Like a drink? Here’s a sober­ing thought

Lucy Atkins asks where the so­cial sip­ping stops and al­co­holism starts

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Wellbeing -

‘Ilove drink­ing,” says Rosie Mills, 39, a TV pro­ducer. “A drink at the end of the day is the bit I look for­ward to the most.” Four or five times a week, she and a group of sin­gle friends, all “forty-some­thing sin­gle party peo­ple”, meet in pubs, clubs and bars in Lon­don. Al­co­hol is the linch­pin of this wild so­cial life.

“I do ask my­self im­por­tant ques­tions about my drink­ing lev­els,” says Rosie, “but the an­swers tend to get lost in an­other glass of wine.”

Most of us are un­clear as to where so­cial drink­ing stops and al­co­hol de­pen­dency starts. A heavy-drink­ing stu­dent is fairly nor­mal, but a 40-year-old party an­i­mal? A soz­zled 60-year-old? At what point do the ques­tions de­mand a se­ri­ous an­swer?

Rec­om­men­da­tions from the Gov­ern­ment are that men should con­sume no more than three to four units of al­co­hol a day and women only two to three units (that’s only one large glass of wine). Of course, com­mit­ted “so­cial” drinkers of all ages of­ten ig­nore units, tak­ing com­fort in­stead from the fact that they are not reach­ing for the Glen­fid­dich be­fore their morn­ing com­mute, and their friends are drink­ing as much as they are.

The warn­ing signs can be blurred, how­ever. Rosie, for in­stance, drinks 35-50 units a week. “I’ll reg­u­larly pol­ish off a bot­tle of wine on my own at home,” she says. “But if the wine at a party is vile, I’ll only have a sip or two, so I fig­ure I can’t be that des­per­ate.”

Ac­cord­ing to the char­ity Al­co­hol Con­cern there are sev­eral bench­marks – be­sides al­co­hol units – to de­ter­mine whether alarm bells should be ring­ing (see box, be­low). You can even test your­self on­line. This could be worth do­ing – drink­ing too much over time can cause any­thing from liver dam­age to high blood pres­sure, fer­til­ity prob­lems, im­po­tence and men­tal health prob­lems. Three per cent of all can­cers, in­clud­ing breast can­cer, are caused by al­co­hol (the rel­a­tive risk of breast can­cer in­creases by six per cent for each ad­di­tional unit con­sumed per day).

Such dire med­i­cal facts are, how­ever, un­likely to stop the truly com­mit­ted drinker. “Al­co­holics have a lot of fun,” says Tom Sykes, au­thor of What Did I Do Last Night?, an ac­count of his de­scent into al­co­holism in his 20s. His heavy drink­ing peaked when, as a bar critic for the New York Post, Sykes was putting away 250 units of al­co­hol a week. “I’d start each evening with three or four pints of beer, then there would be a bot­tle or two of wine over din­ner, then five or six large Mar­ti­nis,” he re­calls.

There is no sim­ple an­swer as to why one per­son’s so­cial drink­ing can be solved by re­straint, while an­other’s es­ca­lates crazily. Frank Sood­een of Al­co­hol Con­cern says: “Some peo­ple sim­ply have a greater pre­dis­po­si­tion to be­com­ing ad­dicted than oth­ers.

“Drink­ing al­co­hol trig­gers the re­lease of dopamine, a ‘feel­good’ chem­i­cal, in the brain, which gives you the plea­sur­able sen­sa­tions. If you con­tinue to drink reg­u­larly, it takes more and more al­co­hol to trig­ger the same sen­sa­tions.

“While there may be a ge­netic con­tri­bu­tion to al­co­hol de­pen­dency, most of the cur­rent think­ing is that so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors, such as stress or de­pres­sion, are gen­er­ally more im­por­tant.”

The key is to face the mu­sic. Gov­ern­ment fig­ures show that about one in three peo­ple who have an al­co­hol prob­lem can re­duce their drink­ing, or stop al­to­gether, with­out need­ing pro­fes­sional help. But treat­ment can help in other ways. “Th­ese days it’s not just about cut­ting down,” says Sood­een. “It’s about edit­ing your life to re­move the rea­sons you are drink­ing so much.”

If you are read­ing this with an­other hang­over, it could be time to get out your red pen.

Mes­sage in a bot­tle: be aware of the signs of al­co­hol de­pen­dency

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