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Cutting Back on Alcohol

One lifestyle change which can have a big impact on mental health is cutting back on alcohol. Having a drink after a stressful day at work sometimes seems like it has a calming effect.  However, alcohol actually interferes the body’s stress hormone, (cortisol,) making us feel more stressed in the long run.  It can also lower our mood by disrupting the neurochemicals in the brain (Dopamine) which make us feel good. And if you are taking medication, alcohol can interfere with its effectiveness or even be unsafe.


But, what’s a reasonable amount to drink?  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) considers low-risk drinking limits to be no more than 7 drinks per week for biological women and with no more than 3 of those on a single day or sitting.  For biological men, the number is no more than 14 per week and no more than 4 on any day or sitting.  The one caveat to these low-risk drinking numbers is that for someone who is diagnosed with a severe alcohol use disorder, there are no low-risk limits and even having one drink can present a significant risk.  These individuals may benefit from a substance use treatment program.  So, these numbers are only for those who can safely drink in moderation.  If you are unsure if you are someone who can safely drink in moderation, you can discuss this with your therapist. 


Why the gender difference in the low-risk drinking limits?  The main reason is that (biological) women lack alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme which helps break down alcohol, and as a result are less able to metabolize their drinks.  This is also due to other possible biological factors such as body weight, percentage of water, and hormones. Note that once (biological) men turn 65 their low-risk number drops to 7 per week. 


Another caveat about stopping drinking is that if you have been drinking significantly more than these low-risk limits for a while there can be potential risks with suddenly eliminating alcohol.  For very heavy drinkers, especially those with a history of serious withdrawal symptoms, alcohol withdrawal can involve serious health risks.  So, if you fall into this category, you should seek medical advice.


If you are ready to cut back on alcohol properly, it can be helpful to make sure you are keeping track of consumption.  Many people don’t keep count.  Using a drink counting app might help. “DrinkControl: Alcohol Tracker”


Be mindful of how quickly you are drinking and make your drink last as long as possible. Consider setting time limits and parameters for if you start and/or stop drinking. Be mindful of portion sizes if you are pouring your own drink and consider not keeping alcohol in your home which may tempt you.  Some people find it helpful to swear off alcohol on certain days of the week or to try a sober month like “Dry January.”    


Identify activities that don’t involve drinking. Try non-alcoholic beverage options or perhaps water with a garnish.  Many bars and restaurants offer some very creative non-alcoholic options, so consider those instead. The following article lists establishments which serve mocktails plus fun things to do which don’t involve drinking “Things to Do in Chicago Without Drinking: The Ultimate Sober Guide-Thrillist.”


Ask yourself what you get out of drinking and find alternative healthier ways to achieve the same results.  If it’s stress relief, come up with alternative ways to deal with stress like exercise or breathing exercises.  If it’s boredom, try those new activities.  And if it’s to deal with social anxiety, consider addressing this with a therapist in therapy sessions.  Another source of motivation can be paying attention to how much better you feel when you drink less.  Remind yourself how great it feels waking up on Monday morning feeling clear headed.


You might also consider a support group. There is one called “Moderation Management.”   These are confidential peer led mutual self-help support groups. There are options to meet in person or virtually. If you want meetings focused on sobriety you can try AA or even “Chicago Alcoholics Anonymous – Chicago Area Service Office.”  The idea of going to a meeting like this might seem uncomfortable or intimidating.  Likely others there are in the same boat. There is no obligation to say or share anything, and it’s fine to just go to observe and listen.  If you do attend a meeting it can be helpful to remember that you can benefit from going even if you don’t love or agree with everything about it.  Just take what you need and leave the rest.  Also, even if there are some people in the meeting who you don’t have much in common with.  Look for the similarities and not the differences.  Another concern some people have about cutting back on drinking is what to tell people.  You can decide what if anything you want to say.  You might decide to say you are cutting back for health reasons or say nothing at all.   


If you are struggling to cut back on alcohol and feel you need additional support you can talk to your therapist. Therapy sessions focused on substance use issues can help. Cutting back on drinking can involve some effort and adjustment. Talk to a Therapist at Brightland Health about how to get on the right path towards sobriety. The pay offs can be significant.   


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