Sunday 21 January 2018

Meet the 'semi-sober' brigade

Growing numbers of Irish people are cutting right back on the amount of drink they consume and reaping the health benefits

Lifestyle change: John Buckley, Hello Sunday Morning's Irish ambassador. Photo: Damien Eager
Lifestyle change: John Buckley, Hello Sunday Morning's Irish ambassador. Photo: Damien Eager
Courtney O'Hara swapped wild nights out for a fitness buzz.

Chrissie Russell

Recently I had to fill out one of those 'how much do you drink' questionnaires at the doctor's, and for once I didn't have to be economical with the truth. While writing 'two to four units a week', I realised that actually, it probably wasn't even that most weeks. From Friday night drinking sessions that rolled into furry wine-tongued, Sunday morning hangovers, I'm now firmly in the 'not a big drinker' bracket. I still enjoy the occasional glass of Shiraz, a cocktail here and a G&T there, but the frequency and regularity of my drinking has plummeted. I haven't the time, I haven't the money, I haven't the inclination and I really can't hack the morning after. I have gone semi-sober.

Moderate drinking is having a moment. Whether it's that we've lost the taste for it after the excesses of the boozy Celtic Tiger days or finally grown up and realised that there's more to socialising than necking our body weight in beer, going out for just the one - and meaning it - is finally in vogue.

"Overall alcohol consumption has fallen by approximately 25pc over the past 15 years, based on Revenue Clearance and CSO population data," reveals Ross MacMathuna, director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland.

"We're seeing aspects of Ireland's social culture changing. There's been a rise in the popularity of craft beer and more of a focus on pairing food and drink."

Part of the changing tide is that we're becoming more discerning and valuing quality over quantity, says John Duffy from consumer organisation, Beoir.

"The growth of craft beer, premium spirits and quality wines means that people that are thinking more about what's in their glass and making choices based on the flavour, not merely the psychoactive effect," he explains.

"Certainly in the beer sector, the highly flavourful beers now available help discourage people from blindly downing seven or eight pints of the same thing."

In my case it was a series of lifestyle changes that called time on my overconsumption. I started working from home full-time and ditched the traditional Friday trek to the pub, I got pregnant and then found the rigours of motherhood left no time for days in bed, eating crisps and willing away a fuzzy wine head.

Interestingly, while I might have missed it at first, a prolonged period of not drinking changed my attitude to alcohol once I picked up a glass again - quite simply I don't want to get drunk, I don't want to lose a day feeling groggy, I've other things I'd rather do with my time.

It's an approach embraced by many in the Hello Sunday Morning (HSM) Movement - a global online community promoting temporary abstinence with a view to changing your relationship with alcohol.

"It's not about people with problematic alcohol abuse or going sober overall," explains Hello Sunday Morning's Irish ambassador, John Buckley. "It's about finding an inbetween space, giving people a period of sobriety when they can reflect on their relationship with alcohol and take ownership of their choices around drinking."

Of the hundreds of Irish people who have signed up online, most tend to give goal-orientated reasons for doing it such as health, finance or work.

In Australia, where the initiative started five years ago by Brisbane man Chris Raine, there's been a reduction in the drinking culture with the Australian government recently committing $1.1m (€747,000) in funding to the cause.

In Ireland there's no financial support from the State; John tries to promote the movement online on a voluntary basis.

He feels passionately about the project after taking an eight-month break from alcohol two years ago and coming out the other side a more moderate drinker.

"It was a period where my wellbeing wasn't amazing and I was drinking more than was probably healthy," says John. "Since then my behaviour around alcohol has been very different. I feel I've more ownership over choice.

"I still drink, but I drink in a very different way. I have beers in the fridge but they're to have one or two with dinner. If I go out, I don't feel like I have to drink.

"Instead of spending Sunday mornings in bed or over a greasy fry I like to go up to the mountains outside Knock and go for a run, and there's so many people up there now, young people running and walking and hiking and looking fresh - it's clear they've not been out the night before."

The fact that it's a predominantly young community involved in HSM, it has a lively online presence and it's restraint rather than refusal that has helped remove some of the stigma attached to not drinking.

We're also increasingly savvy about health and fitness and the role alcohol plays, or doesn't play, in a training regime.

Courtney O'Hara (32), managing director for Assets Modelling Agency, started working out four years ago and quickly discovered she'd rather be hitting the gym, than the bottles of cider on nights out. "I suffer from osteoporosis and I guess as you get a little older, you realise that it's time to start looking after yourself," she explains.

"I decided to get a trainer, Jessi Kavanagh, who helped make my body stronger and healthier and completely changed my outlook - it became easier not to head out every weekend when I wanted to be fresh for the gym."

Since training and changing her lifestyle she's found her osteoporosis has improved and she has more energy. From being a Bulmers lover she's switched to red wine or vodka, soda and fresh lime when she heads out, usually twice a month.

"I prefer relaxed drinks and some food as opposed to a mad night out, which is something I've noticed all my friends enjoy now," she says. "Maybe we're getting a little older and have different priorities but I do think things are changing slowly in the drinking culture and I think the health and fitness industry has a big part in that - which can only be a positive thing."

Even if you've not cut back already, there's a good chance you're thinking about it. According to a Netmums drinking survey, almost half of those polled reckoned they'd like to drink less.

When chatting to a friend recently about the trend for semi-sober she thought about it for a while and then said 'ah, you mean Irish people who drink like French people', which just about sums it up - drinking for enjoyment in moderation, not aiming for oblivion through excess.

But we can't go patting ourselves on the back just yet. As a nation, Ireland still has a troubled relationship with alcohol. "If you talk to the liver doctors they'll tell you we have an awfully long way to go," says Professor Frank Murray, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

"Yes, there's been a recent decline but we're still drinking twice as much as we were 50 years ago and seeing a huge amount of people presenting with liver damage."

"Almost everyone" he reckons could do with drinking less but he agrees there's a growing demographic in the country who are more aware of their health and opting to cut back and that - provided they haven't a problem with alcohol - the approach of cutting down, rather than cutting out, has a better chance of promoting a healthy attitude to drinking.

But he does warn that switching gears on alcohol intake does require caution. "You're more likely to get drunk if you only drink once a year," he warns. "If your body isn't used to drinking you will get more of an effect, finding it harder to metabolise and higher levels of toxicity."

Moreover he's not impressed with the label 'semi-sober'.

"I think 'semi-abstinence' would be better rather than 'semi-sober', that implies that you're semi-drunk the rest of the time," he says. "I think a good parallel is with the 'opportunistic veggies', people, like myself, who are vegetarian four or five days a week and eat meat as a treat.

"While, in my opinion, there are no health benefits to alcohol, I'm not saying don't drink. But I think everyone would benefit from drinking less and being more aware of how much they drink in a week."

Irish Independent

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