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Re-Assessing Our Relationship with Alcohol

A cultural shift is underway

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Across the country, a cultural shift is happening, as many Canadians are choosing to drink less alcohol.  Are you one of them? With 2024 newly underway, it may just be the perfect time to reassess your own relationship with alcohol.

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Research-based guidelines

Canada’s updated guidelines on alcohol consumption were published in 2023 (ccsa.ca/canadas-guidance-alcohol-and-health). They stress the deleterious effects of overconsumption, and explain that “for your health, less alcohol is better.”

For those wishing to consume alcohol, two standard drinks (or fewer) per week means that you’ll likely avoid alcohol-related consequences. However, beginning with three drinks per week, the risk of cancer increases. At seven or more drinks per week, the risk of heart disease or stroke increases significantly.

Linda Lane Devlin is a certified intervention specialist and counsellor with more than 25 years of experience. She explains that the new guidelines are based on new research and data, taking into account chronic diseases and including the fact that alcohol is a carcinogen. “We know now that a glass a day is not healthy,” says Lane Devlin. “That idea is outdated.”

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The risks of alcohol

The health risks of alcohol consumption range from short term (such as unintentional injuries and accidents), to long term (such as chronic diseases).

Not surprisingly, alcohol is a main cause of liver disease. Alcohol can also cause at least seven different types of cancer. And when it comes to heart health, alcohol is considered a risk factor for hypertension, heart failure, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, and stroke.

Of course, these are far from the only health risks of alcohol consumption. There are many, varied reasons why someone may not drink, or may wish to cut down. For instance, alcohol can interfere with sleep or exacerbate acid reflux symptoms. “Alcohol is also expensive!” laughs Lane Devlin. Truthfully, drinking is not always an affordable habit.

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Trendy teetotalers

Research shows that Canadian alcohol sales have been declining steadily over the past 10 years. According to Statistics Canada, 2021/2022 saw the largest decrease in the volume of wine sold since 1949 (which is when Statistics Canada started tracking alcohol sales). The volume of beer sold also reached a record low in 2021/2022.

According to Lane Devlin, we can look to wellness culture and the increase in self-care practices for the cultural pivot away from alcohol.

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Going “NoLo”

Have you decided to go “NoLo”? Perhaps you’re trying out “Dry January” or “Sober October”  —or maybe you’re feeling “sober curious”? The common denominator behind each of these buzzwords is that drinking less has become trendy.

“NoLo”  refers to no or low alcohol, and it signals a rising demand within the alcohol industry. NoLo beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails are becoming more common in stores, as well as in bars and restaurants. These healthier-for-you beverages aren’t the sickly sweet concoctions that might spring to mind. Options today are more innovative, higher quality, and decidedly elevated.

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Cutting back

Every additional drink comes with added health risks. However, that also means that any reduction also has benefits.

To help you achieve your drinking target, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction recommends having one non-alcoholic drink for every drink of alcohol, drinking slowly, and eating before and during your drinking.

Lane Devlin recommends having “a plan and a friend” to help you cut back on drinking. “A plan can refer to goals you would like to achieve, and a friend is someone likeminded who can be your cheerleader.” She also suggests finding an app that will help you track your drinking, stressing that, “if it isn’t written, it didn’t happen!”

For those who are struggling with alcohol, Lane Devlin recommends chatting with your general practitioner as a first step. There are also many resources online. For families and loved ones of someone who is struggling, an interventionist can be a good first point of contact.

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Mindful drinking

Regardless of whether you drink within the guidelines or abstain completely, Lane Devlin stresses that it’s important to find an approach that works for you. “Think of it as a mindset,” she explains. “Getting healthier is a beautiful thing.

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Is some alcohol good for heart health?

In a curious—and seemingly contradictory—turn, research indicates that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption may be associated with lower risk of heart disease. Not surprisingly, this can be confusing to consumers. However, researchers believe that the reason might be because alcohol consumption can reduce stress signaling in the brain. The advice that scientists give, therefore, isn’t to use alcohol for stress release, but to find healthy ways to reduce stress.

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What is “one drink,” anyway?

Determining what “one drink” is can be a surprisingly murky affair—especially when you’re working with glasses of different sizes and alcohol of different strengths. But there is a science to it!

One standard alcoholic drink is equivalent to:

·         5 fl oz (142 mL) of wine (12% alcohol)

·         12 fl oz (341 mL) of beer or a wine cooler (5% alcohol)

·         1.5 fl oz (43 mL) hard liquor (40% hard liquor, like vodka or gin)

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Did you know?

Alcohol affects men and women differently. If a man and a woman drink the same amount, the woman would likely have higher blood alcohol content than the man, and the effects of alcohol would last longer in the woman than in the man. These differences are due to body structure and chemistry—and mean that women are most susceptible to long-term negative effects due to alcohol consumption.

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Dads, too

It’s well known that pregnancy and alcohol don’t mix; a fetus’s exposure to alcohol can have serious negative health implications. Now, new animal research is suggesting that a father’s alcohol consumption before conception may also have negative effects on his offspring.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of alive magazine.

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