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Feb 4th 2018

Seven ways alcohol affects your anxiety

It's no secret that there's a relationship between alcohol and anxiety – just last year, findings published by Drinkaware showed that 34% of Brits will sometimes use drinking alcohol as a means to cope with anxiety or depression.

But with lots of us reporting to feeling the effects of "hanxiety" after a night out, the general consensus is that overall, alcohol makes anxiety worse.

With this in mind, we quizzed a couple of experts on how alcohol affects stress and anxiety, both short and long term, plus how to avoid overdoing it on a night out so you don't worsen your anxiety.

1. Initially it can make us feel far more confident – but that doesn't last

No doubt you're of the belief that having a drink makes you more confident, chatty and laid back – and it's true that having an alcoholic drink can temporarily put a hold on social anxiety. 'Alcohol acts as a sedative, so it can help you feel more at ease in the short term,' says Dr Sarah Jarvis, medical advisor at Drinkaware.

Unfortunately, that buzz is short-lived. 'When you drink alcohol it disrupts the balance of chemicals and processes in your brain,' Dr Jarvis continues. 'The relaxed feeling you experience when you have your first drink is due to the chemical changes in your brain. Alcohol depresses the part of the brain we associate with inhibition, but these effects wear off fast and the pleasant feelings fade.'

2. Your brain's serotonin levels deplete

As a depressant, alcohol lowers levels of serotonin, our 'happiness' hormone. 'There are a number of reasons that even short-term, alcohol can be harmful to our mental health,' says Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist, anxiety expert and author of The Anxiety Solution.

'Drinking it reduces the amount of serotonin in the brain; serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps you to feel calm and happy and low levels of it are associated with increased anxiety.'

3. You'll find you need to drink more and more to lose social anxiety </strong>

Unfortunately, your body will build up a tolerance to alcohol and it will become less effective in making you feel at ease. 'If you're using alcohol to help with anxiety you can get into a vicious cycle,' says Dr Jarvis. 'As your tolerance increases you need to drink more to get the same effect.

'This is because as you come off it each time, you need more alcohol to help because the anxiety comes back. In the long term this pattern of drinking may affect your mental health.'

4. And then there are anxiety hangovers

You know the feeling well if you're an anxiety sufferer; being bundled up in a cocoon of duvet feeling like something truly awful is about to happen. While you may not have a headache or any feelings of nausea, anxiety hangovers are very much a thing. So why do we get them?

'When we're experiencing symptoms such as a palpitations, dizziness, shaking or sweating during a hangover, it can trigger anxiety because these symptoms feel very similar to anxiety itself,' says Chloe. 

'It can also trigger health anxieties – worrying about whether that headache really is just a headache or whether it's something more sinister,' she adds. 'Low serotonin in the brain and dehydration will also add to that sense of feeling unwell.'

5. Drinking alcohol can worsen your short-term memory

Ever had a night after drinking where you can't remember what you did? Most of us have been there. But if you're an anxious person to begin with, this can end up making you feel a million times worse. 'Many people lose their inhibitions when they use alcohol, and behave in a way that would embarrass them under normal circumstances,' says Dr Jarvis.

'In addition, alcohol can affect short-term memory, which is why people who have been drinking often forget what they did the night before. Worrying about what you might have said or done can have a significant effect on your anxiety levels.'

6. There's a greater risk of developing alcohol dependency

'A study carried out in the USA found that 20% of those with social anxiety have an alcohol abuse problem. It can create a vicious cycle where you drink to relieve anxiety, the hangover creates more and then you drink again to try to feel better,' says Chloe.

'You might feel you can't relax and unwind after work without half a bottle of wine, or that you can't face a work party without several drinks to calm your nerves. As your tolerance increases and you find yourself needing to drink more for the same effect, you could be doing your body more harm.'

7. It disrupts your sleep pattern 

'Alcohol also disrupts your sleep pattern, which can affect your mood as well as your energy levels,' says Dr Jarvis. 'As a result, you're more susceptible to anxious feelings and can't cope with day-to-day life as easily. This can leave you feeling exhausted and irritable.'

What's more, using alcohol as a relaxant to help you get to sleep is directly harmful to your sleep cycles – a 2014 study by the University of Missouri-Columbia found that drinking alcohol as a method of getting to sleep disrupts your body's sleep homeostasis, or sleep regulator.

Tips to avoid 'overdoing it' with alcohol: 

1. Going for a period without drinking at all

'This can be a good way to "reset" your drinking. If you can stay sober for six weeks, you'll learn how to handle situations without alcohol and be forced to find alternative ways to relax and socialise.'

2. Stick to less exciting drinks such as vodka and soda water over Prosecco

'Drinking something less delicious could mean that you end up drinking less. It's an oldie, but drinking water in between each alcoholic drink will mean you're less likely to be hungover the next day.'

3. Think about how you can socialise without alcohol

'Suggest heading out for brunch instead of dinner, an exercise class or spending time in the great outdoors. It might mean spending less time with friends that love to go out and drink and more time with other friends that prefer the sober life, but it will be worth it if it significantly lowers your anxiety and means you're happier.'

Jan 21st 2018

Seven signs you might be a functioning alcoholic

In England alone, it's estimated that 595,000 people are dependent on alcohol, but only one sixth of them are accessing help. In fact, some of them manage to hold down a stable job and relationships with their family and friends, and on the surface, appear to be happy and successful - the complete opposite of what you'd typically think of when we say the word 'alcoholic'.

However, although you may still be 'functioning', maintaining an unhealthy dynamic with alcohol can still cause an incredible amount of damage, both physically and mentally. If you're concerned about how much you (or a friend) is drinking, here are 8 telltale signs that it might be time to ask for help. 

1. You're always up for a drink</h4>

Red flag to anyone who considers themselves to be the life and soul. "Someone with an alcohol problem is likely to be ever-ready to go for a drink, which can make them seem like great fun and really sociable," Andrew Misell, from the organisation Alcohol Concern explains. "This doesn't mean that they are escaping harm."

If you're always the first to take up the offer of a cocktail, or accepting that seventh top-up of prosecco when everyone else has had enough, it's time to assess whether you're saying yes because you really want to, or because you can't say no.

2. You drink every day

It might be a glass or two one day and a bottle the next, but someone who is physically dependent on alcohol will be drinking every day, says Andrew. Weekend binge drinkers, on the other hand, don't fall into this category - but if you're a stay sober 'til Saturday kind of lady, that still doesn't mean that your habits are good. "You're still giving your body a pounding and potentially storing up long-term health problems" he adds. 

3. You find it hard to stop drinking once you've started</h4>

One of the questions asked to identify a possible alcohol problem is 'how often do you find you're not able to stop drinking once you had started?' Answering 'all the time' to this alone is not a diagnosis in itself, but it can definitely indicate that your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy. Other questions include 'how often do you fail to do what's expected from you because of your drinking?', 'how often do you need a drink in the morning?', and 'how often are you unable to remember what happened the night before?'

4. You work in a profession where drinking is the norm

If you work in an industry with a strong drinking culture, temptation tends to be even more prevalent. According to Andrew, this may even help you to carry on drinking to excess - your habits can be masked by those around you, and could actually end up seeming 'average' in comparison.

Remember that their choices aren't necessarily the norm outside of that environment, and listen to your own body - if you're going too hard, chances are it's trying to tell you to slow down.

5. You joke about being an alcoholic</h4>

If we're honest with ourselves, most of us have probably made a joke about our 'alcoholic' tendancies in the past. So at what point does it become no laughing matter? 

"Joking about drinking or simply not engaging with it as an issue may be one way in which 'functioning' alcoholics avoid their harmful drinking being noticed," Andrew advises. "In the end, this means they might not get the help they need."

6. Your relationships are suffering

Unsurprisingly, drinking can be linked to a range of relationship issues. "On a very simple level, if one partner drinks much more than the other, they may start to feel they have less in common," Andrew details. "Spending time sober with someone who is often drunk can be boring and lonely. If one partner is drinking very heavily, they may be prone to forgetting to do things they've promised, and alcohol may start to take priority over their partner. Clearly that is not a recipe for a happy home."

7. People are worried about you

Boyfriends to best friends, work wives to your mum and dad; the people closest to you know you better than even you realise, and if they're expressing concerns about your blood alcohol levels, you should definitely heed their warning. "Anyone who thinks they may be drinking too much, at any time, can seek help from their GP,'" Andrew advises. "You can seek out support groups and other services in your local area."

Jan 2nd 2018

If you're looking to lose a bit of excess weight, the first thing you're usually told is to give up booze, or it's at least suggested that you dramatically limit your alcohol intake to almost nothing.

And it's good advice. Chloe Pantazi gave up alcohol for an entire year and achieved impressive results — just over a stone in weight loss, to be exact.

But, for many the idea of giving up booze (as well as drastically reducing their intake of delicious Christmasfood) is just too grim.

Why make January any worse by doing dry January?

The good news is, you actually don't have to sacrifice your favourite tipple to shed the pounds.

We asked clinical nutritionist and dietician Filip Koidis of W1 Nutritionist: How can you lose weight if you don't want to give up alcohol?

Here's his six step response:

1. Don't eat while you drink

Alcohol on its own is not that calorific — although the calories it carries have almost no nutritional value and are therefore considered “empty” — but its effects on your metabolism might be delaying your weight loss progress.

"When alcohol is ingested, our body’s immediate response is to start removing it from our blood stream, as its accumulation is toxic," Koidis said. "Therefore, if alcohol is co-ingested with food, our body will first focus on removing all alcohol and then process the food, a procedure that slows down our metabolism and interferes with our weight loss goals."

In order to deal with this, he suggests eating 2 to 2.5 hours before a night out, and avoiding eating while drinking, "therefore allowing your liver to focus on processing the alcohol and not burdening it with food."

"You are more likely to go for high-calorie and processed foods when you’ve had a few drinks and forget all about your healthy eating principles, so best to plan ahead and have your dinner early"

2. Keep it simple

The empty calories in alcohol can easily quadruple with the addition of fizzy drinks or the sugar added to cocktails/found in processed fruit juices.

Koidis says that instead of mixing your alcohol with the above, you should have it on the rocks with freshly squeezed juice or fresh pieces of fruit. "This way you are likely to have better control of how much alcohol you consume and significantly reduce your calorie intake for the night," he said.

3. Party hard, but work out harder

"Following a healthy lifestyle and embarking upon a weight loss journey is not about 'cutting things out' but about finding the right balance between your health goals and social life," Koidis said.

If you have a special occasion or work drinks, he says this is totally fine, but don't let this stop you from going to the gym or going for a run the next day.

"Studies have shown that exercise improves body composition and liver health of alcohol consumers, so power through your hangover and go sweat it out."

4. Make a few simple trade-offs

Alcohol is just one factor to consider when trying to achieve your health and fitness goals.

Koidis advises exercising your willpower on simple things now and again, "whether it's trading off your daily glass of wine at dinner because you’re trying to improve your sleep (which will help you lose weight), or choosing to drink slower and more mindfully instead of drinking your friends under the table because you’re trying to cut back on your calorie intake, or even choosing to drink at two of the four events you have this week because you know you usually end up overdoing it at the buffet when you’re a little bit tipsy."

5. Ask yourself — are you really a 'moderate drinker?'

Koidis says it's important to understand your drinking habits in order to hit your goals.

"Most drinkers consume a lot more alcohol than they think they do. So it would be good to observe your drinking habits in order to gain a better understanding of how much you’re drinking and how to tailor that on your weight loss goals," he said.

6. Don’t cut alcohol completely at first

Finally Koidis points out that his clients who have begun following a healthy regime usually start to reduce their intake gradually anyway.

"From my own experience at my clinic, for many of my clients, once they have been on a healthy pattern for some time they are in better sync with their body and realise alcohol’s side effects better — mood, cravings, poor performance at the gym, etc. — so wanting to cut back or cut it out completely comes naturally, which is the best way to go about it."

Dec 15th 2017

Health experts have warned of the dangers of under age drinking after a study found that one in six parents allow their children to drink alcohol at the age of 14.

Well-educated parents of white children were most likely to allow their children to drink at 14, the research by the UCL Institute of Education and Pennsylvania State University in the US found.

Parents who abstained from alcohol tended not to allow their children to drink, but among those who did drink, those fathers and mothers who drank heavily were no more likely to let their children drink alcohol than light or moderate drinkers.

Current guidelines recommend that an alcohol-free childhood is best, with children not drinking any alcohol before the age of 15.

As wine is often shared at the dinner table during the festive season, the study’s authors were keen to point out that while having better educated parents is generally a protective factor for children, previous research has shown that those who start drinking early are more likely to fail at school, have behaviour issues, as well as alcohol and substance problems in adulthood.

After analysing data on more than 10,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the new century, they found that 17% of UK parents have let their children drink alcohol by the age of 14.

Parents of white children who were employed, had more educational qualifications, and who drank alcohol themselves, were more likely to allow their adolescent children to drink than unemployed parents, those with fewer educational qualifications, and ethnic minority parents.

Professor Jennifer Maggs, who led the study, said: “Parents of socially advantaged children may believe that allowing children to drink will teach them responsible use or may in fact inoculate them against dangerous drinking.

“However, there is little research to support these ideas.”

Katherine Brown, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “This is important guidance because alcohol can harm children given their bodies and brains are not yet fully developed.

“It is worrying to see that this advice may not be getting across to parents, who are trying to do their best to teach their children about alcohol.”

Dec 11th 2017

Experts routinely spout that a glass of red wine each night is good for the heart. But what about seven glasses? And what if they’re spread over the course of two days? Is it still just as detrimental to your health? A new study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors outlines eight drinking patterns found in 177 heavy alcohol users that, if left unchecked, could quickly slide into full-blown alcoholism.

1. 3-4 Drinks, 2-3 Times per Week (Weekend)

Though the majority of the 19 people in this category had no alcohol-related problems, just over half suffered from a personality disorder of some type. Only one of the subjects said she was willing to change her behavior. Often this pattern of drinking precedes heavier drinking in varying contexts. As most of the group’s drinking took place on the weekend, it may have been largely social. A sign that social drinking may be turning into a coping mechanism is the transition to more regular drinking alone.

2. 3-4 Drinks, 2 Times per Week (Weekend-ish)

Most of the people in this group were young, white, and college-educated. They’re likely to be on the cusp of their thirties, if they’re even over the hump of 25. Drinking is still largely socially driven, and engaging in a period of intense drinking may not necessarily indicate a problem. However, as most of the 25 subjects were unwilling to change, the risk of dependence may grow with time.

3. 4-5 Drinks, 1-2 Times per Week (Weekends)

The risk of problem-drinking in these 28 people, most of whom were unmarried women, is decidedly reduced — but only to a point, as one extra drink led to 42 percent more feelings of unhappiness with drinking behavior. What was once celebratory and social in group 1 now seems more like disillusionment.

4. 4-5 Drinks, 1-2 Times per Week (Anytime)

By the CDC’s measure, groups 1-4 are the only ones that could fall outside binge drinking, namely for men. What’s more, the largest group of the study, at 39 participants, this cohort was the most likely to have an alcoholic father. Researchers speculated this fact may have compelled people to limit their drinking to just the one or two times a week. Unlike the previous group, however, these subjects didn’t limit their drinking to the weekends.

5. 5-6 Drinks, 3-4 Times per Week (Weekend-ish)

Though heavy users through and through, this group was the most hopeful of the eight. They were most likely to be taking meaningful steps toward breaking the habit — 57 percent had tried treatment — and half were in the highest “action” stage when it came to enacting change. Researchers found this pattern as the greatest tipping point for problem-drinking.

6. 7 Drinks, 4 Times per Week (Anytime)

This group contained 20 people, and roughly two-thirds of them identified as habitual users. Without any intervening efforts, in other words, their behaviour would not stop — regardless of the fact that most of the people in the group said they were fully willing to change. None of these 20 people was married, and most (70 percent) were older white men.

7. 9-10 Drinks, 3-4 Times per Week (On/Off)

At nearly a dozen drinks in one sitting, repeated several times throughout the week, this group may seem like the most problematic. But the researchers at least partially defended the behavior, because the group was also the most ready to change. In spite of their heavy drug use, low employment rate (less than a third), greatest alcohol dependency, and the highest rate of alcohol-related problems, the group could at least acknowledge it needed a change.

8. 6-7 Drinks, 4 Times per Week (Throughout)

These subjects were essentially group 5, but past the tipping point. Characteristically unmarried older men, the group had a lifelong dependence on alcohol along with low employment rates, a bevy of alcohol-related problems, and worst of all, had no desire to change. They were the subjects that could benefit the most from professional help.

Source: Harrington M, Velicer W, Ramsey S. Typology of alcohol users based on longitudinal patterns of drinking. Addictive Behaviors. 2014.

June 12th 2017

Would you believe us if we told you some people can get drunk without ever taking a sip of alcohol? While this might sound enviable (no carbs, no empty calories, no price tag), that’s far from the case for those who suffer from a rare condition called auto-brewery syndrome.

Also known by its more clinical name, gut fermentation syndrome, it occurs when there’s an overgrowth of candida, the yeast that most commonly causes yeast infections. Except instead of overgrowing in the mouth or genitals, it multiplies out of control in your gut.

'When candida metabolizes sugars it produces byproducts and chemical derivatives of alcohol. When those get into your circulatory system, it can give you that feeling of being hungover or drunk,' says Kiran Krishnan, a microbiologist in Florida.

Sometimes, people with the condition assume they’re just sick when they experience symptoms like fogginess, lightheadedness, and overall lethargy, but if they had their blood tested it would actually show a slight elevation in blood alcohol content (BAC) depending on what type of alcohol derivative their body produced, says Krishnan.

'It’s just like what happens when you drink, except it’s chronic,' he says. 'Drinking causes inflammation in the body and puts stress on the liver, and so does this. It’s basically like these microbes in your body are drinking and having a party and you’re paying the price for it.'

If you’re still not sold, here’s more proof: in 2016, an upstate New York woman blew more than four times the legal limit, despite insisting she hadn’t had a drink in hours; turns out, she was telling the truth, and a judge later dismissed the charges after viewing evidence that she (unbeknownst to her) had auto-brewery syndrome.

And, an article in the journal Medicine, Science, and the Law, explored the phenomenon and reported that in people with the condition, an abnormally high alcohol concentration appeared to have been produced after they’d eaten carbohydrate-rich foods. 'When the body has sugars or simple carbohydrates in it, as well as these microbes, they’ll metabolize it and produce these byproducts, which cause the systemic effects,' says Krishnan.

Candida overgrowth is what Krishnan calls an 'opportunistic grower,' which means if you make your body an attractive incubator, it’ll take advantage of that and leave you feeling hungover all the time, minus the social fun. (These are the signs you might be drinking too much alcohol.) The good news is, it’s not a strong fighter, so there are simple steps you can take to keep it under control. 'Limit stress, eat a healthy diet, and take a probiotic,' he says. 'Look for a probiotic that says it survives the gastric system, like Probiogen, because this means it’s guaranteed to get into your intestines alive, not a given with all probiotics.'

March 29th 2017

At the age of 13, I discovered alcohol and my life began. A glass of Baileys on Christmas Eve soon became a bottle. I chatted, I sang and I danced around the Christmas tree. A childhood of being the shy retiring wallflower and feeling like I didn't belong was over. I'd found life's magic elixir. I was so impressed by it, I even gave it to the dog.

By 16, I was sneaking into nightclubs, using friends' innocent sleepovers as an excuse to stay out all night. We frequented the local rock club, mostly because of its relaxed policy towards allowing our fake student IDs to pass as real. I'd order ten shots of 50p vodka in a pint glass then hide in the toilets to drink until my self-hatred disappeared or I passed out, whichever came first. It was the blueprint of my social life. I didn't need to lose weight, dress differently or sort my skin out. Alcohol offered almost instant self-acceptance, in liquid form.

By the time I turned 20, the problematic drinking that had plagued my teenage years had descended into something else - hopeless alcoholism.

To numb the pain

"Why do you drink so much?" my friend innocently asked, whilst I lounged at the end of her bed on a Wednesday afternoon.

"To numb the pain of having to be alive," I answered nonchalantly, opening my third bottle of wine.

At the age of 23, waking up to a splash of orange juice in my vodka was a regular occurrence.

"Drink through it," I would tell myself, thinking that I'd deal with the awaiting hangover another day. If I hadn't been at some crazy party, where the alcohol freely flowed, I'd be at home, drinking until the early hours and drowning away my sorrows.

I hated being sober. It was like watching television in black and white. As soon as the first drop of alcohol passed my lips, my world was in colour again. And I would do everything in my power to ensure I never saw life without my alcohol-blurred lenses.

One drop of that intoxicating liquid and life's little lubricator would work its magic, numbing the pain of existence and making the world a much better and brighter place.

In my early twenties, cold sweats and shaking were a daily occurrence. I went through alcohol withdrawal as I sat at the desk of my serious job in a serious company, too much of a nervous wreck to answer the phone, deleting emails I couldn't cope with and drinking on my own at lunchtime so I could get through the day.

Drinking and dying

But the effects of this all day, every day binge were not just limited to the physical. As awful as the vomiting, the accelerated heartbeat and the shakes were, it was the mental effects that catapulted me into hell and kept me there. Suicidal thoughts constantly permeated my brain; all I thought about was drinking and dying.

At the age of 25, alcohol nearly ended my life. I woke up and found myself in rehab with the hangover from hell, being medically withdrawn from alcohol and told that it would be in my interests never to drink a drop ever again.

I'm now 30, and have been sober for the last five years. After years of alcoholic drinking and five years of sobering up, here's what I've learnt:

1. Professionals won't necessarily understand

At 24, I knew I needed help, and quickly. I booked an appointment to see my GP and then managed to be too hungover to attend. Finally, weeks of hangovers, excuses, withdrawal and all round hell later, I found myself sitting opposite him, confessing the amount of units I was consuming just to get through the day. In the three days before my appointment, I'd religiously noted every sip I took, and there written in bright red marker pen on his desk was the result: 140 units in three days or to put it plainly, alcohol to wake up, alcohol to get through the day and alcohol to go to sleep.

He didn't seem worried. "Do you have a house? A job? Parents? Friends?" he asked.

"Yes," was my response, although only just.

"Then what's your problem?" he asked, sending me home with a prescription for the antidepressant citalopram and instructions to write a list of the positives in my life.

I left the surgery, and went straight to the off licence. Apparently, alcoholism was not a problem faced by women in their twenties.

I don't really remember how many times I returned to my GP, in various states of intoxication, withdrawal and anguish. But what I do remember is the frustration I felt every time he made it clear that there were just no resources in my area to help a girl like me, and I was on my own.

If you experience a professional who seems to understand the nature of addiction in whatever form it takes, count your blessings.

2. Rehab might get you sober, it won't keep you sober

I was lucky enough to stumble through the doors of the only rehabilitation centre in the UK who had the resources to help a suicidal, penniless young alcoholic on the way to recovery.

Rehab was no walk in the park. There was endless tea and toast, but there were also tears and tantrums as I realised that everything about my life was going to have to change.

Six weeks later, I left, having felt for the first time in my life that I was exactly where I needed to be.

Rehab got me sober, but it didn't keep me sober. Cocooned from reality for six weeks, I was ill prepared for the harsh outside world. Without putting any proper support in place to manage life outside rehab walls, I relapsed, almost immediately.

3. The pub will lose its allure

I spent my first months of not drinking gazing through the windows of the pub. My head was in recovery, my heart was still at the pub.

I loved the smell of alcohol, sticky floors and cigarettes. I associated it with a sense of camaraderie. That sickly sweet smell meant everything was going to be ok.

I had to go through a period of mourning my relationship with alcohol, as well as the pubs, the bars, the clubs, the parties, and the life that I thought alcohol had given me.

4. Friends > drinking acquaintances

Most of my friends disappeared the day I went into rehab; a few hung around long enough to attempt going out for a sober meal with me. The friends, who I had so much in common with after the sixth bottle of wine at a party, were silent and awkward over a jug of tap water. I never heard from most of them again.

I learnt what it meant to meet friends for coffee and a chat, not for drinks at the pub.

5. Parties aren't what they used to be

I thought I was a party girl until I got sober and realised the only thing attracting me to the party was the presence of alcohol.

At parties, I hid alcohol everywhere. I never wanted it to run out. I'd hide it in the washing machine, under the stairs and in the shed, so if the time came when the booze was running out and the off licence was closed, I always had a backup.

Today I like some parties. But mostly I find socialising exhausting and the more booze that's consumed, the more I want to go home. Not because I worry about drinking, but because somewhere around the third glass of wine, the noise levels go up, stories are repeated and it all becomes very tiresome.

I'd never observed drunk people before I got sober. I was always too drunk to notice anyone else's behaviour.

6. People won't always understand

"Can't you just have one?" I'm often asked.

"No," I laugh. "Unless you want to pay for my next stint in rehab."

That usually silences anyone particularly persistent in getting me to drink and more importantly, prevents any sneaky shots of vodka finding their way into my glass.

7. I suddenly had all the time in the world and didn't know what to do with it

My entire life revolved around alcohol. It wasn't just drinking it that took up the time. Try standing in supermarkets working out the most effective alcoholic drink based on cost vs. alcohol percentage. Or managing the debilitating effects of not just a hideous hangover, but full on alcohol withdrawals. Or working out how to replace all the alcohol you've stolen from your flatmate for the fourth time in a week. All of this whilst trying to show up for work, pay the bills, and maintain the facade that everything is just fine.

Without alcohol, I had an awful lot of time on my hands. I slept a lot and then, as I began to feel better, discovered a whole world of non-alcohol related activities that had been a mystery to me before.

Who knew that kickboxing on a Saturday morning could be so much fun? Who knew Saturday morning was even a thing?

8. There's help out there; make the most of it

Getting sober isn't easy. It's the most difficult thing I've ever done.

At 24, I hit what I thought was rock bottom. An attempt at being sober without any support lasted a painful fortnight and ended in a teary tantrum when nobody would buy me a bottle of wine. Without that wine, I couldn't see the purpose of being alive for the next thirty minutes, never mind for the rest of my life.

So I went to AA. I was too nervous to walk through the door sober so I'd take along vodka in a Starbucks cup, hoping no one could smell the booze on my breath.

I hated the people, the dingy church halls, the language of recovery, the plastic chairs, the terrible coffee. I had every excuse, every reason, every validation for not doing it.

Yet the day came when one day I woke up and it was ok not to drink. Then the next day it was ok too. Soon a year had past, then two, three, four and now five.

Over the years I've argued with the AA programme, left, come back and left once again. But there's one thing I can't argue with – I would never have got sober without the support of AA.

9. Alcohol is the tip of the iceberg

As several years passed by, it wasn't so much not drinking that was the problem; it was the underlying myriad of issues and self-hatred that had led to alcohol being the solution to begin with. In order for me to stay sober I had to deal with disordered eating, dysfunctional relationship patterns, anxiety and underlying depression.

I had to learn how to deal with life without a bottle of vodka to whitewash my feelings or shortcut through pain.

Year one was tough. Year two was boring. Year three was an adventure. Year four and five were just life as life. Alcohol became irrelevant. It wasn't even on my radar; neither the problem, nor the solution.

At the age of 30, I am now five years sober. That's five years without a drink, a blackout or a hangover.

Dec 22nd 2016 A Christmas message

Sara Stewart, 54, began drinking to an unhealthy level at the age of 16. Now ten years sober, she shares her experiences with us...

There was no 'tipping point' as such…

"…Once I had discovered that alcohol made me feel better or gave me the impression that my problems had gone away, it became my go-to solution for everything. I drank to self-medicate, but I do have alcoholics on both sides of my family and, combined with my addictive personality, I think I was an alcoholic waiting to happen.

"Alcoholics will always find an excuse as to why they drink – maybe they came from a broken home, or their marriage is in a mess or their life is very stressful. It's easy to blame everything else except you for your drinking problem. The bottom line is that alcohol only exacerbates people's problems and you find yourself in a downward spiral."

Life as an alcoholic

"To begin with, during my teens, twenties and into my early thirties, I was more of a binge drinker. I would go out and get completely wasted every few months, particularly if I had a problem I was dealing with at that time. I didn't know when to call it a night or when I had had enough to drink. I would put myself in dangerous situations, do stupid things and inevitably have to apologise to people the next day for having said or done something outrageous.

"As my marriage started to disintegrate in my mid-thirties – whilst I was also trying to cope with running a business and looking after three small children – my drinking became more regular. I used to drink wine or spirits, but as my binges got closer together, I would drink anything I could get my hands on. It's at this stage you start making sure that you have a regular supply of alcohol to hand and it begins to rule your life.

"From occasional binges, I then started drinking excessively most weekends. As things got worse, I drank in the evenings during the week too – not a glass of wine or two, but to the point where I would pass out. It got to the stage where, in the last few weeks of my drinking career, I would have a drink as early as mid morning."

Christmas as an alcoholic</h3>

"Christmas Day was often spent nursing a hangover as I had usually over-indulged the night before. It is a great time of year for alcoholics because it gives you the perfect excuse to drink excessively without it being too noticeable or unacceptable.

"However, I didn't just drink when socialising. I would happily stay up by myself, wrapping presents until 3am and knocking back my drink of choice. And I would drink throughout Christmas Day. I remember my very last Christmas Day before I got help: I drank so much that I didn't even get around to cooking Christmas dinner."

Going sober

"Ending up in A&E was my personal rock bottom. I suddenly realised that this wasn't normal behaviour for a middle-aged woman with kids. Up to that point, I had been in denial about how serious my drinking had become. It's a favourite trick of alcoholics to avoid the truth and so justify their excessive drinking.

"I went into rehab for a time and then attended for several years. Discovering what life could be like without alcohol was the only incentive I needed. I found a lot of the anger and jealousies that I had clung onto as an alcoholic just disappeared. I started to like people again and notice how beautiful the world we live in can be. I was so scared of picking up a drink I never had a relapse – but I am also wary of never taking my sobriety for granted. I would never even experiment with alcohol to see if I was OK with it now. It's just not worth it.

"I have just released a book – – in which I draw on my personal experiences through the character of Alice, who is herself an alcoholic. Although, I have to say, the book is fictional and my life was never quite as dramatic as hers! Part of the process of recovery from alcoholism is to remind yourself of all the terrible things you did under the influence. It's a way of keeping on the straight and narrow, and this is touched upon in the book."

Staying sober at Christmas

"It might sound unthinkable to somebody who loves a good party at Christmas time, but staying sober for the festive season doesn't bother me. I am lucky enough not to want to drink alcohol anymore – I find that even the smell of it turns my stomach. What has proved more of a problem is avoiding all the lovely seasonal foods that seem to be steeped in alcohol – Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies, trifle and so on. It seems that alcohol is a key ingredient of food at Christmas time.

"I am so committed to my sobriety I won't eat anything that even has a flavour akin to alcohol such as rum and raisin ice cream. Sometimes, I have dreams in which I have got drunk and they are ten times worse than the most terrible of nightmares. I always wake up in a cold sweat and am so relieved to find out it was just a dream.

"Christmas is now a wonderful time and I love spending it with my family. In the past, I would have had several sherries whilst decorating the Christmas tree and got so drunk the tree wouldn't have ever got finished. These days I have a much richer experience because I always have a clear head. There are so many good alternatives to alcohol out there at the moment, but my personal favourite is a Virgin Mojito!"

A Christmas message for recovering alcoholics

"Everyone is so different in the way they feel about their sobriety in the early days. Personally, I think if it's better in the beginning to avoid any celebrations where there is going to be alcohol. I avoided office Christmas dos for the first couple of years and my family didn't drink alcohol around me to begin with.

"Keep alcohol out of the house and check the ingredients on all Festive foods. In the early days, even something like the flavour of brandy in brandy butter could be enough to get an alcoholic back on the booze. If you cannot avoid situations where alcohol will be served, just be honest. Turn a drink down by telling people you're a recovering alcoholic. Most people are full of admiration and will stop trying to get you to have 'just a small one'.

"I have learnt that my sobriety in the most important thing in my life. It comes before everything because, without it, you stand to lose everything."

Sara's first novel, Whilst I Was Out, is out now and available to purchase .

If you are worried about your drinking habits, or the drinking habits of a family member, talk to your GP.


A new study suggests that alcohol is a direct cause of cancer in several areas of the body.

The study, published Thursday in the scientific journal Addiction, consists of a major review of 10 years’ worth of studies from several organizations, including the World Cancer Research Fund, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

And its conclusions are dire. 

Nearly 6 percent of cancer deaths worldwide can be linked to alcohol, including in people who drink light to moderate amounts of alcohol, the study concludes. “From a public health perspective, alcohol is estimated to have caused approximately half a million deaths from cancer in 2012,” wrote study author Jennie Connor, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

The study determined that there is a strong link between alcohol consumption and cancer in specific areas of the body, such as the liver, colon, esophagus and female breast. There are also causal contributions in other areas such as the prostate, pancreas and skin. 

How alcohol causes cancer is not deeply understood, according to the study, but it is thought to depend on the “target organ.” For example, cancers of the throat, mouth and liver can be largely attributed to a carcinogenic compound called acetaldehyde. Salivary acetaldehyde levels have been found to reach high levels when drinking.

Breast tissue is another area that seems to be particularly susceptible to alcohol.

Connor noted the United Kingdom’s Million Women Cohort study, which found that women who drank 70 to 140 grams of alcohol per week experienced a 13 percent increase in breast cancer and a 5 percent increase in total cancer compared to those who drank less than 20 grams per week.

Unfortunately, the amount you drink might not matter all that much. While heavy drinkers have a higher risk of liver, colon and laryngeal cancer than light drinkers, all drinkers have the same risk of mouth, esophagus, breast and pharynx cancer.

Connor also acknowledges that some of the studies she reviewed show that those who drink light to moderate of alcohol have a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease than abstainers.

But many epidemiologists agree that research confirms alcohol actually causes cancer, Connor wrote, while the relationship between drinking and heart disease is not as conclusive.

For example, other lifestyle factors beyond alcohol consumption ― such as a person’s healthy behavior and demographic conditions ― typically put abstainers at a higher risk than those who moderately drink. Connor cites a 2005 study that showed 27 out of 30 risk factors for cardiovascular disease were more prevalent in abstainers than moderate drinkers. 

“Promotion of health benefits from drinking at moderate levels is seen increasingly as disingenuous or irrelevant in comparison to the increase in risk of a range of cancers,” she wrote in the study.  


As a solution to alcohol-attributed cancer, Connor suggests everyone should reduce their alcohol consumption, not just heavy drinkers. 

“Population-wide reduction in alcohol consumption will have an important effect on the incidence of [cancer], while targeting the heaviest drinkers alone has limited potential,” she wrote in the study. 

However, most people today are hesitant to adapt to the facts. While the majority of the population readily accepts that smoking causes lung cancer, “alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco’s,” 


Most people who have alcohol-related health problems aren’t alcoholics. They're simply people who have regularly been drinking more than the recommended levels for some years.

Regularly drinking more than the recommended daily limits risks damaging your health. There's no guaranteed safe level of drinking, but if you drink less than the recommended daily limits, the risks of harming your health are low. And it's certainly not only people who get drunk or binge drink who are at risk. Most people who regularly drink more than the NHS recommends don't see any harmful effects at first. Alcohol’s hidden harms usually only emerge after a number of years. And by then, serious health problems can have developed. Liver problems, reduced fertility, high blood pressure, increased risk of various cancers and heart attack are some of the numerous harmful effects of regularly drinking more than the recommended levels. The effects of alcohol on your health will depend on how much you drink. The more you drink, the greater the health risks. Drinkers can be divided into three risk categories:  lower-risk drinkers  increasing-risk drinkers higher-risk drinkers Read about alcohol units to work out how much alcohol there is in your drinks.

Lower-risk drinkers Lower-risk drinking means that you have a low risk of causing yourself future harm. However, drinking consistently within these limits is called "lower-risk" rather than "safe" because drinking alcohol is never completely safe. To be a lower-risk drinker, the NHS recommends that: Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units a day. Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day. "Regularly" means drinking this amount every day or most days of the week. Even drinking less than this is not advisable in some circumstances. Drinking any alcohol can still be too much if you’re going to drive, operate machinery, swim or do strenuous physical activity. Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether. When you drink, alcohol reaches your baby through the placenta. Too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect your baby's development. If you're pregnant and choose to drink, do not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week, and do not get drunk. This will minimise the risk to the baby. Read more on pregnancy and alcohol. People who drink should aim to be in the lower-risk category to minimise the health risks.

Increasing-risk drinkers Drinking at this level increases the risk of damaging your health. Alcohol affects all parts and systems of the body, and it can play a role in numerous medical conditions. Increasing-risk drinking is: regularly drinking more than 3-4 units a day if you're a man regularly drinking more than 2-3 units a day if you're a woman  If you're drinking at around these levels, your risk of developing a serious illness is higher than non-drinkers: Men are 1.8 to 2.5 times as likely to get cancer of the mouth, neck and throat, and women are 1.2 to 1.7 times as likely.  Women are 1.2 times as likely to get breast cancer. Men are twice as likely to develop liver cirrhosis, and women are 1.7 times as likely. Men are 1.8 times as likely to develop high blood pressure, and women are 1.3 times as likely. If you're an increasing-risk drinker and you drink substantially more than the lower-risk limits, your risks will be even higher than those above. At these levels of drinking, you may already have alcohol-related problems, such as fatigue or depression, weight gain, poor sleep and sexual problems. Whatever your age or sex, you’re probably in worse physical shape than you would be otherwise. Also, you could easily have higher blood pressure due to your drinking. Some people argue a lot when they drink, which can negatively affect their relationships with family and friends.

Higher-risk drinkers

If you’re in this group, you have an even higher risk of damaging your health compared with increasing-risk drinkers.

Higher-risk drinking is:

  • regularly drinking more than 8 units a day or 50 units a week if you're a man
  • regularly drinking more than 6 units a day or 35 units a week if you're a woman 

Again, alcohol affects the whole body and can play a role in numerous medical conditions. You have a much higher risk of developing alcohol-related health problems. Your body has probably suffered some damage already, even if you’re not yet aware of it.

Compared to non-drinkers, if you regularly drink above higher-risk levels: 

  • You could be 3-5 times more likely to get cancer of the mouth, neck and throat.
  • You could be 3-10 times more likely to develop liver cirrhosis.
  • Men could have four times the risk of having high blood pressure, and women are at least twice as likely to develop it.
  • You could be twice as likely to have an irregular heartbeat.
  • Women are around 1.5 times as likely to get breast cancer.

The more you drink above the higher-risk threshold, the greater the risks. So some of the health risks can be even higher than those above. You’re likely to have the same problems as increasing-risk drinkers: feeling tired or depressed, or gaining extra weight.

You may be sleeping poorly or having sexual problems. And, like increasing-risk drinkers but possibly more so, you’re likely to be in worse physical shape than you would be otherwise, whatever your age or sex. You could also have high blood pressure.

At these levels, your drinking may make you argumentative, which might damage your relationships with family and friends.

drinking too much is bad for you

Even moderate beer consumption has the potential to cause serious health conditions.

Many people do not realize that what they consider to be harmless social drinking is causing potentially serious damage to their bodies. All alcoholic beverages can be harmful if used in excess, and excess does not necessarily equal intoxication, as some people may be able to drink several drinks before they feel intoxicated. Immediate effects of drinking in excess may include intoxication, motor vehicle accidents and poor judgment. However, most men can safely drink up to 2 alcoholic beverages daily, and most women can drink up to 1 per day, according to federal dietary guidelines.

Liver Disease

Alcohol-related liver disease can range from mild to potentially fatal. Initially, the liver may accumulate excessive amounts of fat cells, known as fatty liver. If a person decreases his alcohol intake, this condition may resolve. If not, inflammation of the liver, or alcoholic hepatitis, can result. The next stage may be permanent scarring of the liver, or cirrhosis. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of those who drink more than 50 g of alcohol daily for longer than 10 years develop cirrhosis; this amount is equivalent to 4 oz of 100-proof whiskey, 48 oz of beer, or 15 oz of wine. While cirrhosis has many causes, between 1 percent and 8 percent of those with stable cirrhosis are believed to develop liver cancer every year.

Inflamed Pancreas

The pain of pancreatitis can be so severe that it requires hospitalization and intravenous pain medications. Photo Credit Thomas Northcut/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Excessive alcohol use may cause inflammation of the pancreas, called pancreatitis, which can cause severe pain in the stomach region. In the United States, an estimated 30 percent of new cases of pancreatitis -- acute pancreatitis -- are due to alcohol. The pain of pancreatitis can be so severe that it requires hospitalization and intravenous pain medications. Pancreatitis has the potential to be fatal in 2 to 6 percent of people. In addition, with recurrent episodes of pancreatitis, the symptoms might not resolve completely, and the pancreatitis can become permanent, leading to daily pain, even after alcohol consumption stops.

Cardiovascular Disease

Alcohol abuse can raise the blood pressure and make the heart so weak that it eventually fails. Photo Credit Jochen Sand/Digital Vision/Getty Images

While moderate alcohol consumption may have a beneficial effect on the heart, excessive use can be very harmful. Alcohol abuse can raise the blood pressure and make the heart so weak that it eventually fails. These effects are not just seen in older adults. Even vibrant, young adults may develop severe heart failure as a result of drinking excessively. Fortunately, in many people, giving up alcohol or cutting back significantly may result in reversal of the high blood pressure and heart failure. Drinking at least 4 drinks daily can also increase the risk of stroke. Binge drinkers, as well as those who drink heavily regularly, have an increased risk of a potentially serious heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation.


Excessive alcohol consumption is strongly linked to certain forms of cancer in both men and women, such as cancer of the liver, mouth, esophagus, throat and larynx, or voice box. Breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women, is also associated with alcohol intake. While many cancers can be cured if caught early enough, cancer is often not diagnosed until it is too advanced to be cured.

Other Side Effects

Alcohol can be toxic to virtually every part of the body when ingested in excess. It can cause permanent brain damage as well as nerve damage. Alcohol can even cross the placenta in pregnant women and lead to congenital anomalies. Therefore, women should not drink during pregnancy, as alcohol consumption may lead to a potentially devastating effect on the fetus, called fetal alcohol syndrome, a common cause of mental retardation. Other potential side effects of alcohol include common problems such as inflammation of the stomach lining, weight gain, poor job performance and a negative impact on family life.

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