“The key to a better relationship with alcohol is its context,” says Dr Amati. “Drinking culture in the UK lacks the social eating aspect that we find in the Mediterranean countries, where drinking alcohol without food is very unusual.”
Drinking alcoholic drinks as part of a meal, or at least with some light foods as an aperitivo, is a simple and effective way to slow down our rate of drinking and absorption of alcohol into our bloodstream, make the experience more sociable and ensure we are nourished, Dr Amati says.
The comparison with Europe is an interesting one. According to the WHO’s 2021 European health report, Brits drink slightly more than the average European. Which is saying something when you learn that, of the 10 heaviest-drinking countries in the world, nine are in Europe. There are obviously huge variations across the continent, with Czechia and Latvia the heaviest drinkers in the EU (although Germany and Ireland are not far behind). Italy has the lowest level of drinking, helped by the fact that 46.7 per cent of Italian women don’t drink at all. Every country has a gender gap, with men being heavier drinkers.
Having said that, women in the UK are drinking substantially more than they did 50 years ago. “The reasons for the increase are complex,” says Leyshon, “but certainly women drinking in public spaces became much more acceptable from the 1990s onwards. This, coupled with targeted marketing to women by drinks companies, has meant an acceleration in women’s drinking.”
Dr Amati has a particular focus on women’s health and menopause, and has written a book on midlife nutrition, Recipes for a Better Menopause, due out in October. She says there are ways to support your body when drinking alcohol. Gut-healthy foods, such as kefir or natural yoghurt, can reduce the impact if eaten before a drink – although that’s obviously more realistic if you’re at home. Supplements such as De-liver-ance may also be useful.
“Above all, drink in moderation,” she says, “so no more than two small glasses on no more than four nights per week.”
A hangover forces the liver to work overtime to produce enzymes that break down booze, and liver cells die as a result of this overload. Excessive drinking can cause osteoporosis and fractures, because the liver is involved in bone metabolism. It leads to digestive issues, because your liver is vital for gut health. And it even causes dull, puffy skin, because your liver processes toxins to keep your skin fresh and glowy.
Aside from drinking more water and supplementing where appropriate, other practical liver-protecting steps include exercise, which improves blood oxygenation, and reducing ultra-processed foods, which place a heavy burden on every organ in your body.
Prevention is better than cure, so the best thing you can do is drink less overall. But don’t expect to be able to cut back using willpower alone. Some people can do that, but they are booze-free unicorns. Most of us need a bit of a strategy.
Whether your triggers are societal, emotional or habitual, they are ingrained from years of conditioning.
“If you are on a night out, plan ahead and pace yourself,” says Karen Tyrell, CEO of Drinkaware. “Switch some of your alcoholic drinks with water, a soft drink or a low- or no-alcohol alternative – they are much more widely available now.”
Drinkaware also has an app to help you track how much you’re drinking, which can gamify the process of drinking less. Checking off alcohol-free days can be strangely satisfying, and being able to see how much you’ve had over the course of a month can help by bringing awareness to your drinking, which naturally incentivises you to cut back.
And always aim for progress over perfection. Wherever your starting point, reducing your alcohol intake by any amount will improve your health.
‘Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life’ by Rosamund Dean is out now