Sobriety in menopause with Janey-Lee Grace

When I was feeling at my worst during menopause (terrified of getting old, it was all going south, I was anxious, and I couldn’t think of a thing to look forward to), I considered everything that might support me. I tried herbs, phytoestrogen foods, I baked healthy ‘seed’ cakes, upped the exercise (a bit) and considered HRT, but the one thing I couldn’t address, was how much alcohol I was drinking.

Something was off.  Since writing my first wellbeing book fifteen years ago I had been on a mission to inspire everyone to live more holistically, to eat well, eschew chemicals and practice mindfulness, enjoy therapeutic techniques and focus on self love. Was I walking my talk? Well, you wouldn’t find me putting anything on my skin that I couldn’t eat,  I bought the right organic  food, juiced regularly, did yoga and had all manner of treatments, from EFT, TFT, NLP (perhaps I needed ABC) but it was all while I was shimmying around the great big elephant in the room – alcohol.

I loved my nightly glass (or three) of wine, I was fully functioning, never had a DUI, never missed a day off work, I just drank most days… doesn’t everyone? I couldn’t just have one either, I wasn’t born with an ‘off switch’. But to be clear, there was no rock bottom moment, I was what’s known as ‘high functioning’ – or ‘high bottomed’ (sadly not true for a woman my age!)

What’s the issue with alcohol during the menopause? 

It’s not a good combination! Alcohol affects the central nervous system, the circulatory system, and virtually every part of your body (negatively). Women are more vulnerable to its effects, partly because the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol (dehydrogenase), is fairly inactive in our liver, so we absorb more into our bloodstream than men tend to. Alcohol can exacerbate sleep issues, can make hot flushes and night sweats worse, and often leads to weight gain, bloating and is linked to depression, mood swings etc. Then, there is the worrying fact that alcohol can affect bone health, so heavy drinkers can be more prone to osteoporosis.

Now at four years and eight months sober, I am staggered that I didn’t make the connection between just how awful I was feeling and the amount I was drinking. I thought I was just ‘normal’, everyone drank – right?  I assumed everyone my age had similar issues. I would wake at 3am almost without fail, heart racing, berating myself for yet again drinking too much, sweating profusely (I now know that drinking can increase your heart rate and widen blood vessels in the skin, so increases perspiration). I would hear a voice telling me “this has to stop, it’s not authentic with who you are. You are meant to care about your health and practice self-care, stop poisoning your body with alcohol!”

By 6pm the next evening a much chirpier voice arrived. The voice of the wine witch.

“You’ve had an exhausting day, time for a cheeky chilled Sauvignon…You might give up? Don’t be ridiculous!  Sober – anagram of Bores! Everyone is drinking! You can just have one!”

Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture. From baby showers, christening, playdates, parties, weddings, fresher’s week, funerals – from celebrations to commiserations, alcohol is the ‘social glue’ that sticks everything together. We have been brainwashed into thinking we are either ‘good drinkers’ or alcoholic losers. Clearly there are rock bottom drunks who have a serious issue, and the rest of us – happy social drinkers – occasionally lightweights who just can’t hold their beer.

I’ve learnt over time that it’s a spectrum and that there are many grey area drinkers. I’d suggest there are at least 50 shades of grey – but sadly not so sexy!

Women have been cajoled into keeping up with the lads, while many millennials are choosing not to drink at all, the biggest rise in drinking is in older women, and yet we are the ones the toxic liquid hits hardest.  Alcohol is responsible for 200 different illnesses, including cancer, and it’s notably terrible for exacerbating menopausal symptoms.

I’ve lost count of clients who have told me they rocked up to a GP or a practitioner complaining of mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, wondering if they were menopausal, only to be sent away minutes later with a prescription for anti-depressants, sometimes HRT too, but they were never asked about their drinking. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, that so many women are being offered medication, without being asked whether they are, in fact self-medicating.

I wasn’t sure how to stop drinking to be honest, it was such an ingrained habit, and I was worried about what others might say, whether I’d be ridiculed and sober-shamed, rather than congratulated for the sober badass I really was! When you stop smoking everyone says well done! But if you stop drinking people tend to look concerned and ask if you have a problem.

You see, alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking, and when I finally decided to quit just for Dry January 2018 I didn’t tell anyone close to me. I felt a sense of shame and guilt that I couldn’t explain. In reality I found that if I stood my ground and said “thanks, I’d love a drink, I’ll have sparkling water”, people accepted that, if I hesitated and looked unsure, then they steamed in with “can’t you just have one?”

I’d given up for short periods before during pregnancies, but I had always counted the days until I could drink again. This time it was different, it was as if a light had come on, and I didn’t ever go back.

I found that rather than giving something up, I was gaining my life back.

I discovered – to quote the most perfect book title by Catherine Gray – the unexpected joy of being sober.

If only someone had told me before how freaking fantastic life without alcohol is!

I’d read about all the benefits that can come when you reduce or give up drinking. Better sleep, regulated weight, better digestion, better sex, better cognitive function, and many people report their anxiety reduces or dissipates. I didn’t lose any weight for a few months and I felt ‘chaotic’, but eventually all the benefits kicked in – and more. All the overheating stopped, no more hot flushes! My eyesight improved (really!) and I got shiny locks, sober hair (who knew!) and I feel younger in myself. Want the best anti-ageing secret ever?  Ditch the booze!  (You’re welcome!)

Top tips if you want to give it a try are:

Commit to a challenge, at least 30 days, 100 is better, focus only on what you are gaining, get inspired, listen to podcasts and read ‘quit lit’, and get connection – they do say connection is the opposite of addiction.

Janey Lee Grace is a presenter on BBC Radio 2, author of Happy Healthy Sober: Ditch the Booze and Take Control of Your Lifeand the founder of The Sober Club.

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We understand there’s a lot of information out there on the menopause. You can read through the NICE guidance on menopause management, as well as the NHS overview on the menopause.