It is more important than ever before to be looking after ourselves. COVID-19 has been a worrying time, but drinking most days can actually increase anxiety, as well as weaken our immune system against infectious diseases like Covid. It can also increase the risk of cancer, heart attack, and stroke.
This week is Alcohol Awareness Week. Balance has also launched a new campaign “Alcohol – Not the Answer” to encourage people to cut down and take more drink-free days.
Figures suggest that nearly 400,000 people in the North East and over 8m people nationally have been drinking more since the pandemic began, many at worryingly high levels.
Our ‘Alcohol and You’ self-help guide may be useful if you think you may have a problem with drinking or are worried about someone else’s drinking. It will help you explore your drinking habits, and explain some ways that you can change them if you want to using ideas based on science. It also has advice on where to seek further help if you need to. (It’s also available in audio, Easy Read and British Sign Language.)
Here’s how alcohol can affect us:
- Mental health: according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, regularly drinking alcohol affects the chemistry of the brain and can increase the risk of depression, low mood and anxiety. Drinking could be making you feel more tired and more down.
- Immune system: Alcohol use, especially heavy use, can weaken the immune system and leave us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like Covid.
- Health: Regularly drinking above 14 units a week increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and seven types of cancer. Cutting down is one great way to help reduce blood pressure.
- Weight: Many people aren’t sure about the number of calories in their drinks – reducing how much alcohol we drink is a good way to cut our calories.
Prof Eilish Gilvarry, consultant psychiatrist in Addictions at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Covid has affected us all – it has been a fearful and stressful time with job and family worries, loss of routines and because we don’t know what is going to happen it can be frightening. Very often these are the feelings we would use alcohol for. But long term drinking is very much associated with worsening depression.
“It is certainly problematic for those with anxiety – people might think it reduces anxiety and it might if you just leave it at only one or two drinks, but that is often not the case. People often think it will help with sleep, but as your body is processing alcohol, you can wake up in the night with much greater anxiety and even panic attacks. People then think they are suffering from stress when it can be the alcohol causing it, so they drink more again causing a vicious cycle and potentially a problem with alcohol. And when it comes to people in treatment services for alcohol, probably about 70-80% have problems with anxiety and depression as well as a problem with alcohol.
“Alcohol is a drug and we need to have a very healthy respect for it. There are some tips to avoid drinking too much – get outside, exercise, have a structure to your day and do something you love that doesn’t involve drinking. And if you do drink, don’t drink during the day and wait until at least six or seven o’clock in the evening.”
She added: “When it comes to taking time off from alcohol, I don’t think I have ever come across anyone who hasn’t told me how good they feel when they’ve taken a month off alcohol. They’ve lost weight, are sleeping better and are less anxious, even if they’ve found the first few days difficult.”
The Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines are that men and women should not drink more than 14 units a week to keep health risks from alcohol low. 14 units means around six pints of regular strength beer or lager, six standard glasses of wine or seven double measures of spirits a week.
You’ll also find our ‘Alcohol and You’ self-help guide, along with our range of other self-help information, at www.cntw.nhs.uk/selfhelp.
- Try not to stockpile alcohol. Limit the amount of alcohol you buy in, and opt for non-alcoholic drinks to help you stay within the 14 unit low-risk weekly guidelines.
- Having at least three drink-free days every week can help you cut down on how much you’re drinking. You could download the free Drink Free Days app from Public Health England.
- Think about being a good role model to your kids around alcohol, which includes how often and how much you drink alcohol. None of us want to teach our children that it’s normal to drink every night or to start each day at 4pm.
- You can track your units, calories and money saved when you cut down or cut out alcohol through the Try Dry app from Alcohol Change.
- Use a measure to pour your drinks – home-poured measures are often a lot more generous than those you’d get in the pub and contain more units and calories than a standard measure.
- If you feel like you should cut down, you’re in good company. An estimated 1 in 3 North East drinkers cut down or stopped drinking alcohol during the spring / summer lockdown.
- If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, it can be tempting to turn to alcohol to help you relax. But Alcohol Change UK has some top ways to unwind from that don’t involve alcohol.
- When it comes to alcohol and young people, parents often find it confusing to know what to do for the best. The safest option is to follow the Chief Medical Officer guidelines that it is safest and healthiest for children to not drink before the age of 18. For advice every parent needs to know visit whatstheharm.co.uk
- Finally, if you are concerned about your own drinking or someone else’s, call the national alcohol helpline Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm).
- Consuming alcohol is not an excuse to drop social distancing. Keeping to social distancing rules can help prevent pressure on the NHS.