I love wine … especially wine with bubbles in it. It’s like drinking happiness and reminds me of so many fantastic occasions, celebrations and just “oh why not” moments spent with friends and family. So, on my 50th birthday it seemed the best idea in the world to get some gorgeous South African pink sparking wine and use that to welcome in my middle age.
I must have had four or five glasses and was perfectly sober as we cleared up and drove home. The next day was a whole other story. I was really sick. Not in a normal hungover kind of way – I felt like I had been poisoned. My stomach was sore, I was nauseous, I hadn’t slept, my eyes and cheeks were puffy. I felt very sorry for myself and spent the day in bed. Something I hadn’t done as a result of drinking since university. I thought it as a once-off (maybe it was the type of champagne). But no – the same reaction has happened over and over – varying in severity depending on how many glasses of white wine or bubbles I had drunk. And it came home to roost again yesterday, after just a half-glass of a new sparkling rose.
Is something up with the wine, it it peri-menopause or is it just me?
Until 15 years ago, very little research had been done on women’s response to alcohol, says Elizabeth Epstein, Ph.D., a research professor for the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers. When scientists did eventually begin to delve into the differences between men and women when it comes to drinking, they found some interesting differences.
First, even when a man and a woman weigh exactly the same amount, a woman only needs 90% of what a man consumes to achieve the same blood alcohol level. (How drunk the woman will feel compared to the man depends on her individual tolerance.)
The exact reason why this happens is unknown, but it may be because women have less body water. Women also have significantly fewer of the stomach enzymes that facilitate the breakdown of alcohol than men, which means that “more un-metabolized pure ethanol is going into the organs,” says Epstein. “For women, since there’s less being metabolized, more alcohol is directly affecting the liver, heart, brain, and intestines.”
But why is it only affecting me now? In the past I could easily drink five or six glasses of wine, and feel absolutely fabulous the next day. What’s changed? “Could it be that peri-menopause has changed the way my body works?”.
“Absolutely”, responded Dr Sandall, my GP: “alcohol, especially white wine, makes our stomachs secrete more acid than normal. Which irritates the stomach’s lining, inflaming the digestive tract and causing nausea. We don’t know why – but it does seem to seem to happen to women more frequently as they head towards menopause. The way your body responds to the things you eat and drink changes**. However – this doesn’t mean you should stop drinking. Drinking at your age is good for you – but just be careful what you drink.”
The Daily Mail Online (I share camparigirl’s weakness for this Pandora’s box) confirmed his diagnosis with Friday’s headline –“Raise a glass to healthy old age: Women in their 50s told two drinks a day can fight off illness”
Apparently a glass or two of alcohol a day in our middle age helps us to enjoy a happy and healthy retirement. If we have a little wine with dinner, we’re are more likely to be free of the ills of old age, from cancer to heart disease, than those who are teetotal or drink to excess. A major study conducted by Harvard University researchers has concluded that our minds will be sharper, our bodies fitter and we will be in better mental health. But, the alcohol experts warned: the study should not be used to justify ‘anything beyond very modest levels of drinking’.
Was Oscar Wilde wrong when he proposed “Everything in moderation. But moderation.”?
The researchers studied 120,000 female nurses, who had an average age of 58 at the start of the study – keeping track of how much they drank in middle age. And then compared it with data on the same nurses’ health at 70-plus.
Almost 11% of those had ‘successfully aged’ – that is, they had dodged 11 of the major ills of old age: including cancer, heart attack, stroke and diabetes. These were the women who drank light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol ie: 2 – 3 small glasses of wine/spirits an evening. Which equates as one of our ‘home-pour’ sized drinks.
They were mentally sharp as tacks – that evaluation coming by through tests for signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and they were physically fit, with everyday tasks such as vacuuming or climbing stairs causing them little or no difficulty.
However – any more than this and we open ourselves to a wide range of health and mental acuity problems. Alcohol also raised the odds of breast cancer, with the researchers recommending that women stick to 15g of alcohol a day (one big drink/ two small ones) to minimise risk. The study also showed daily drinking to be more beneficial than tippling just once or twice a week – so no saving the units up for a Saturday night binge. The overall conclusion: daily drinkers were 50% more likely to have a healthy old age than those who never drank.
But the news is not all good.
I know from my own experience that for light sleepers, alcohol is a fickle mistress. While a glass of wine may help you to get to sleep: a few too many can send your sleep cycle into a tailspin. And it seems that for women – this is a particularly true. A study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research indicates that women’s sleep is more easily disrupted by alcohol than men’s. Ninety-three subjects were given either a placebo or enough alcohol so that their blood alcohol level was .11 (most countries consider .08 to be legally impaired). They were then monitored as they slept.
The women who had been given the alcohol reported feeling more tired before they went to bed than men did, and woke up more often during the night and stayed awake for more minutes, says Damaris Rohsenow, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors. Interestingly, the women did not report feeling sleepier than the men did after their night of tossing and turning. “They had worse sleep quality, but didn’t notice,” says Rohsenow, an associate director at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. Ever resilient!
But the one tried and true rule of drinking was further confirmed by the participants in the sleep study: and it didn’t matter whether they were male or female—every subject who’d been given the alcohol reported feeling lousy the next day. So there’s the truth we all know to be real. Too much alcohol makes you feel bad.
Professor Jack Lucke, of the University of Queensland in Australia, points out: ‘It would be easy to misinterpret this study as evidence that drinking is good for (women). Rather, the take-home message is that regular small amounts of alcohol taken in the right way – can help to improve your quality of life as you get older.”
** (For the record – I can also no longer eat strawberries, kiwifruit, gooseberries, granola or drink orange juice without complaints from the stomach lining. These things used to make up my breakfast every day. Same reason according to Dr Pete – predicting that pineapple and tomatoes could be the next to go.)