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Ask Dr. K: Stop casual drinking from becoming a problem

DEAR DOCTOR K: I’m a 36-year-old woman. Lately I’ve been drinking more than I used to. How can I rein in my drinking before it becomes a problem?

DEAR READER: Even for people who initially have a healthy relationship with alcohol, things can change over time. So how can you prevent casual drinking from crossing into problem drinking?

First, some basics. A standard drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. According to the National Institutes of Health, healthy women should drink no more than three drinks a day and no more than seven drinks a week (an average of one drink per day).

Even if you usually stay within this limit, alcohol could be problematic. For example, how often do you drink until you feel tipsy or drunk? Do you crave alcohol? How often do you drink more than you should?

Based on these questions, you may decide it’s time to cut back or stop drinking altogether. Whatever you decide, an informative new e-book by my Harvard Medical School colleague Dr. Debi A. LaPlante, “Responsible Drinking for Women,” can help you make the change. This e-book will help identify issues that could make it difficult to change, then introduce strategies to overcome them. It is available via online retail booksellers.

You’ll start by setting goals. Do you want to drink less or eliminate alcohol completely? Do you want to start now or in six months? Do you plan to cut back gradually or stop cold turkey?

You’ll also need to acknowledge why you drink. For example, many women drink to help cope with stress or conflict. You may have learned that, in the short run, alcohol alleviates uncomfortable feelings and strong emotions. But you can train yourself to cope in healthy ways, making it less likely that you’ll turn to alcohol when stressed.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of overall wellness to help prevent relapse and propel long-term change. Being physically out of shape, for example, is not just a cosmetic issue — you also just don’t feel that well. You don’t have your usual energy; your mind doesn’t seem as sharp. You get sleepy earlier in the day. You’re just not yourself.

When you’re in that kind of state, finding the inner discipline to deal with any problem is a challenge.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.

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