Over the course of lockdown 2.0, I replaced drinking alcohol with a far healthier (but no less addictive) activity: boasting about not drinking. I blathered on endlessly about how I'd "really turned a corner" with booze, promising my girlfriend that there would be no more hungover weekends, no more last orders over last trains come reopening time. I'd be able to pace myself, or abstain if the mood struck me, with saintly ease.
Then I got to a pub and proceeded to drink ten pints in the space of five hours.
Judging by the fact that every picnic bench in Britain has been booked up until Christmas, I'm not the only one who got a bit overexcited by the return of social drinking. Nor am I the only one feeling anxious about the reintegration process. An estimated quarter of UK adults started drinking more under lockdown, and charity Drinkaware has expressed concern over that figure stretching forward into the future. Meanwhile, a study by KAM Media found that nearly a quarter went in the opposite direction, cutting down on their intake – a health kick they'll no doubt want to continue. That's why we decided to ask John Dicey, CEO of Allen Carr's Easyway, and Martin Preston, founder of Delamere Health, about their top tips on scaling back on the booze post-lockdown.
Drink water alongside alcohol
A simple solution, but so few people do it. "The golden rule is: for every alcoholic drink you have, get a pint of water with it," says Dicey. "No ice, and drink it down before you start on the alcoholic option." It helps to defeat the dehydrating effect of alcohol on your body, improving liver function and flushing out toxins in the process. That means a less severe hangover, and a better time at the pub too.
"When drinking alcohol, you might need to use the bathroom more as it's a diuretic. Frequently visiting the bathroom will leave you feeling dehydrated," says Preston. "This amplifies the symptoms of headache and fatigue." What's more, it will help you pace your drinks and quench your thirst in the process – making you less likely to even want another alcoholic drink. If you need to skip a round, skip a round. And on that note...
Duck out of the round system altogether
Going your own way is crucial if you want to gain full control over your drinking. "[Joining rounds] can be toxic for individuals looking to reduce their alcohol intake and form healthier drinking habits," says Preston. "Instead of joining in the round system, we recommend sticking to your drinking limit and notify those around you that you're trying to cut back."
But for many, this is all easier said than done. There's an acute social pressure that plays a big part in British drinking culture, which Preston puts down to our fear of being "mocked, embarrassed or rejected by others." It goes without saying that being honest, firm and confident in your decision to cut back is important; as Dicey puts it, "most real friends [...] will cut you some slack on it". But he admits that men who reveal that they're not drinking are all too often met with push back from fellow drinkers. "People can pile on: 'What do you mean? There's nothing wrong with you! What are you talking about?!' That kind of negative noise can really break your stride," says Dicey, "so it's just having the confidence to to get through that". If you're struggling with being upfront about your choices, he suggests telling a "white lie" – about some upcoming blood tests, or something similar – can be helpful to begin with, as you adjust to your new approach.
According to Preston, vocally addressing your concerns can be an opportunity to make your friendships more fulfilling. “Talking is a big part of growth and is something that a lot of men don’t do enough with friends and family. The feeling of isolation is genuine for men," he says. "When individuals begin to open up about changes to their lifestyle, this helps start a conversation amongst men, which is important to break the stigma associated with alcohol."
Opt for an no- or low-alcohol beer, wine or cocktail
The quality of so-called 'NOLO' drinks has improved drastically over the last decade. Consisting of an ABV of 0.5 per cent or less, more and more pubs are integrating no- or low-alcohol options into their menus. "[Some pubs are] bringing them on draft because there's this swathe of feeling from people that they don't want to go out and get hammered," says Dicey. "You don't want to miss out in the night out with your friends and the camaraderie of a good night. [NOLO drinks make it] much easier to go along with the round system."
For Preston, the benefits are bountiful. "Switching to lower-strength drinks will reduce the symptoms of binge drinking, eg not feeling in control of your actions, inability to sleep and feeling hungover the following morning."
The industry itself is growing at a rapid rate, and we've rounded up some of the very best options here, from NOLO beers to wines and spirits.
Establish a drinking limit, and stick to it
Our ability to handle alcohol is dependant on a lot of things – gender, age and weight, primarily – but it's important to understand your own body. "Monitor how many drinks you can drink while feeling stable," suggests Preston. "Write it down, include the time duration, and then use it as a guideline for future drinking." This is especially true for those who find themselves binge drinking on the weekends, he says. "Alcohol guidelines state that men and women should not consume more than 14 units a week, and individuals should not ‘save up’ their weekly limits for a particular day."
A constant stream of alcohol doesn't need to be at the heart of your nights out, and you should never let its absence stop you from connecting with friends. "Without being too dramatic about this, this is the toughest, most challenging, frightening and disruptive period since the Second World War. There was so much pressure on so many people in one go; either working harder than ever because they're the key workers and trying to support people, or furloughed, or losing their businesses," says Dicey. "Get out there! Crikey, enjoy life. After the last year we've had, have fun. It doesn't have to involve alcohol, obviously, but just get out there."
If you think you have a problem, seek help
Control is the most crucial element of any healthy relationship with alcohol. If you feel like you've lost it, then there are a lot of trusted organisations out there who can help you through it. British charity Drinkaware provides a self-assessment that will identify just how dependant you are on alcohol, as well as tons of expert-led advice and practical approaches to changing unhealthy habits. Alcohol Change is a similarly helpful charity organisation, while Drinkline (0300 123 1110) offers free over the phone support, and Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions across the world over the past 86 years; the NHS site can also direct you to local support groups. When it comes to self-help books, Allen Carr's celebrated 'Easyway' method – which is also practised through seminars over Zoom and in-person – is a good option for those who have historically struggled with the 'willpower' aspect of getting sober, but it's just one of countless strategies available to those who want to cut down or give up on alcohol completely. Explore the options, and find what's right for you.
Of course, if you feel like it's a possibility, you should open up and lean on those closest to you. "Reach out to family and friends for support. It can feel challenging to open up about your feelings with others, as it's common to feel worried about upsetting people you care about and feel nervous about what people will think or how this will impact your relationship," says Preston. "But seeking help from those close by can help you express your feelings and get the help you need."
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