By Laura Willoughby MBE.
You would think, in this internet age, that finding information to guide your health would be easy. But through my journeys to find facts about alcohol, I have hit countless contradictory studies and articles that make it harder to make informed decisions rather than easier. The Daily Mail claims that a glass of red wine can be good for you, ignores hundreds of studies that show the opposite.
So, when a fellow business founder sidled up to me a few weeks ago at an event (orange juice in hand), and confessed she has given up drinking because it does not mix well with her menopause – her sleep and body temperature issues are exacerbated by wine – I started thinking about how good the advice is out there for women as they get older. And I must say it is not great.
Generally, whatever your age, moderating your alcohol consumption is ideal. As well as the hangovers becoming harder to cope with, there is evidence that as women age their tolerance for alcohol decreases. Men might drink more but we suffer more. I will leave you to insert your own expletive at this point.
The impact of drinking
If you have been drinking heavily through your thirties and forties (and when I say heavily I mean anything over half a bottle of wine a night), alcohol will already have been impacting you in some way or another. It is likely to be affecting your weight, sleep and mood.
As the perimenopause can kick in a long time before menopause itself (defined as one year after your last period), here are some good things to know about how alcohol can mask or impact on menopausal symptoms.
Alcohol can act as a trigger for some of the symptoms of the menopause, such as hot flushes and night sweats. It can also make your sleep, weight gain, and night sweats worse (alcohol raises your internal body temperature).
If your mood and energy levels are already affected by alcohol, drinking too much could trigger or make depression, mood swings or anxiety worse.
So it might be a good idea to get your drinking under control before the big hormonal changes hit, so you know what ‘normal’ feels like, and also understand better how the menopause may be affecting you.
What about HRT, alcohol and breast cancer?
The evidence that HRT can cause some types of cancer (breast, womb and ovarian) is mixed. It includes a study of one million women, run by Cancer Research UK scientists, which showed that different types of HRT can increase the risk of different cancers. (See also this Mutton Club article which mentions information about body-identical hormones as they are thought to be less cancer inducing.)
The same Million Women study showed that alcohol can affect hormones such as oestrogen – increasing breast cancer risk by raising levels of this hormone. So even light drinking (one drink a day) can increase your risk.
Whilst I can’t find an article that brings the two factors together into one coherent piece of advice, the fact that both HRT and alcohol on their own increase breast cancer risk is, well, sobering…
And your heart…
As we get older our risk of heart disease increases anyway (no evidence that HRT changes this in either direction), but researchers did find some evidence of a small increased risk of stroke for post-menopausal women.
And your bones…
Women are more likely to get osteoporosis than men. One of the reasons is that estrogen, the hormone that protects our bones, decreases sharply when we reach menopause, causing bone loss. The chances of developing osteoporosis therefore also increase as women reach menopause.
If you have healthy bones by the time the menopause hits that certainly helps – but there is evidence that heavy alcohol use, especially during adolescence and young adult years, can dramatically affect bone health and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
The rate at which you lose bone mass after you reach menopause is also an important factor, and in part why HRT is prescribed. A woman can lose up to 20% of her bone density during the five to seven years following menopause. The NHS recommends quitting smoking and reducing drinking to counter this.
At this point I just want to go back to me at 25 and give myself a bit of a slap. My late forties seemed so far away then. But as my thirties whooshed by, my alcohol consumption went up and up. At 42 I am now making up for lost time when it comes to my health. Having quit drinking already makes that much easier, and I am now thankful the hard bit is done. Now for the next challenge – my addiction to cake!
You may also like Cutting Down On Alcohol – One Woman’s Story, Lessons From A Month Off Alcohol and How To Detox In 5 Days – No Dairy, Sugar, Wheat OR Alcohol.
Laura Willoughby MBE, is a former politician, business woman and inveterate campaigner. She was a councilor on Islington Council in London for 12 years and the Chief Executive of The Food Chain and Move Your Money UK. She set up Club Soda in 2014 to help people quit or cut down on their drinking.