It can be difficult to recognise you have a drinking problem until your health starts to suffer. Here are the most common signs that it’s time to seek help.
Tired, rundown, constantly late for work? While it’s normal to enjoy a glass of wine or two after a stressful day at work, if your social life takes precedence and your health is starting to suffer, it might be time to take stock of your drinking habits.
We speak to Dr Paul McLaren, Consultant Psychiatrist and addiction expert at Priory’s Hayes Grove Hospital and Dr Sarah Brewer, Healthspan Medical Director and author of mylowerbloodpressure.com about how to spot the signs of alcohol dependence and the telltale signs you’re drinking to excess:
What makes someone an alcoholic?
Alcohol is considered to be safe in moderation, but if you ramp up your consumption (for whatever reason), find it difficult to function without having a drink, or your drinking habits start to interfere with your everyday life, it is possible that you have become alcohol dependent.
‘Alcoholic is not a medical term; it is a term coined by Alcoholics Anonymous,’ explains Dr McLaren. ‘In medicine we classify alcohol problems as alcohol dependence syndrome or harmful alcohol use.’
If you drink to excess on a regular basis, the effects of alcohol abuse can be detrimental to your physical as well as mental health.
‘The term means that your relationship with alcohol has become so dysfunctional that your life has become difficult to manage,’ he adds. ‘That could be because you have developed physical dependence or are drinking in a destructive “binge” pattern.’
Some people abuse alcohol but do not develop an addiction and some people with alcohol addiction problems do not drink to excess. According to Drinkaware, being dependent on alcohol means you feel you’re ‘not able to function without it, that drinking becomes an important, or sometimes the most important, factor in your life’.
The bottom line is, if your excessive drinking is causing you emotional distress, your behaviour is impacting your life or your health is starting to suffer, it is time to seek help.
The signs you’re drinking too much
According to the NHS guidelines, men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week. This is equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.
Alcohol can be both physically and psychologically addictive. If you drink in excess of the NHS guidelines on a regular basis, the effects of alcohol abuse can be detrimental to your physical as well as mental health and can lead to a number of ailments. The most common physical signs to look out for include the following:
The first telltale sign of alcohol excess is your energy levels. ‘Lack of sleep, commonly referred to as burning the candle at both ends, can lead to tiredness, fatigue, irritability and foggy thoughts,’ explains Dr Brewer. ‘You may also find it difficult to fall asleep when you do eventually do get to bed, even if you are exhausted, if your mind is still whirling.’
‘Lack of sleep and dehydration can also lead to sore, dry eyes, puffiness or dark shadows under the eyes,’ she adds.
Poor work performance
Up late every night living the high life? For even the highest achievers, once your social life starts to impact your day job, it might be time to consider your lifestyle choices and start putting your health first.
‘The party lifestyle can affect your grades if you are at college, and your performance at work,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Lack of sleep leads to difficulty concentrating, reduced productivity at work, and poor time keeping with difficulty meeting deadlines.’
Although it makes you feel good, alcohol is also a depressant, and excessive drinking can takes its toll on your mental health.
‘As well as irritability, you may experience anxiety, negative thoughts and feel low or depressed, with poor motivation,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘You may become argumentative and have more strained relationships with family, friends and colleagues.’
High blood pressure
Living the high life can also lead to more serious health implications. ‘Not getting enough sleep can raise blood pressure according to the American Heart Association by causing inflammation of artery linings, so get yours checked,’ advises Dr Brewer.
‘Other researchers have found that night owls are almost a third more likely to have arterial hypertension and a faster resting heart rate than morning types,’ she adds.
Poor glucose control
This one is hard to spot, but alcohol can play havoc with your blood sugar levels. Thirst, hunger and fatigue are all signs your glucose control is out of whack. Poor sleep quality thanks to partying all night long is also linked to type 2 diabetes.
‘Finnish research involving almost 11,000 people suggests that night owls who prefer to stay up late are two-and-a-half times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who are raring to go in the morning,’ says Dr Brewer.
If you’re regularly struck down with other ailments, this could be a warning sign it’s time to put the breaks on your social life. ‘A hectic party life can lower immunity as a result of stress responses – you may be prone to colds, candida infections or cold sores, for example,’ says Dr Brewer.
Mouth ulcers are another sign you’re not taking care of your health. ‘Aphthous mouth ulcers (canker sores) and sores at the corner of the mouth can develop because of stress and poor diet – especially lack of B vitamins which are used up during stress responses,’ adds Dr Brewer.
Do you regularly suffer from stomach problems? Before you start eliminating key food groups, consider how much alcohol you consume. ‘Partying can lead to digestive problems due to poor diet and/or excess alcohol,’ says Dr Brewer.
‘Excessive partying can also lead to weight gain due to poor diet, lack of time for exercise, and the high calorie content of alcohol. Watch the amount of alcohol you are drinking and take steps to cut back if it is excessive.’
Aside from the discomfort of a nasty hangover, lack of sleep, stress and alcohol dehydration can all lead to frequent tension headaches. ‘Activ-Hydrate by Healthspan contains four key electrolytes, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium plus B vitamins and caffeine to help combat fatigue and restore electrolytes that may be lost,’ advises Dr Brewer.
Tolerance to alcohol
If you stop feeling dreadful in the morning, this can also be a cause for concern. ‘Paradoxically, not getting hangovers, or feeling less troubled by them, can be signs of tolerance and your body needing more alcohol to get the same effect,’ says Dr McLaren.
Do you need help for alcohol dependence?
Dr McLaren recommends you seek help if any of the following applies:
✔️ If you are missing days off work after drinking.
✔️ If people close to you express concerns about your drinking.
✔️ Having accidents and mishaps associated with drinking.
✔️ Falling out with friends and family over your drinking.
✔️ If alcohol becomes more important to you, and you start to plan your life around it.
✔️ If you wake up shaking and need a drink to get your day going, then you have probably become physically dependent on alcohol.
✔️ If you start to develop negative feelings about drinking, even if those feelings don’t last.
How to overcome alcohol dependence
If you are concerned about your drinking habits and the toll its taking on your health, it might be time to reevaluate your lifestyle. ‘The easiest way to cut back on alcohol is to have alcohol-free days,’ says Dr McLaren. ‘If you are drinking every day, then starting with one alcohol-free day per week would be a good start.’
‘You don’t have to cut back on partying,’ says Dr McLaren. ‘Try going and not drinking, or limiting what you drink. You might find that you enjoy it more and feel better the next day.’
Facing up to alcohol problems
‘Try to be honest with yourself,’ suggests Dr McLaren. ‘Keep a record and know how much you are drinking. If you are worried and think you might have a problem, then sound out people who are close to you and who you know care about you.’
‘Try a spell of abstinence and see what it feels like,’ he adds. ‘Can you really take it or leave it? What have you got to lose? If you try and don’t succeed, speak to your doctor about getting help.’
⚠️ If you experience physical withdrawal symptoms such as shaking and nausea when you don’t have a drink, seek medical advice before you try to quit drinking completely. If you are alcohol dependent, stopping drinking without proper support can be dangerous.
Help and support with alcohol abuse
If you have any concerns about your drinking, for additional help and support, try one of the following resources:
- For alcohol addiction services in your area visit UK
- Visit co.ukfor a unit calculator and alcohol advice.
- Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. Call 0300 123 1110.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)is a free self-help group.
- Al-Anon Family Groupsoffers support and understanding to the families and friends of problem drinkers.
- Addactionis a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.
- Adfamis a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol.
- The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa)provides a free, confidential telephone and email helpline for children of alcohol-dependent parents.
- SMART Recoverygroups help participants decide whether they have a problem.