Katelyn Sander

Alcohol Guidelines: The Fine Print

Living Well

Written by: Meg Sharp, Wellbeing Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs

The Government of Canada’s new guidelines on alcohol consumption have been formally published and there’s been a flurry of headlines and opinions. Some of the media responses have been wonderfully constructive. Some have been unhelpful and uninspiring at best and downright misleading at worst.

Human health and our associated health habits are complex. The way we understand, think about, and approach behaviour can be vital in terms of determining whether or not we are successful in any endeavour to change our habits. 

I reviewed the 89-page guideline with the goal of framing the findings in a way that might be manageable and motivating. Below are some impactful quotes I have pulled directly from the document. The subsequent comments are offered through the lens of someone who loves a good glass of wine (or three) and knows the importance of making concrete, sustainable steps towards optimizing our health and wellbeing.

“Every drink counts: Any reduction in alcohol use has benefits.”

Rather than concern yourself with the 2 or 6 drink limitations provided by the guideline, look at where you are at right now. What reduction feels manageable? That’s a perfect start.

“Set a weekly drinking target.”

Have an overarching target in mind and create a specific weekly plan for yourself that allows for some flexibility. My personal recommendation is determining specific nights during the week where you abstain completely. For example, if you are currently having a drink or more every night, choose one or two days of the week and commit to no drinks on those occasions. Layer in small reductions on the nights you do drink. Plan ahead: If you have a dinner out Wednesday and Thursday night where you know you will want to enjoy a few cocktails, determine ahead of time that Monday, Tuesday, and Friday will be dry. If you move away from your target during the holidays or whenever, don’t make yourself crazy. Just hop back into your healthier pattern afterwards.

“…the guidance will be used to develop messaging that speaks directly to the unique concerns of people with diverse backgrounds and unique experiences.”

If you were already very moderate in your consumption, these guidelines may seem reasonable. For others, the messaging may have felt like being screamed at in a foreign language. It’s far easier to make positive decisions when we don’t feel overwhelmed, shamed, or frustrated. Avoid judging where you’re at. Simply assess it and decide what’s reasonable. Move forward from there. The cool and powerful thing about healthy habits – and we’ve all experienced this – is once the ball gets rolling in a more healthful direction, it’s easier to keep it going. You may find that once you determine you won’t drink one night a week, you notice how much better you feel that next morning, and suddenly it’s easier to cut out another night. And as your consumption goes down, so may your tolerance. Both for the alcohol itself but also your tolerance for feeling a little off the next day. And so, the number of drinks per night may also start to dwindle. For me, I’ve found that a glass of wine on a Friday night tastes better compared to when I was drinking it every night. (Perhaps in part due to the fact that I now treat myself to slightly better wine?! And I sip a little slower so the experience lasts a bit longer.)

“Enzymes, genes, lean body weight and size, organ functions and metabolism are important in processing alcohol and are affected by sex-related factors.”

We all metabolize alcohol differently. The guidelines suggest no difference between sexes in terms of specific risk factors up to 6 drinks per week. Please note that women specifically tend to experience a steeper increase in blood alcohol levels, faster intoxication, and a slower metabolic response (clearing the alcohol from their systems). We also know that increased muscle mass, as well as regular exercise, may help mitigate the negative effects of drinking overall. Lift weights. Exercise every day if possible. Especially the day after you’ve had a few drinks. Your body and brain will thank you!

And finally, please read this last quote and my comments afterwards carefully and completely. (Spoiler alert: I hold a powerfully different view):

“In adults, daily quantity of alcohol intake has little to no influence on the odds of developing depression… [and while the evidence is uncertain], it suggests there is little to no influence on the onset of anxiety…”

I’m relieved this piece has not made the headlines. I share this quote with you for a number of reasons:

All scientific research findings are nuanced and can be biased. Findings while “statistically significant” may also have no meaningful significance. Approach everything you read with curiosity and an understanding that the findings may not apply to you.

There is plenty of well-founded evidence to support that alcohol consumption can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. For certain, we can measure that drinking alcohol often exerts a negative impact on our quality and quantity of restorative sleep. Poor sleep and subsequent neurophysiological response impacts your brain, making you more reactive and susceptible to stress and depression over the short and long term. Remember: exercise of all types and durations can specifically reverse some of these negative adaptations.

We love dramatic headlines. The government – rightly so – would like us to take a serious look at our alcohol consumption and be motivated to make changes to support better overall health. The more alarming the headline, the more likely we are to read the article. Conversely, highly restrictive goals are not motivating for many. And can instead foster a “why bother” mentality. 

Here is OUR Headline:

Decreasing your alcohol consumption – by even 1 or 2 drinks per week – is very likely to have a positive impact on your mental health, your physical health, your overall wellbeing and quality of life.

Here are OUR Guidelines:

  • Determine what is a reasonable goal in terms of reducing your consumption.
  • Choose nights of the week when you avoid drinking completely.
  • Choose your favourite type of drink and stick to that.
  • Start later and finish earlier. Avoid drinks with lunch. Workout from 4:30 - 5:30pm and meet everyone at the bar at 6:00pm. Try to have your last drink 3 hours before bedtime.
  • Sip slowly.
  • Drink water – sparkling or otherwise. A glass before your first drink and then between each subsequent one.
  • Revisit your goals periodically and continue to tweak both the number of evenings you drink and the number of drinks per evening.
  • Exercise. Especially the morning after you drink. It will make you feel better and set you up to make positive choices the rest of the day.
  • Avoid all or nothing thinking. You planned to not drink on Sunday and then… you open a bottle of wine while you’re cooking. Okay. Can you tweak the week to still meet your goal? If not, just back on track the following week. Life is complicated. Keep moving forward.

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