By Rachel Lankester
Menopause and alcohol – there’s an interesting topic! Are they a good combination? Here’s what I discovered: when I stopped taking HRT, having taken it from 45-51, because of an early menopause diagnosis at 41, there were two things that triggered an immediate hot flush for me, chocolate and alcohol. This happened within the first week of stopping HRT. And if I drank too much in the evening, when I woke the following morning I would have a hot flush.
Alcohol and menopause symptoms
I’ve written extensively about how I believe the symptoms we experience as we go through the perimenopause years are the body’s way of telling us that it wants us to change the way we look after it. Alcohol can exacerbate several of these menopause symptoms. The impact alcohol has on us, especially during the perimenopause years, is something we’d be wise to consider.
Most of us know that alcohol is not particularly good for us, even though we may like to kid ourselves that it is. We may get excited when there’s a survey that says red wine is thought to be good for the heart. But even these surveys are suspect and when you dig into them, it’s one small glass of red wine a week that’s thought to do anything at all, so what’s the point? But I’ve read enough books about alcohol to know that however much we may like to pretend it’s not bad for us (and believe me, I’ve done that), fundamentally it is.
I feel I’ve always had a complicated relationship with alcohol. It was very much part of my family upbringing. There was always alcohol in my childhood home and it was a normal part of socializing, celebrating and also stress release. It also fueled a lot of arguments. Alcohol is a massive part of British culture. Almost every village has a church or chapel and a pub.
I’ve used alcohol as a stress release for years. Increasingly, going through midlife and menopause, I’ve used alcohol to anaesthetize myself from the stresses and strains of everyday life which have been compounded by midlife and menopause. But I know that’s not a good strategy!
I’m also aware that alcohol has exacerbated issues as well as soothing me. Alcohol can cause our blood sugar levels to be imbalanced and this can bring on hot flushes and night sweats. Alcohol interrupts our sleep which we need at all times, but especially in menopause when hormonal changes may also be having an impact. It can also exacerbate perimenopausal mood swings, anxiety and depression.
Alcohol may lift us up or soothe us temporarily, but it is a known depressant. I know for sure that alcohol has both depressed me and made me more anxious as I have gone through the menopause transition. Alcohol can make us more stressed over time, which can impact menopausal brain fog, so it stands to reason that alcohol isn’t going to help with that either.
Alcohol is also a big source of empty calories, calories that don’t give us any nutrition, but still add to the daily quota. As our metabolism decreases as we age, if we’re not making efforts to maintain our metabolism through exercise, we can start to put on weight.
Alcohol could be contributing to that trend and you may find you’re exercising just so you can continue drinking! In menopause we can also tend to put on weight, especially around the belly, so that’s another reason why menopause and alcohol isn’t a very good combo!
I know a lot of women take hormone therapy to manage their symptoms and they carry on drinking. I don’t think this is a very wise course of action. You may be lessening the impact of the drinking during your menopause transition with the hormone therapy, but you’re not doing your long-term health any favors if you continue to drink too much.
Drinking more than your body could comfortably sustain during menopause, without the help of hormone therapy, can increase your risk of breast and other cancers, for example. And you’re not dealing with the underlying health issues that hormonal changes are now highlighting.
Alcohol and later life health
Women are less tolerant of alcohol than men and our intolerance increases as we age. But increasingly women are more likely to use it to manage stress, even though it’s going to make the stress worse in the long run.
Older women are drinking more now than ever before, especially in the UK. But by doing that, we’re actively damaging our health. Alcohol can cause liver and other organ damage, put us at greater risk of dementia and be terrible for our bone health.
For years I have run to protect and strengthen my bones, but also drunk rather too much, thereby probably negating the good I was doing with the running! All the things that we’re thought to be at greater risk of post menopause are impacted by alcohol – Alzheimer’s, heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer etc. We like to ignore that fact because alcohol can be fun!
As we age, our bodies hold less water to dilute alcohol and more fat, so we hold on to alcohol for longer. We may feel the impact of just a little alcohol over night, long into the next day and even the day after. Enzymes in the liver responsible for breaking down alcohol can also diminish as we age, which is why hangovers get worse as we get older.
It’s less about the hormones and more about the ageing process itself. We don’t bounce back as we once did. I suspect that’s the body trying to tell us that alcohol isn’t as good for us or as fun as we once thought.
I also know that when I’ve had a drink I can be more arsy than normal! When my adult son told me he didn’t much like me when I’d had a drink, I really had to evaluate how I changed when I had some booze. Young people today are drinking a lot less and that seems like a good way to be. They may do more recreational drugs but I’m very aware that alcohol has been my drug of choice. I reckon it’s no less of a drug than cannabis, for example.
Taking a break from alcohol
I wrote this when I’d just completed a dry month. I did lots of dry months in the past, lots of dry Januarys and Stoptobers. I managed 9 dry months when I was pregnant. But in the past when I got to the end of the month, I’d be celebrating that I could now have a drink! But that month was different. I completed four weeks and then carried on! At time of updating this, I’m seven months with no booze!
Something shifted for me. I listened to a podcast that made me realize something quite profound. I’m a big fan of Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s Feel Better, Live More podcast and on this re-released episode his guest was Andy Ramage, one of the founders of One Year No Beer, a habit-changing program that invites people to try 28, 90 or 365 days alcohol free – and see what it does for them.
Andy used to work in the financial City of London as a trader and said something that really shifted my understanding of alcohol. He said that for him, when thinking now about drinking alcohol, the trade was no longer worth it. What he got as a result of drinking wasn’t worth the cost to him.
I think this is massive when it comes to midlife and menopausal women especially. But while I’ve known this for a long time, it’s taken me ages to take action accordingly. As we’ve seen, as we go through the menopause transition, our body can’t process alcohol in the same way it used to.
It takes longer to recover. The various impacts of alcohol are greater, the hot flashes, night sweats, anxiety, interrupted sleep and sluggishness the following day even after only one or two glasses of wine, for example. Many women find that wine is in fact now a real no no. They just can’t process it anymore. Gin becomes a bit more palatable – no wonder it’s known as mothers ruin!
What I’ve realized is that the half an hour of feeling nice after having a drink, and for me it’s never one drink because I’ve never been very good at moderating, is simply not worth the disturbed sleep, the sluggishness the following day etc. etc. For me now too, the trade is no longer worth it. This has been a revolutionary shift for me.
I’ve wanted to get better at drinking for years. I’ve interviewed alcoholics on my podcast and been aware that my relationship with alcohol has been less than ideal. For me to be where I am currently is really quite remarkable. I feel great.
I do a fair amount of exercise and now I can run further, more consistently and with less muscle pain. I like to do Ashtanga yoga and if I’ve had any alcohol the night before, the intensity of the initial sun salutation sequence makes me feel sick, which stops me doing it. But now I can do my Ashtanga yoga whenever I like, because I’m not drinking.
It was this one phrase, the trade is no longer worth it, that had the biggest impact on me. We all need to be ready to make changes, they can’t be forced. I feel I’ve been ready for a long time, but clearly something just wasn’t quite there yet.
You may not feel like giving up alcohol altogether and why would you? But having read this, you may feel it’s worthwhile cutting back or even having a break for a while. A detox. A reset. Whatever you want to think of it as. So how best to go about that?
My top tips for taking a break from alcohol
Here are my six top tips for making a success of a break from alcohol,
- Listen to this Feel Better, Live More podcast with Andy Ramage on taking a tactical break from alcohol.
- When you want a drink, consider whether the trade is worth it. How will you feel the following day? What will you be unable to do as well as you could later/tomorrow if you’ve drunk today?
- Read some ‘quit lit’ from the list below to understand better your relationship with alcohol – I recommend This Naked Mind, The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober and Drinking: A Love Story.
- Buy some alcohol free drinks. I love these and they’ve really helped me. I have long preferred alcohol free beer to the real thing – I really like Lidl’s Perlenbacher 0.0. I drink Stowford Press Low Alcohol Cider (it says low but it’s almost zero), Gordon’s Zero Gin is very good and I buy alcohol free rosé, white, red and sparkling wine from Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s. Nosecco is a great bubbly. I’ve always preferred light cheap wine so I have a simple palate!
- When you’re out with friends who’re drinking booze and you don’t want to, think about what you’re going to drink in advance – tonic water perhaps or alcohol free beer which many pubs now stock, if not restaurants yet. Don’t be afraid to explain that you don’t want to drink – you don’t need to give a reason and if they complain that you’re boring not drinking, that’s their problem not yours.
- Give yourself a huge pat on the back each day that you don’t drink. It’s another day where you’ve given your menopausal body a head start on coping better with the transition.