Alcohol Companion, video, January 2019

What next after Dry January?; Welcome news of the possible return of guideline labelling in the UK; And why alcohol is an important subject. Links mentioned
Alcohol Companion book and resources
Why it’s worth considering carrying on after Dry January
Guideline labelling’s welcome return in the UK
Support independent alcohol journalism

Are we missing an emoji?

This would be, arguably, a very good time to ensure we have a way to show compassion at our fingertips, but there is currently no emoji for it.

We have all had a friend text us and say they had some bad news. This is the time to show sympathy and compassion, right?

Far too cheerful

A comforting hug is one way to show it. But, as it is, the only hug on offer in the emoji lexicon is grinning (right).

It does not fit the scenario. Someone in distress is not going to appreciate a hug from someone smiling from ear to ear.

The answer is a new “compassionate hug” emoji, like the mock-up in the main picture (top), combining a hug with a concerned face.

Perhaps it is just me? But, if there is wider demand for this new hieroglyph, it could be proposed to the emoji committee.

This is, arguably, a very good time to ensure an ability to show compassion and sympathy is at our fingetips. ■

The best Dry January reward may be continuing

After a Dry January the best reward may be to continue to drink within low-risk guidelines, so safeguarding the hard-won benefits.

If we normally drink regularly the last few weeks of not drinking (or nearly) are likely to have brought significant positive changes.

We will typically notice improved overall mood, lower anxiety, clearer thinking, better recall, and improved sleep, on top of sizable cash savings.

These are significant benefits worth retaining. They are also things which often improve more if we stick to a low-risk drinking pattern long-term.

They often improve for months, up to a year or more. And the first few weeks of low-risk drinking are often the hardest. So why waste them?

Carrying on can also help stabilise our mood and resilience, and help quosh anxiety and any “flat” feelings, called anhedonia.

Sticking to under 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol a week is typically enough to have this effect, but only if we do so consistently.

Many of us find consistent low-risk drinking is more easily achieved if we do not drink at all, part of what makes Dry January a sound investment.

Why change a winning strategy, particularly one which gets easier over time? An arid February and parched March will cement our gains.

If we do try an alcoholic drink, this is also a chance to see it from a new perspective. Just one drink can spark a fitful night’s sleep in some.

For many of us, Dry January offers a unique chance to make a clear, positive choice around alcohol and gain personal insight.

Banking the hard-won gains of taking this opportunity and enjoying the positives for the long term is at least worth considering. ■

The key alcohol theme of 2018: dementia

Dear Reader

This year offered a steady stream of confirmation of the merits of low-risk alcohol drinking, reckoned to be less than 14 UK units (140ml) a week.

There was also welcome reassurance that not drinking alcohol at all, which many find the easiest form of low-risk drinking, comes with no added risk.

But the biggest news was confirmation of a massive underestimate of alcohol as a factor in dementia. This too was followed by confirmation that low-risk drinking should spare us from it.

It is a discomforting finding, no doubt. But it also offers hope that changes to our drinking habits can spare millions from mental health problems, as I wrote here.

Thank you for your support over the last year. I wish you a happy New Year’s Eve and a great start to 2019.

Yours faithfully

Millions readying for Dry January 2019

As many as 4.2m people are planning to go alcohol-free in January 2019, according to a YouGov poll, being on course to enhance their drinking choices all year round by doing so.

“Dry January can change lives. We hear every day from people who took charge of their drinking using Dry January, and who feel healthier and happier as a result,” said Richard Piper, head of Alcohol Change, the charity behind the initiative.

A survey of 2018’s participants, reckoned to number over 3m, found: drinking fell from an average of four days a week to three; drunkenness fell to twice a month from three times; eight out of ten felt more in control of their drinking; nine-in-ten saying they saved money.

People can sign up for Dry January online, receiving support from a website, app and a new book on taking a month-long alcohol break, called Try Dry.  ■

Be wary of “persistent hangovers” this Christmas

Feeling crummy more than a day after an alcohol session this Christmas should give us pause for thought.

The alcohol response of our brains changes depending on our alcohol exposure over the past few hours and days and, less obviously, that over the last few months and years.

In our student days and early twenties, for instance, many of us might drink enough to move our brains into the outer regions of dependency, where our neurons misbehave.

No klaxon accompanies this shift so we may never know it happened. And our recovery from it can happen without us knowing too, with our drinking levels falling as our circumstances change.

But we can also inch into dependency at any time if we drink heavily for long enough, perhaps triggered by friends, a trauma or Christmas. We can unwittingly inch out of dependence again too. But we can’t rely on it.

So how do we know where we stand? It is not easy. If we drink less than the UK guidelines of 14 units (140ml) of alcohol a week for months, there is little chance of a problem. If not, we can’t be so sure.

We can look for clues, however: If we binge-drink, the classic pattern of the enthusiastic “social drinker” in northern Europe and North America, then our recovery after a heavy one is a good place to look.

Overlong aftermath
Having routine hangovers means we are not looking after our brains very well and could eventually face difficulties. But discomfort within the first 24 hours is a normal reaction to an alcohol overdose.

But feeling meh more than 24 hours after an alcohol session is something else. We might think it is a “prolonged [or delayed] hangover”, but it is not an overdose rebound, but a reaction to absence.

We have, in other words, some degree of withdrawal. We might sweat, have headaches, feel grumpy, tense, forgetful or nauseous. If we have anything more than the mildest discomfort we should go and see our doctor.

“Two-dayers”, as this phenomenon is sometimes dismissed, are potentially a sign we are flirting with alcohol dependency. Nobody wants to find this out, but the sooner we do, the easier it will be to reverse.

Avoiding heavy alcohol use for three months to a year is typically enough to be rid of it. Making this change on purpose is not always easy, but we can get help from our doctors and online and offline support.

If we stick to it we can reasonably expect clearer thinking, better memory, improved and more stable mood and better sleep. And, on a more practical level, we can substantially cut costs and so improve our finances.

Looking out for “persistent hangovers” or “two-dayers” can enable to look past unhelpful folk wisdom and misinformation to identify a potential problem, a crucial step in improving our long-term wellbeing. ■

Continue reading “Be wary of “persistent hangovers” this Christmas”

Dry January lets us see the benefits of low-level drinking

“Sober sprints” like Dry January are a chance to experience the many payoffs of low-level drinking to ourselves and others, transforming them from abstract knowledge into a practical method for improving our mental, physical and financial well-being.

A scientific outlook, and the healthy scepticism that goes with it, are no reason to ignore the need to form beliefs we can apply. Such beliefs provide us with a rugged, reliable and reassuring guide, like a pocket compass.

Some important science does not need to be kept so close at hand. This has little to do with its scope or even its complexity. It has more to do with the demands our belief in it places on us.

Accepting the sun-centred view of our galactic neighbourhood or the mind-boggling basics of quantum theory require an enormous leap of the imagination, but our belief they are true is rarely tested.

Few doubt the sun will rise tomorrow, because this scientific likelihood simply reinforces our experience. And we are unlikely to come to much grief if we occasionally imagine the sun going round the earth or that photons are particles and not waves.

Small wonders
Keeping a firm grip on earthbound, everyday findings is a far bigger challenge for us. The more humdrum the topic, the more difficult it can be, and no more so than when the subject is what we choose to eat, drink or smoke.

We connect with these subjects physically, emotionally and socially, forming an intimate relationship managed by our astronomically complex brains. The statistical results of understanding this relationship often confound our intuition.

As self-centred animals we are fairly hopeless at connecting with statistics, a type of scientific result especially open to manipulation. And, given a choice, we will tend to believe our senses over numbers on a chart.

But the solid statistical evidence of the long-term harm of, say, trans-fats, alcohol or tobacco smoke require us to alter our behaviour or they are are no use at all. We need to embrace beliefs that allow us to benefit.

Beliefs provide the motivation to be wary of tempting forbidden fruit and are even more helpful because we may initially suffer for heeding scientific advice, as we do with nicotine or alcohol dependency.

Truth endures
It may seem to be an impossible to establish facts in our argumentative “post-truth” world. But in the case of alcohol, about which I write, appearances belie broad agreement.

It is hard to maintain a low alcohol intake. Beyond this it fuels anxiety and depression, interferes with sleep and memory, increases the risk of heart and liver disease, cancer and contributes to all manner of accidents and blunders.

Science also indisputably shows there is an effective remedy to minimise alcohol-related problems, one offering large financial, emotional and health returns: to moderate or, more simply, to stop drinking alcohol.

Believing any initial suffering is common, will disappear, and be rewarded makes any hardship far easier to endure. So the dramatic, scientifically-recorded improvement of tens of thousands of people who have done it already is immensely reassuring.

More broadly we might look to evidence that sacrificing the euphoria-on-tap we can get from alcohol tends to help us achieve robust, long-term happiness. Happiness, as people experience it, has been found to be distinct from euphoria.

It is not always easy to do what science says is best for us, especially when people try to deter us. Having scientific beliefs at hand, like a pocket compass, makes it far easier to stay on course. Sober October offers a chance to develop them. ■