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  • Writer's pictureChristine Coulson

Alcohol and Cost 4: Health

Updated: Jan 22


This is a big one, because the impact alcohol has on both your physical and mental health are significant. There is no denying it. This topic has been widely covered by more knowledgeable people than myself; but if you’re looking for an in-depth, informed and eloquent (and long) piece to watch, I don’t think you can do better than this episode of the Huberman Lab podcast, which you can find here. It’s available on audio too, wherever you usually find your podcasts.

Professor David Nutt’s book Drink? The New Science of Alcohol + Health is a good, factual read and you can buy it here*. I recommend that to everyone, not just people looking to quit as it really does allow you to make informed choices when it comes to what you drink. The few ‘facts’ I mention in this post are from Prof Nutt’s book, and as he is a professor of Neuropsychopharmacology, and previously the government’s chief drug advisor, I trust him.

Instead, I want to talk about my personal health costs that I attribute to alcohol and how things have changed in my sobriety. My personal health was one of the main reasons I decided that the time had come to take a look at my drinking. To write this blog, I looked back at the journals and workbooks I completed when I was looking to cut down (which was my original intention; I genuinely thought I could moderate alcohol until I realised I couldn’t) and, to be frank, it was difficult reading.

Looking back at the person I was then, it makes me quite emotional. Through the pages I can feel that despair. That rawness of emotion. The fear of the future. The worry of what my life would look like if I couldn’t change my habits and the worry of what my life would look like if I did. That’s the thing with grey area drinking - you are when you know you need to make changes relating to your drinking, but because it’s such a large part of your life you genuinely don’t know how your life will continue without it.

It’s probably easier to start with my physical health. I looked bloated and felt sluggish. Internally, I felt about 70 years old when in reality I was only 41. I was too fat. Look away if you’re eating, but my gut health was shocking with my IBS causing me issues most weeks, especially after a particularly heavy session. The alcohol paired with the greasy, fatty food I’d consume when drunk was doing me no favours at all. The issues with your gut can go so much further than IBS, and to be honest I think I got off lightly with regular flareups and a bit of nausea.

I was also experiencing almost permanent headaches, part of the body’s inflammatory response to the poison, it turns out. Factor into that the dehydration caused by the fact that alcohol is a diuretic and it’s no surprise. Some days my head was throbbing so hard I just couldn’t move. On a couple of occasions, my eyes hurt too.

Looking back, it was the headaches and the gut health that made me decide to look at what I was drinking. They were starting to make an impact into my quality of life; and on my appearance. The dark rings under my eyes and the fact my cheeks were starting to go that little bit red. For the first time in my life, I’d even developed eczema on my forehead and I firmly believed it was linked. In fact according to WebMD[1], there is no evidence that drinking causes eczema, but thankfully at the time I didn’t read that so I added it to the list of things I was unhappy about that I linked to alcohol. I’m happy that my ill-informed assumption helped me make the decisions I made.

There is no dispute that alcohol does lead to dehydration; it’s a diuretic and I think all drinkers know that they, ahem, excrete more fluid than they drink on a night out. That is going to have an impact on the skin and, in fact all other organs in the body.

The impact wasn’t just hitting my physical health. My mental health was through the floor. Not as low as the breakdown I suffered in 2016 after experiencing issues in my workplace, but not too far off. Depression was firmly camped out in my brain, and often had visits from anxiety and paranoia. I was taking antidepressants, and hadn’t at one point considered that alcohol was a contributory factor to this. This being despite the fact that I knew that alcohol was a depressive. I feel such a fool typing this now, but at the time I genuinely thought that alcohol didn’t affect my depression, I was just depressed. Ridiculous. I’m an intelligent woman with an apparent wish to bury my head in the sand when the truth wasn’t convenient.

‘Hangxiety’ is a term often used, but mostly joked about. When actually, the impact this post-drinking anxiety can have on people isn’t to be dismissed. That feeling when you wake up of devastating worry of who you said, what you did, who you offended, who you were inappropriate towards… it’s no small thing. At times, it can last for days living in fear that you were going to hear those words “can we just talk about Friday”. I often blacked out when drinking – the act of being unable to remember events following drinking not losing consciousness as some think - and that made reaching for my phone on morning quite a frightening act. The hangxiety was real.

Of course, there are times where the fear of looking on my phone was completely justified. I’ll talk about the cost of my dignity in tomorrow’s post; but as a spoiler, let’s say I wasn’t amazing at keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself when drunk.

The impact my mental health was having on other areas of my life is, looking back, impossible to deny. Binging TV Series from under a blanket in a darkened living room; allowing the social anxiety to become so large I’d cancel going out at the last minute (often in favour of making myself ‘feel better’ by drinking alone instead).

I was often so paranoid that I’d made a fool of myself that I’d avoid people or places for as long as I could, assuming that they or their staff were spending every waking moments thinking about my actions or how drunk I was. It’s the same part of my brain, I suspect, that made me shop in different shops assuming that cashiers were clocking how much alcohol I was buying and how often. This is mostly totally incorrect, of course; staff in shops of course won’t notice or even if they do; care what you’re drinking. I have a friend who, in their sobriety, is a bit annoyed that the staff in their local corner shop haven’t mentioned the fact they doesn’t go in to buy wine 5 mins before closing any more. I can relate.

So as I sit here typing, over 18 months sober, I think it’s only fair to myself that I bring this back to the present. What impact has quitting drinking had on my health? Well, I’m happy to report it’s almost impossible to compare then to now.

Physically, my skin is clearer, the eczema a very distant memory. My eyes are bright and, I am reliably informed, sparkle. In fact they sparkle so much, my friend @sober_in_colour has devised a mocktail called ‘the sparkling ginger’ after me; it’s delightfully refreshing and, of course, a beautiful gesture.

I’m thinner and fitter than I have been for years; early morning gym sessions and walks now a regular part of my routine replacing the hungover lie ins. Without booze to drive bad eating habits, I eat healthier and it shows. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a size 10 supermodel with amazing athletic abilities, but my clothes fit better and I don’t get out of breath anywhere near as easily as I used to.

I rarely get headaches; I noticed when I bought some paracetamol a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t bought any for months prior to that. Even then, the painkillers were pre-emptive knowing I was going to be doing a lot of walking at one point when I was likely to have period pain. I have only taken painkillers for a headache once in the last few months, and that was down to dehydration after a particularly busy day in my life as a Radiographer meant I did not drink anywhere near as much water that I needed.

Internally, I’m not really sure that’s happening but when my invitation for a health check at my GP came through by text last week, I booked it because I’m not worried about what they might find. Whatever comes back with my bloods, I will deal with it. I suspect I’m going to be told to lose more weight (maybe cut back on the ice cream and chocolate buttons); but I am pretty confident that my blood pressure and general health is okay. Had that text come through two years ago, it would have been deleted.

My mental health is now at the stage where, following discussions with my GP, I no longer take antidepressants. This doesn’t mean my mental health is perfect, I still have bad days and get anxious. The difference now is that I know my bad days will pass, and I either take steps to change how I’m feeling that day, or accept that tomorrow will be different and go to bed early. The reasons for my anxiety tend to be justified now – based on nerves about something specific or things that are happening. I accept that some anxiety is to be accepted, and I can live with that.

My bad days tend, now, to be better than the majority of my good days used to be I was drinking. This can’t all be accredited to physically not consuming alcohol anymore; but also because of the work I have done, and continue to do, on myself. I like myself more, if that doesn’t make me sound foolish to say. Actually, I don’t care if you do think it sounds foolish. I do like myself and I am more willing to be kinder to myself than I was before.

Even when I have spoken to my friends and family about their perceptions of me sober compared to when I was drinking, my ‘inner happiness’ was mentioned. Even my dad has noticed that in the photos I send to them I look calmer, less worried. My skin brighter and the dark rings under my eyes gone.

Quitting alcohol has been the best thing I have ever done for my health; I can state that without any doubt. Mentally and physically, things are just – better. It’s a frightening statistic in Professor Nutt’s book that drinking a bottle of wine a night for a prolonged period of time will reduce your life expectancy by seven years. Yes – you read that correctly. SEVEN years. That is quite a cost, really. And the best thing is that those seven years are more likely to be healthier, happier years.

If you do drink regularly; is the cost to your life and health worth it?

* as an Amazon Associate, if you buy this book through this link, Your Sober Path receives a small commission which we will put towards the cost of hosting free alcohol information events

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