Midlife Anxiety Drinking Disorder seems to be more common than ever, finds Louise Chunn
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 television personality.
Her elegant, often outspoken, take on feminism, diets, fashion and entertaining mean that many of us want to join her "modern women of a certain age" tribe.
So when Nigella announces she is cutting down on alcohol as it makes her feel anxious, you know 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 recognised the scenario. In fact, I'd faced it in the past 24 hours. I went out with two female friends last night for a drink and a catch-up. We ate a one-course supper and shared one bottle of white wine. When we finished it, we considered another glass, but we opted for tap water. I felt rather virtuous.
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. 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. We may have laughed when Britain's 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's Go Sober October, in aid of Macmillan, which raises awareness about the link between cancer and alcohol.
Personally, I am circling my own version of the wagon. After my mother died in April, I found solace by drinking rosé on summer evenings in my garden. 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 hit. Many doctors report that women who were once moderate drinkers run into problems as bereavement, retirement, empty nests, 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 and increases the chance of a bad hangover. One report suggested that this is why women, who typically have more body fat than men, are often said to have worse hangovers.
I run a therapy platform, welldoing.org, 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.
"Speaking generally, 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."
Dr Louise Newson notes that women who are perimenopausal or menopausal often have anxiety. Having recently opened a menopause and wellbeing 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, which exacerbates poor sleep, and that in turn can lead to them to feeling more anxious."
Of course, it's not just women who are shunning alcohol. Emmy award-winning TV producer Derek McLean has effectively given it up, though he waggishly calls himself "dry-curious". Writing in Planet Mindful (out on Oct 25), he tells how it started with a hugely 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, by a Colorado blogger and businesswoman, is one of a raft of recent books on cutting back: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, The Sober Diaries and Mindful Drinking, in addition to the slew of media stories and TV documentaries, such as Adrian Chiles's Drinkers Like Me on BBC Two.
While Chiles didn't at first see his 100 units a week as bad, women tend to see much lesser drinking as a problem. They are more concerned with the effect it will have on their skin, the calories, the social opprobrium of being drunk in public. At the University of Adelaide, researchers found that adults aged between 30 and 65 had only "minor" concerns about health effects, with embarrassment the better deterrent.
I don't think we're heading back to the days of a sherry at Christmas - but I do see women adopting a more measured response. As Nigella said on the podcast: "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 she has always said, it's about portion control - just as much with wine or spirits as it is with chocolate.
Louise Chunn is the founder of therapy platform welldoing.org