How cutting down drinking can prevent ‘Covid face’
The news that, according to a recent 2020 Global Drug Survey, half of all surveyed said they had been drinking more during this lockdown, did not surprise me.
Like many, the frustration and isolation in the face of this pandemic had caused an uptick in my booze intake.
I wasn’t drinking heavily but every night I drank, reassuring myself that it was only a couple of glasses, sometimes three, and that these were special times.
Even in my wildest younger days, I never drank every day. I was taking wine far more diligently than I took vitamin D. It took me a while to register I was one of these new Covid alkies. Every morning I’d think, “Day off the booze today.”
Around 5pm, I’d think, “Ooh, you know what, I fancy a drink,” as if it was an irregular thing, a surprise, when in fact like clockwork I was opening the fridge at 6pm day after day, month after month.
Many of the 50,000 respondents to the Global Drug Survey admitted Covid drinking had become a problem: 38 percent reported significantly poorer mental health and 56 percent significantly poorer physical health since increasing their alcohol intake.
All of which sounds familiar, but these weren’t the reasons I quit. What made me climb on the wagon wasn’t my mood, or my physical health.
It was that my face appeared to be falling off my skull, like a human Shar Pei. Was it really time to start saving for a facelift? My tummy was pouchy; my fingers could be so thick in the mornings that I needed soap to get my rings off. I blamed my ‘ormones - for all of it.
Then I gave up drinking for a week and, bingo, all those problems receded; after a month, they vanished.
I still drink, a bit. Maybe three days a week. The Mayo Clinic suggests one unit per day of alcohol is OK, one teeny tiny wine or half a beer, a tablespoonful of brandy - less than you think.
Prof Jonathan Chick is editor in chief of Alcohol and Alcoholism, the journal of the Medical Council on Alcohol. “It is probably only when taken with food that alcohol can provide any real health advantages. Perhaps by reducing damage in blood vessels when a meal releases fats into the bloodstream,” he says.
Too much of the demon drink can cause cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, stroke, hypertension, fatty liver, hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, cancer, brain damage, and hundreds of other conditions.
But death did not scare me, wrinkles and wine belly did. Turns out I don’t need a facelift, just less alcohol to my lips.
Here are six shallow reasons to reduce or quit drinking, all explained by serious science.
Nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson says that drinking “damages the structure of the cell membranes and causes inflammation. It also plays havoc with the liver and the hormone system. All of which affect the appearance of skin.
As you age, you naturally lose collagen [the protein that is the building block of bone, muscles, tendons, ligaments and skin]. The collagen matrix is reliant on vitamin C and if your liver is using up vitamins and minerals in the priority work of metabolising alcohol then it won’t be used to produce collagen. Chuck in the odd cigarette and a late night and you’re really looking at a perfect storm.”
Better skin tone
Not only did my skin miraculously plump - something the beauty industry loves to promise in its pricy potions some days it even shone.
Many skin complaints are caused or worsened by alcohol’s inflammatory action on the body, says Chick.
“It causes excessive capillaries in the nose and cheeks, it causes the whites of the eyes to redden, it can worsen any red flaky patches of skin and it’s probably the same cause of the big nose seen in long-term heavy drinkers. Reduce the drink, the capillaries shrink back and skin improves.”
No more wine-fuelled rows
“Alcohol causes disinhibition, when we lose controls in our frontal lobes and become more impulsive and less able to regulate our behaviour. That’s when we say things we regret,” says Chick.
Disinhibition is also the cause of bad, drunken decisions like embarrassing texts, emails, social media interactions and, for the kids, foolish “hook-ups.”
I slept like a baby, straight through. Even on less than ideal quantities of sleep, I felt way more refreshed. Even modest alcohol intake interferes with all the important processes of sleep.
“Alcohol suppresses dreaming,” says Chick. “And the longterm effects of suppressing dreams is harmful. Drink puts you into a kind of coma, and normal sleep patterns are disturbed.”
A King’s College, London study from 1990 found longterm alcohol misuse causes progressive muscle atrophy and weakness, and estimated it affects between a half and two thirds of problem drinkers. Even for a modest drinker, like me, cutting down had an impact on my fitness. Instead of kicking around at the back of the exercise class complaining about poor upper body strength and blaming it on being 50, I just did the press-up.
Losing the apple body shape
This is going to sound very unsisterly, but certain women seemed to preserve a very slender Nineties supermodel waiflike leg. From the hips up though, they all had a kind of puffball shaped upper body that could be disguised by clever styling in a fashionable smocked top.
“The slim legs,” says Chick, “are due to the way alcohol interferes with muscle cells.” This was the same destroyed muscle fibre that had me flopping about pretending I was injured at the gym.
Ferguson adds: “The torso of heavy drinkers is often the classic ‘apple’ shape.
When you hit middle age, a perfect storm of hormones and wine means you can become insulin-resistant, where insulin stores sugar as fat.
“Hence, drinking is like sitting on the sofa sculling energy drinks designed for running a marathon.”