mentally prepare how you will refuse alcohol, though it’s far more common now for non-drinkers to say ‘I am not drinking at the moment’. You don’t have to use the old cliché that you are on antibiotics. Keep away from supermarket aisles stocked full of alcohol. Don't put yourself in a high-risk situation.
Instead of alcohol?
Low alcohol beer is ok although it can give you a taste for the real stuff. But think of this period as a detox and you might want to give up caffeine at the same time. Get in the habit of drinking at least five glasses of water each day as your body desperately needs water for almost everything it does. Fruit juices are better than caffeinated, artificially sweetened soft drinks.
Think of losing weight
Giving up alcohol is a huge incentive to losing weight and looking better, because there are lots of hidden calories in alcohol. According to a YouGov survey, the average wine drinker in England takes in around 2,000 calories from alcohol every month. Drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to 44,200 calories over a year, which is equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts. Alcohol Concern says that of those who gave up alcohol for the first month in 2017, 49% lost weight over the month (62% of people also slept better, 79% of people saved money and 65% sustained reduced levels of drinking six months later, while 8% of people stayed dry).
You can drive everywhere
Giving up alcohol means no more worrying about who is driving at the end of a night out or a weekend lunch, or no more expensive taxi journeys home.
Count the cash
You will have more money in your wallet when you give up drinking. If you spend, say, around £20 a week on 2 bottles of wine, you will save £1,040 by the year’s end. Invest in something you enjoy, and reward yourself.
So – those other benefits…
I had a female patient whose skin was puffy and blotchy as a result of alcohol. Now her skin is completely fine. This is an important confidence booster in our image-obsessed world. But there are loads of other benefits to giving up alcohol; your blood sugar will normalise, you will feel much more clear-headed, less depressed and your sleep patterns are likely to improve within a week. Heavy drinking causes blood cells to become larger and that makes you more tired because they are unable to transport oxygen efficiently around the body. Alcohol is toxic to your largest organ - your skin. The toxins make your skin less elastic and it is very ageing. Your liver will begin to repair itself in as little as two months. Many people report that their mood or outlook on life seems better. Reducing your weight brings a lot of other benefits. You help to reduce further your risk of developing Type II diabetes and you lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Your blood pressure drops, and you may find pain on your joints reduces as the body isn’t trying to carry as much weight.
If you fall off the wagon…
Just get back on. Don’t beat yourself up about it. And if you get to 2019 without having had a drink, why not continue? Your body and brain will thank you for it. Drinking alcohol is a well-established risk factor for a range of cancers, including tumours of the mouth, liver, breast and colon and bowel. And the risk of cancer rises with levels of alcohol consumed. Figures show that accumulated drinking over a lifetime is taking its toll. The Office for National Statistics says that the alcohol-linked death rate among men aged 70 to 74 years has increased by around 50 per cent since 2001, from 18.7 to 28 per 100,000 in the population. During the same period the rate for women aged 60 to 64 years has increased by around 35 per cent. So sadly older people are increasingly dying from alcohol abuse as decades of drinking take their toll on the baby-boomer generation. That’s a wake-up call for us all.
About Priory Group: The Priory Group is the leading independent provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.