Men’s Health Week 2021 is a great time to talk about men’s relationship with alcohol. Men are more likely than women to drink alcohol and to drink at levels that are hazardous for health. Alcohol use can affect a person’s health, and experiencing mental health problems can sometimes affect a person’s relationship with alcohol. In this blog, Dr Tony Rao explores the ways in which drinking can impact men’s health and why drinking to ‘cope’ is never the answer.
Let’s be totally honest about this. We aren’t the best at owning up to our emotions – it just makes us feel as if we’re not ‘real men’. Men aren’t supposed to show their feelings, but to simply grin and bear it, pull our socks up or surely just take it on the chin? It’s simply not in our nature to get up close and personal with what makes us feel stressed, low or anxious. In other words, we should stop making a fuss and man up!
So we try and cope in the only way that we know, which can often mean drowning our sorrows with a cool pint of beer, cosy glass of wine or a shot of our favourite spirit. The problem is that we’re turning to a drug which may well relax and calm our frayed nerves or even lift us temporarily out of the dark hole in our mind. That is, for a few weeks, until our brain tells us that we need to drink more to feel the same – which is when alcohol starts to behave like the drug it truly is.
When we have a drink, the alcohol gets absorbed by our gut, enters our bloodstream and starts to make us feel calm and more relaxed within about half an hour. That warm fuzzy feeling can often make us less anxious and take our minds away from our problems, especially when we’re also using it a social lubricant across the bar or dinner table. Our brain tells us what an amazing fix it is, to take us away into a world that we might not have been and promises to solve our problems. The problem is that when we start to drink more often and more heavily, our friend can turn on us to become our demon.
The part of the brain that alcohol once acted on to make us feel good, now starts to adapt to make it more difficult to get the same effect unless we up our drinking. But while this is happening, often over months and years, alcohol starts to affect us in other ways. It leaves with hangovers, makes us grouchier, wears away at our stomach lining, makes us put on weight and the fat that is converted from the excess sugar from alcohol then infiltrates our liver. Once our brain has adapted to too much drinking, we can start to get withdrawal symptoms when we wake the morning after a heavy drinking session the night before. And that’s the problem. We now don’t just need more for it to have the same effect, we also need to drink to get rid of that horrible shaking, sweating and sickness. That’s a pretty bad deal for our health. Alcohol is also a long term depressant and changes the way that certain chemicals work in the brain. What started as drinking to ‘cure’ our depression is now a drug that has made our depression even worse. It’s not a slippery slope worth treading.
So, what can you do about it? For one thing, getting the help you need and indeed deserve is really important and there is plenty of help out there. It’s a daunting prospect to speak to someone about how you feel. You will naturally be concerned that they will judge you and make you feel as you’re somehow a ‘weak’ person who should be coping with your problems on your own. But there will be those who will have time for you and it can also make you feel more connected with other people. It’s often a welcome relief that others might even tell you that they’ve often felt the same way.
If you aren’t drinking at a harmful level but want to reduce the risk to your health, then it’s worth sticking to low risk drinking. There are simple, practical ways to cut down that can pay dividends for improving your health. If your drinking has started to affect your health, your GP might be able to speak to you about this and ask you a little more about your alcohol intake, without making you feel judged, so that you can start to make changes at your own pace. You might also be asked if you want to consider additional support from other services. It is, of course, your choice, but opening up is the first step towards change.
But there are also other changes you can make to get your mental and physical health into better shape. Lockdown has put a spanner in the works for our routines and that has made many of us feel disconnected, stressed and uncertain about the future. Having a structure to your day can help you to feel more in control of your life and not use alcohol as your go to means of getting through what can often seem an infinite amount of time that just drags on. You might also be able to both connect and re-connect with friends and family over video calls. Exercise can also help to get you feeling healthier, a source of motivation to get you to look at your diet, improve your mood and also get you away from a sit, drink, sleep spiral that can so easily get out of control.
So, what are you waiting for? If you want to live a healthier life, then it’s time to get the help and support you need. Some of it you might be able to do yourself but there should be no shame in asking for help. We all need help at some time during our lives and we are a better and stronger person when we ask for it. When people say to us ‘man up’, they should be saying ‘open up’. If you do, there’s a whole new world out there, in which you could enjoy sobriety or enjoy drinking and remain healthy. You’ll look back and think ‘wow, I did it all on my own’, and that’s quite an achievement.
Written by Dr Tony Rao
If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, there is help available.
Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. Calls are free and confidential. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9.00am to 8.00pm, weekends 11.00am to 4.00pm).
More information about organisations which offer help and support can be found on our support page.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.