Sunday 26 February 2017

Pouring our lives away? The rise of the female wineaholic

It's the civilised drink women across the country uncork on a daily basis but many don't notice the glasses of wine adding up - or know the real damage they can do

Claire O' Mahony

Wine: have we realised the damage it can do?
Wine: have we realised the damage it can do?
The Irish Heart Foundation recommends keeping a drinking diary

Tick tock, tick tock, that's the sound of wine o'clock. For many women like me, in their 30s, our poison of choice is wine - so civilised and lovely, such a necessary complement to a delicious meal, the sophisticate's drink of choice. Wine is all that, and of course it's an instantaneous de-stressor. Bad day at the office? A glass of wine is always the solution. Friday night wind-down on the couch with Netflix? Time to crack open a bottle of cabernet sauvignon.

There seems to be very few occasions, either stressful or celebratory, where vino doesn't seem appropriate - and that raises questions. Are we keeping proper tabs on how much we're drinking? And are we fully aware of the potential damage a regular wine habit can cause?

There are certain alcohol related statistics that cannot be ignored. Firstly there's the fact that women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week and that a large glass of an 11pc alcohol-by-volume or ABV wine (250ml, the generous size you might pour at home) contains 2.8 units of alcohol.

Then there's the fact that whether it's drinking wine or other types of booze, Irish women are overdoing it. According to Alcohol Action Ireland - the national charity for alcohol related issues which is partially funded by the HSE - four out of 10 women report a drinking pattern that is already causing damage to their health.

Last year Professor Frank Murray, of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Alcohol Policy Group, said that there has been a very big increase in the number of women presenting with the catastrophic consequences of alcohol intake. Drink half a bottle every night and a bottle at weekends and you could be looking at irreversible liver damage, which often doesn't have any obvious symptoms. You can hold down a job, be a responsible parent and partner, and drink every night. You're not an alcoholic - you wouldn't even consider yourself a problem drinker - but you are possibly still drinking too much with a potentially fatal outcome. And then there's the cancer link. Alcohol is a carcinogen and research conducted by the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) in 2013 found that 12pc of breast cancers in this country were associated with alcohol consumption.

Suzanne Costello of Alcohol Action Ireland says that three to six standard drinks a day increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 41pc. Considerably less serious but still a concern is that if you drink a bottle of 13pc ABV wine, you're consuming approximately up to 700kcals. Alcohol is second only to fat in terms of a concentrated source of calories, and that's before you've even factored in the crisps, nuts or snacks consumed if you like a nibble when you drink.

For any woman fond of her pinot grigio, all this makes for uncomfortable reading. But it's not that female wine drinkers have the intention of drinking themselves into an early grave, but that quite simply we haven't always done the maths in relation to what we're drinking. This was broadcaster Maia Dunphy's experience when she made her RTÉ documentary Merlot and Me, where she looked at the relationship between Irish women and alcohol and also examined her own drinking patterns.

"How many of us who drink will admit to hovering over that 'how many units' question in a doctor's surgery and wondering what answer sounds appropriate rather than the truth?" she asks. "I know I have. Also, thanks to enormous fish-bowl glasses and home measures, we often don't know what a unit is."

Maia says that while making the show didn't result in her stopping drinking - indeed, the 38-year-old caused a stir recently when she revealed that even though she's pregnant she still enjoys one or two drinks a week - it did make her review her own drinking habits.

A shift in patterns has seen drinking move out of the pubs - 50pc of alcohol bought here is now bought for home consumption. And we're drinking more wine; 7pc of alcohol consumed in Ireland in 1990 was wine - this almost quadrupled, to 26pc in 2011. But are we drinking it in the way wine was intended to be drunk?

"In the other cultures, particularly ones more associated with wine such as Mediterranean countries, they may well have wine with their meal. They would very rarely think of cracking open a bottle and finishing it in front of some TV programme on a Saturday night," says Dr Bobby Smyth, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist from Dublin's Drug Treatment Centre Board.

As someone working with under-18s, one of his concerns is the effect that 'mammy wine time' can have on children. "If kids are seeing their parents demonstrate and verbalise alcohol consumption as a coping strategy, or as a reward for themselves, your four-year-old is hearing you say that and is internalising this is how adults deal with stress. This is how you cope when life gets tough; you pour a bottle of this purple coloured stuff into yourself," he says. "Those attitudes about the role of alcohol as a problem solver are perhaps bedded in at a very early age,0 and unfortunately many parents in Ireland are unwittingly, I think, modelling that kind of behaviour to their kids."

Professor Joe Barry, Trinity College Dublin, an expert in public health medicine, also agrees that imbibing at home is a major issue. "It's very easy to come home, kick off your shoes and have a glass of wine, or half a bottle of wine," he says. "Theses are the sort of patterns that we see. Spirits are slightly younger, wine I would think is probably the biggest problem for older women in Ireland."

He highlights several factors contributing to this increased consumption of wine, including that women are heavily targeted by marketing - alcohol companies often sponsor TV programmes from 7pm to 10pm - and that wine is relatively cheap and widely available. However, he believes that there is a general reluctance to accept, let alone tackle, the problem.

"It's a middle-class drink and that's a harder thing to crack as middle-class people make the laws of this country and people usually don't make laws that will impact upon their own behaviour," says Professor Barry. "It was recommended that for the amount of alcohol in standard drinks there shouldn't be the difficult calculations that you have to make at the moment. There should be clearer labelling on alcohol bottles of both the gram amount of alcohol and the calorie count. That was agreed by the Department of Health in 2008. We're now in 2015, nine years later and we haven't done it. It's not really taken seriously."

Amy (34), who works in the legal sector, gave up wine three years ago and hasn't looked back. "I didn't feel I had a dependency or a problem with it necessarily. I didn't stand out in anyway from my peers, who were all in their late 20s, early 30s - we went out, we socialised, we had fun. There was no series of drunken calamities," she says. "At the same time, there were weddings and parties where the wine particularly flowed all night, and I got drunk and was full of self-loathing the next day, regardless of what happened the night before. It was like it had a particular effect; wine had a paranoia-inducing effect, with the hangovers. I'd also read articles in newspapers and magazines about the rise of alcoholism in middle-aged Irish women and they always seemed to mention wine drinking and for me I felt it was something I should get on top of pre-emptively in case it ever got on top of me."

She still drinks alcohol and is actually enjoying it more these days. "I'm much more careful about what I drink because it's much more of a treat as well. I'm so much more conscious of what I'm drinking and the quality of what I'm drinking," she says.

Health professionals are not saying we need to completely give up having a glass of wine but they are stressing that we need to be mindful of it and not underestimate our consumption of it. The 14 units recommendation can sound like a very small amount per week, but it has been developed for solid reasons.

"I think we need to give women the facts. At the end of the day the facts and scientific evidence provide a good argument for curtailing your drinking," says Dr Bobby Smyth.

Even if you do decide to forgo wine, you may discover that perhaps you won't miss it that much. While Amy occasionally regrets her wine drinking days, she doesn't miss it enough to take up drinking it again.

"Really, in weighing that up what I've lost is having the odd glass of wine with dinner but what I've reaped is a real confidence that I'm not on a path that I don't want to go down," she says. "I'm very confident that my relationship with alcohol is healthy now; it wasn't unhealthy before but now I'm very confident that it's not going to become unhealthy. Maybe it was the best decision I ever made - I can't know but I'd rather not know."

How to control your wine intake

Keep a drinking diary According to the Irish Heart Foundation, we underestimate the amount we drink by 61pc. Writing down everything you drink may prove illuminating.

Space it out

Aim to have at least three to four wine-free days a week.

Buy smaller wine glasses

A 125ml glass of 11pc ABV wine has 1.4 units of alcohol as opposed to the 2.8 units a 250ml glass contains.

Don't get into rounds

If it's unavoidable, alternate with non-alcoholic drinks. Don't guzzle wine, always sip.

Start a wine fund

Put the money you might have spent during the week on alcohol towards something you really want instead.

Irish Independent

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