In the past couple years, amidst all the unknowns of pandemic life—on top of the regular stresses of parenting young kids (and the quite irregular stresses of parenting said kids through said pandemic)—I have found myself really, really looking forward to that glass of Pinot Noir by the end of the day.
And it appears I’m not alone.
But, despite my several-night-a-week habit, I was OK, I told myself. I was still within the safe limits outlined in Health Canada’s 2011 Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, which stipulate ten drinks a week, or two a day, for women and 15 a week, or three a day, for men. (Although, let’s be honest. Sometimes it was more than that.)
But in late August, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) published a new report stating that, based on two years of research and 5,000 peer-reviewed studies, our limits should be lower.
A lot lower. Like 80 percent lower.
According to the report, anything more than two drinks a week presents an increased risk of some very scary health outcomes, most notably cancer and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, the stated risks become “increasingly high” after six drinks a week or more, says the report. Especially for women.
And as someone who admittedly relies on alcohol from time to time to chill out after a stressful day balancing kids, family, work and the general stresses of 21st-century life, I needed to know: Is my drinking problematic?
It was time to seek out the experts.
The most striking revelation of the research was just how toxic alcohol is, says Dr. Peter Butt, co-chair of the expert panel that oversaw the development of the new CCSA report. The report links alcohol consumption to at least seven types of cancer—primarily breast cancer in women and colon cancer—and increased risks of cardiovascular diseases (disputing the widely held belief that moderate consumption was “good for the heart”).
“Clearly, alcohol is carcinogenic,” he says. “And this is something that's sold with the intent of being ingested.”
According to the report, women whose weekly consumption exceeds six drinks a week are in a “high risk” zone. That's pretty shocking, considering the 2011 guidelines currently in place deem anything up to 10 drinks a week a safe amount for women.
“As you get into higher levels of alcohol consumption, women are more likely to end up with more serious problems from their drinking, compared to men,” says Butt, who adds the caveat that men are more likely to die from accidents or violence related to the drinking than women.
However, one of the limitations of the study is that the risks as stated don't take into consideration other health and lifestyle factors (i.e., it’s possible that people who drink more tend to be less healthy when it comes to things like diet and exercise). Because of this, Butt advises Canadians to individualize risk, based on their personal circumstances. “For example, if they have a family history of breast cancer, the best advice would be to keep it very low or consider abstinence, depending upon your risk,” he says.
It’s likely these new guidelines will become the new Health Canada guidelines, which are expected to be updated later this fall. It’s something Butt says is overdue, given the developments in alcohol-related research since 2011.
In light of this, the new report is meant to arm Canadians with the most up-to-date, science-based information, framed within “risk zones” (i.e., fewer than two drinks per week = low risk; two to six = moderate risk; more than six = high risk) instead of a set drink limit.
“Our job is to put the information out there,” says Butt, who is also an associate professor of academic family medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. “Consumers have the right to know.”
For many Canadians (myself included), this report is not extremely welcome. It comes at a time when women are drinking more, and more regularly.
“There's going to be a collective eye roll,” says Ann Dowsett Johnston, a notable Canadian journalist and author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. “It’s legal, it's fun, it's readily available, it's well marketed,” she says. “And the culture says: ‘You deserve it because you're a good parent; you work hard at your job; you pay your taxes; you do everything right.’”
Canadian and U.S. data showed that drinking rates among women had been consistently climbing for decades, but that there was also a sharp increase during pandemic years (for example, one U.S. study showed a 323 percent increase in drinking for women with kids aged five and under). In light of this, the pandemic simply highlighted a problem that already existed, says Dowsett Johnston. “It was an epidemic of risky drinking, in a pandemic,” she says. “There was isolation in the pandemic... That really made things worse.”
Dowsett Johnston’s book also outlined how, while men in the 21st century self-reported as happier than they were in the 1970s, the opposite is true for women. This could be at least partially attributed to the fact that women are still responsible for a disproportionate amount of the domestic workload.
“We're deep into a social revolution, where women go toe-to-toe in the workplace, we outpace men in post-secondary attendance,” she says. “And yet, all sorts of jobs related to raising families are still on female shoulders only.”
A social media culture that glorifies perfectionism in parenting is yet another contributing factor. “There’s this notion that ‘I have to be perfect in every way,’” says Dowsett Johnston. “And this stress is killing.”
If you're starting to be a bit concerned about your drinking habits, start by asking yourself why you’re doing it, says Dowsett Johnston, who now also works as a psychotherapist who specializes in helping women through life transitions. “I think it crosses the line when you're using it to numb your feelings,” she says. “Ask yourself: ‘Am I hungry, angry, lonely, tired? Am I trying to escape something?’”
She also encourages people who have concerns to keep a drinking diary to set drinking goals in the morning and keep track of their actual consumption at the end of the day. “When you have a drinking problem, [a] that looks possible at eight in the morning is not possible by five in the afternoon. You'll know within a week if you have a drinking problem.”
Take the concern seriously, says Dowsett Johnston. “If a woman says they think they have a drinking problem, they probably do. That's a very brave thing to say.”
Sadly, women are much less likely to seek treatment than men, as they often have numerous responsibilities, such as childcare, that can’t be put on hold for rehab or treatment. There’s also a lot of shame involved with admitting you have a problem, says Dowsett Johnston. “If a man has too much to drink, he's seen as a party guy. If you're a woman, you're seen as sloppy.”
The good news, she says, is that there are now many more diverse treatment options available, many of them online, like the free “Alcohol Change Course” offered by Saskatchewan Health Authority in partnership with the University of Regina. According to Kathy Willerth, the Director of Mental Health and Addictions for the Saskatchewan Health Authority, 82 percent of those who completed the course reported improved confidence in managing their alcohol use.
Dowsett Johnston says another positive is there is also just generally more awareness and public acceptance of sobriety today as a lifestyle choice. “There are non-alcoholic beverages that didn't exist when I got sober 14 years ago.”
After all this, I still feel some bitterness toward the new guidelines.
I appreciate the fact that, as Canadians, we have access to this type of information and that we can trust its veracity. But, as Dowsett Johnston notes in her book, citing her own struggles with drinking, alcohol is the most accessible drug for people dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
It makes me wonder: Could we be doing more to address the root causes of drinking, rather than simply telling women and parents to cut it out? I can only hope that when the new guidelines are made official, the government doesn't consider its job here done.
So, will I change my own drinking habits, in light of this new information? Yes, I'll probably try to cut out a couple of drinks a week and generally be more mindful of my habits. But I’m still going to enjoy that glass of wine at the end of a long day and not feel guilty about it. Because I believe that I’ve earned it.
And because I believe that life is meant to be enjoyed—in “two-to-six-drink-a-week-but-sometimes-more” moderation.