EVALUATING YOUR DRINKING
Many enjoy how a cocktail can help undo the stress of a hectic workday or calm nerves during a social event. For some, a party may not seem complete without the presence of a bar. Others reach for a drink, in part, because of the health benefits it may bring. But there’s another side to alcohol, of course—one that makes it worthwhile to take stock of your drinking habits and how they might be affecting your wellness.
You may believe that unless you smell of liquor, stumble around and slur your words, you don’t have an alcohol problem. The truth is that alcohol use and abuse falls on a spectrum.
- Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two daily for men. This type of drinking is considered safe for most people.
- Roughly a third of adults in the United States exceed that, downing eight or more (women) or 15 or more (men) drinks per week, what’s known as heavy drinking.
- An almost equal amount report binge drinking—consuming about four drinks within two hours for women, and about five drinks in the same amount of time for men.
- Around 4 percent of Americans are living with alcoholism, meaning they are dependent on alcohol and have an inability to limit their drinking.
Even if you’re not dependent—most heavy drinkers aren’t—you might benefit from cutting back. “There are people who are moderate drinkers and then something happens in their lives and they go a little too far,” says Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “The needle goes a little too far to one side, and they realize that they’ve been drinking too much.”
SPOTTING THE SIGNS OF A PROBLEM
There are many red flags that may indicate you’re overindulging. The signs can be different for different people, but there are a few that we tend to see often.
“If your partner complains about your drinking, that’s cause for concern,” Rossman says. Your partner likely knows you best and sees you most, so they’re a good gauge as to whether your behavior when you’re drinking is negative and out of your norm.
Another place to look closely for signs of a problem is at work. Maybe you don’t feel as effective at your job, or you’re not able to focus, concentrate or execute projects the way you used to. “If you feel like there’s been a drop-off in your performance and you’ve been drinking a good deal, it might be worth looking at whether the alcohol is, in fact, creating some difficulties for you,” Rossman says.
And while it may seem obvious, it’s worth paying attention to how you feel when you wake up. “If you feel crummy—you’re having hangover symptoms and you’re not very effective in the morning—that would be a sign,” Rossman notes. Alcohol impairs sleep, which can, in turn, affect how well you’re able to function in all parts of your life.
You can read about more signs of what’s known as alcohol use disorder from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. If they sound familiar and you’re concerned, it may be time to ask your partner or a trusted friend whether they’ve noticed a change in you, or share your drinking habits with your doctor to see if they might point to a potential problem and a need to cut back.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO MAKE A CHANGE
While some people may benefit from professional intervention, “most people who realize they’re drinking too much can come up with a plan to reduce their intake,” Rossman says. If you’re ready to make a change, here are some things to keep in mind:
CONSIDER YOUR HEALTH. Simply realizing that drinking heavily is truly harmful is an important first step. You might be surprised to learn that excessive drinking is responsible for an alarming one in 10 deaths among people between the ages of 20 and 64.
Drinking too much increases the chances of accidents, injuries and risky behaviors. And over time, it can disrupt things like your weight, heart health, liver function and immunity, and it can raise your risk for some types of cancer. You might also be more motivated to cut back when you learn about the cognitive effects of alcohol.
“Drinking heavily dramatically raises your risk of suffering from dementia in later years,” Rossman says. “Knowing that is a game-changer for a lot of people. Most of us don’t want to outlive our brain.”
By examining the scenarios where you’re more prone to overdo it, you can either try to avoid them or come up with strategies for how you will drink (or forgo drinking) when you can’t. That might mean, say, keeping less or no alcohol in the house, or allowing yourself just one drink when you’re in a social situation.
LEARN HOW TO SLOW DOWN. Nurse your glass of wine, beer or liquor, and drink lots of water before and after. “If you’re going to be at an event for several hours, switch to sparkling water after your drink, or start with sparkling water and slowly sip your glass of wine and go back to water,” Rossman suggests.
It can be especially hard to accurately judge portions of wine, so if you’re serving yourself use this rule of thumb: Fill just half the glass. Research suggests that this tactic may help keep us from overindulging.
FIND OTHER WAYS TO BE SOCIAL. Some people might need to avoid gatherings where there’s likely to be a lot of alcohol.
“One of the best strategies is to find other ways of getting together with friends that don’t involve drinking,” Rossman says. “Go for a walk or hike together. There are many ways of interacting that don’t involve alcohol.”
CUT BACK ON WORK-RELATED IMBIBING. Fortunately, attitudes about drinking are changing. “More people are choosing not to drink or to simply moderate their drinking,” Rossman notes. “It’s possible to go out to dinner with clients and choose to have iced tea or a virgin cocktail rather than alcohol.
You don’t need to feel embarrassed about that. Just stick to your guns and if someone is pressuring you to drink, keep in mind that they’ve got the problem, not you.”
LOOK FOR HEALTHIER STRESS-RELIEVERS. If you’re the type of person who turns to a bottle of vino or a few glasses of scotch to help unwind, you might want to explore alternate methods of relaxation. These might include blowing off steam during a run, centering yourself in a yoga class or dabbling in a hobby that engages you.
One of our favorite ways to combat stress in the evenings is to come up with a soothing bedtime routine—something that you look forward to every night that helps calm your mind and body.
Whatever your plan to drink less, it can help to write it down and keep a record of your progress. “Be honest with yourself about whether you’ve been successful in sticking with it,” Rossman says. If you’re missing the mark, it may be time to consider abstinence. “Some people are alcohol-dependent—once they start drinking, they can’t stop. They need to totally abstain from alcohol.”
If you’re worried that this may describe you, it may be a good opportunity to talk to your physician or a certified alcohol counselor, or to consider attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Says Rossman: “Most people who realize they’re drinking too much can intentionally lower their consumption, and quickly notice how much better they feel. People who are alcohol dependent generally need to abstain, rather than just reduce their consumption, and they too notice how much better they feel, especially if they engage in a structured recovery program.”