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Is it time to re-think your drink?

At the start of a new year, it’s normal to take stock of habits and behaviours that affect your health and your relationships. With COVID-19 still overshadowing our lives, some people are taking a closer look at why and how much alcohol they drink.Statistics show that people have turned to alcohol to cope with boredom, stress and social isolation during the pandemic. A March 2021 report from Statistics Canada shows that 24% of Canadians who drank alcohol before COVID-19 increased their drinking once the pandemic started, with one in five people consuming five or more drinks on the days they reported drinking in the last month.

However, the same report notes that nearly as many Canadians – about 22% – reported they have been drinking less. Has the pandemic inspired some folks to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol?

Amherst family physician Dr. Janneke Gradstein hopes that’s the case.

Drinking to cope
A non-drinker herself, Dr. Gradstein worries about people using alcohol as a coping mechanism. “I hear people joke that they just need a drink at the end of a long day, like it’s totally normal and expected to need alcohol to cope,” she says.

With alcohol central to many social events, abstaining can seem like it requires an explanation. “We’re conditioned to think that drinking is normal, safe and even good for your health,” says Dr. Gradstein. “And yet almost one quarter of the adult population doesn’t drink at all.”

Normalizing non-drinking
She says it’s key for people who don’t drink to feel comfortable about their choice to abstain. “I think some people are embarrassed or don’t feel empowered to appear different. They might drink so they don’t embarrass their host or so as not to stand out. I make a point of saying that I don’t drink, and that it’s my preference, in order to normalize it – because it is normal, and it is healthier.”

People don’t understand the health risks of alcohol, Dr. Gradstein says. Canada’s Low-risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines – which are slated to be updated in 2022 – recommend no more than 10 drinks per week for women (and no more than two drinks most days) and 15 drinks per week for men (and no more than three drinks most days).

“Those guidelines are lax by international standards,” Dr. Gradstein says, noting that the guidelines don’t reflect the health risks. “Alcohol incrementally impairs brain function, judgement, decision-making and sensible, purposeful behaviour.”

Alcohol isn’t healthy
Long-term alcohol use increases the risk of cancer, organ damage and other health problems. “We’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s a very significant carcinogen and more so with increased consumption,” says Dr. Gradstein.

The risk extends to women who are moderate drinkers. Women who drink three to six alcoholic beverages per week increase their risk of breast cancer by 15%. The risk climbs to 50% when women consume two drinks daily.

Resources for sobriety
When it comes to supporting her patients who want to stop or cut back on their drinking, Dr. Gradstein takes a harm-reduction approach. “I ask them how much they drink, why they drink, address the underlying reasons and make personalized suggestions,” she says.

“Nothing is cookie-cutter. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are effective for some people, but others may not do well in a group environment.”

As a family physician, she can connect people to counselling, help them address mental health issues, prescribe medications to control cravings and refer people to an addictions specialist.

The pandemic has also opened doors for people seeking resources online. It’s now easier to find support groups on social media and connect to a meeting anonymously over a video call. The Halifax-based group Sober City is helping connect sober and sober-curious people to local activities and businesses that don’t involve alcohol.

“It’s really important for people to feel comfortable with their choice not to drink and to stop feeling embarrassed or pressured in social situations,” says Dr. Gradstein.

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