Nigella Lawson has long been an icon for women, especially for those who have grown up alongside her as she has evolved into an internationally renowned cook, author and TV personality.

Her elegant, often outspoken, take on feminism, diets, fashion and entertaining mean many of us want to join her "modern women of a certain age" tribe.

So when Nigella comes out as cutting down on alcohol as it makes her feel anxious you know that she is not alone. Speaking on singer-songwriter Jessie Ware's podcast Table Manners, Nigella revealed she has cut back on drinking as it tends to 'exacerbate' her anxiety.

Although she believes alcohol reduces her worries at first, it leaves her with "a horrible tight feeling of worry". She says she still drinks, "but not very often. If I have even two glasses of wine I need to have lots of food afterward" as it raises her blood sugar levels.


I immediately recognised the scenario. In fact, I'd faced it in the last 24 hours. I joined two delightful, well-educated, amusing female friends last night for a drink and a catch-up at a local gastropub.

We ate a one-course supper and shared a single bottle of white wine, while we debated - among other things - whether cardio was better for a post-50s woman than Pilates. When it finished, there was consideration of another glass, but we opted for the tap water chaser. I felt rather virtuous as I walked home at 10pm.

But this morning, I woke to a fuzzy head. At breakfast, I heaped on an extra two tablespoons of muesli and added twice the amount of my usual banana. And a slice of toast and honey. One milky coffee was not enough.

The real killer though was the effect of last night's alcohol on my ability to do the crossword. It was a woeful effort, leaving me feeling rather ashamed. I wouldn't say I was anxious, but I was not filled with self-love by any means.

It's something I have discussed with many of my friends. How much are we drinking these days? How much is too much? We may have laughed when chief medical officer Prof Dame Sally Davies suggested we take up her habit of a cup of tea instead of a G+T at the end of a working day, but many of us are trying to moderate our behaviour.

For some that will be no drinks in the week, ever; for others it might be Go Sober October, which raises awareness about the connection between cancer and alcohol, and raises money for Macmillan.

Personally, I am circling my own version of the wagon. After the death of my mother in April, I found solace from the awful feeling of loss by sitting in my garden on summer evenings drinking rose.

This is common bereavement counsellor Julia Samuel told me and reassured me that these feelings would pass. They have largely, but I can see that life's more difficult problems are like icebergs for midlife women to crash into.


Many doctors report that women who were once moderate drinkers run into problems as bereavement, retirement, empty nest, illness enter their lives.

Like a midlife switch from Manolos to trainers, women start to notice post-40 that the way their body deals with alcohol is changing too.

As their organs shrink with age, it is harder for the body to process alcohol; also, most people become a little heavier, and as the extra fat can't absorb alcohol, it lowers your tolerance to alcohol and increases the chance of a hideous hangover the next morning.

Official guidance says that it is safest to drink less than 14 units a week. If you do regularly exceed this, it's best to spread your drinking over three or more days. Photo / Getty Images
Official guidance says that it is safest to drink less than 14 units a week. If you do regularly exceed this, it's best to spread your drinking over three or more days. Photo / Getty Images

According one report this is why women, who typically have more body fat than men, are often reported to have worse hangovers.

I run a therapy platform and I asked Mayfair therapist Anna Storey what she thought of Nigella's comment. She replied, "Only today I was talking to a middle-aged female client who felt she was drinking too much. It is one of the ways we have of not dealing with stuff in our lives. And many people struggle with that."

As she says, it provides temporary relief from any number of concerns — and for midlife women, this would include existential questions like what next? "I am speaking generally, but one drink will make you feel better, but two and more will eventually make you depressed. And the next morning, you are even less likely to deal with the issues that are driving you to drink too much."

Doctor Louise Newson notes that women who are perimenopausal or menopausal often have worsening anxiety and this can be made worse by drinking alcohol. Having recently opened a menopause and well-being centre in Stratford-upon- Avon, she says: "Many of the women I see say their tolerance for alcohol changes and they don't enjoy it as they had in the past.

"But others drink alcohol to numb symptoms or to try and help them sleep at night as interrupted sleep can be a common symptom of the perimenopause and menopause. But drinking alcohol can actually worsen sleep patterns so actually exacerbates poor sleep which can lead to them to feeling more anxious."

Of course, it's not just women who are starting to turn away from alcohol in midlife. Emmy award-winning TV Producer Derek McLean, has effectively given up drinking, though he waggishly calls himself 'dry-curious'. Writing in Planet Mindful (to be published on October 25) he tells how it started with a howlingly drunk night and his realisation that this was not grown-up behaviour.

Urged on by a female friend, he read Annie Grace's This Naked Mind, and came off the booze. The effect? "It would be easy to say I feel like a new man, but actually I feel like my old self, my teenage self. Happy confident, not moody. Even-handed, not under a cloud, not hating work, not "just getting through the week".

This Naked Mind, written by a Colorado blogger and businesswoman, is one of a raft of recently published books about not drinking, or cutting back: The Unexpected Joy of Not Drinking, The Sober Diaries and Mindful Drinking to name a few.

As these are passed around among friends, and the slew of newspaper stories and TV documentaries, like Adrian Chiles' Drinkers Like Me on BBC2, increase, there will be more and more discussion about cutting down or cutting out.

While Adrian Chiles didn't originally see his 100 units as any kind of problem, it's rather typical that women see much lesser drinking as problematic. They are more concerned with the effect it will have on their skin, the calories they will imbibe, the social opprobrium they might risk if they get intoxicated in public.

In fact, in a study at the University of Adelaide researchers found that adults aged between 30 and 65 have only "minor" concerns about the health effects of alcohol, and in fact it was embarrassment that would work better as a deterrent.

So where can middle-aged women go from here? I don't think we will be back in the days of a sherry at Christmas - but I do see women adopting a more measured response. As Nigella said one the podcast, she doesn't intend to give up entirely

"I've never been a big drinker [but] I do like it. If you don't drink, after the first hour of a party you're in a different room to everyone else and that can be quite difficult."

But as Nigella has always said, it's about portion control isn't it, just as much with wine or spirits as it is with chocolate and pasta.