As some British Columbians embrace temporary sobriety during dry January, new national alcohol guidance informed by Victoria-based researchers suggests sobriety doesn’t need to be all or nothing to improve the health of people who do not have alcohol dependence issues.
In August, a report on alcohol guidance from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction suggested Canadians should drink fewer than six standard drinks per week to avoid the worst alcohol-related harms, such as certain cancers, stroke and liver disease.
The report, based on advice from scientists at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, suggests nearly halving the amount of alcohol previous guides have indicated was “low risk.”
The resulting formal guidance, expected on Jan. 17, is clear that risk doesn’t stop or start at six drinks.
While consuming one or two drinks per week is relatively low risk, between four and six increases risk for cancers such as breast or colon. People who consume seven or more drinks per week are considerably more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.
Not drinking at all is the only way to avoid alcohol-related harms, the report explains. “Each additional standard drink radically increases the risk of these alcohol-related consequences,” it reads.
This sobering guidance may spur some readers to ask whether they should stop drinking altogether, or to stick their heads in the sand and avoid the question entirely.
Anyone who feels worried is not alone, says an expert on alcohol use, but change does not have to be all or nothing.
Dry January often helps people consider and re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol even after it ends, said CISUR scientist Adam Sherk, but he prefers a “damp January” approach.
That means trying to drink a bit less in general for the month and not giving up on the project if you do drink at certain points.
“There are so many concepts, like drinking, that we see as binary when they should be seen as a spectrum,” said Sherk, an alcohol-related harms researcher who co-authored the report with CISUR colleagues. “For some people a dry January is attainable and for others it is not.”
Setting a limit for yourself before you go out, alternating alcoholic beverages with water or pop and ensuring you have eaten before you drink can all help achieve a drier January, Sherk said in an interview last Friday.
Creating rules around which days of the week you drink and choosing not to drink alone can also be helpful, he added.
“If you’re drinking three beers three days a week and you end up drinking twice a week in January or replacing one beer a night with sparkling water, that’s still going to have a positive impact on your health,” Sherk said.
Reducing alcohol intake can improve sleep, energy levels and mood, among other health benefits.
But knowing the risks of alcohol and how much you are actually drinking is key to reducing your intake, which alcohol labelling makes it hard to determine.
Only about half of Canadians know even low alcohol use of three drinks per week is linked to increased risk of at least seven different types of preventable cancer and several other serious health conditions like liver and heart disease, Sherk said.
Difficult hangovers that worsen with age are also only one of a host of impacts on mood and energy that can linger for up to two weeks, research suggests. Alcohol poisoning and driving under the influence continue to be fatal, and drinking any amount during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“People should be fully aware of the health effects of alcohol,” said Sherk. “It’s the same as with smoking. Knowing the risks will help people be more mindful of how much alcohol they want to drink over time.”
The standard drink measure is equivalent to about five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or a regular-size can of beer, cider or pre-mixed cooler at six per cent alcohol.
Yet despite serious risks, alcoholic products don’t have warning labels and there is no standardized unit size of alcohol indicated on each drink’s label.
A can of strong beer at 12 per cent is equivalent to two standard drinks despite being sold as a single serving. Mixing hard liquor with pop and juice can also make it harder to know how many servings are in a beverage someone might consider “one drink.”
In 2017, backlash from the alcohol industry interrupted a study that put warning labels on alcohol in the Yukon. Before it was interrupted, this study saw warning labels reduced alcohol consumption, similar to the impact tobacco warning labels have had.
Earlier in 2022, a bill mandating warning labels on alcoholic beverages across Canada was tabled in the Senate, and Ireland is on track to do the same.
In the meantime, Sherk says taking note of the alcohol by volume, or ABV, noted on the product and the volume of each drink can help you know how much you’ve had and stay within a limit you set for yourself.
Sherk is currently developing an app that will allow people to track their alcohol use without having to calculate standard drinks themselves. His team expects the app will launch in late 2023.
All of these strategies work under the assumption that drinking is normal and everyone does it, Sherk noted. “Alcohol has a hallowed place in society as a normal drug to use to celebrate or to relax,” he said.
In reality, about 25 per cent of Canadians don’t drink, for reasons ranging from health and dependence issues to religious and financial reasons.
Mic Deane, co-founder with Zelika Brown of Sober Babes, a Vancouver-based sober social group, says she’s seen rising interest in trying sobriety or becoming sober since the initiative started early last year.
The group, aimed towards women, trans and queer people, gained more than 200 followers in the first nine days of this year’s dry January.
Deane, 26, had done sober stints on and off for years to improve her mental health, including dry Januaries and aiming for up to 100 days sober.
“It was really hard to actually make that decision [to become sober] because I think nobody had kind of told me that you don’t need to be an alcoholic to stop drinking, you can just stop drinking,” Deane told The Tyee in a Monday interview.
By the 70- or 90-day marks of her sobriety stints, Deane said she started to feel bored and lonely. She would give in and have a drink, and then abandon the endeavour entirely.
“I realized I needed to be able to socialize with other sober people, and I was surprised where I couldn’t find anything but Alcoholics Anonymous in Vancouver,” said Deane.
Deane shared her frustrations in an early 2022 TikTok which garnered more than 600 likes and comments from people expressing similar challenges. It snowballed into a massive group chat and then an events page to accommodate the demand for places to meet fellow sober people.
Sober Babes has since hosted several events across Vancouver for women, queer and trans people who are sober or interested in socializing without alcohol, including paint nights and a Halloween party.
Deane credits the social aspect as key in staying sober for most of the last year and says anyone curious about being sober or drinking less should stay busy with new activities to avoid “boredom drinking.”
And even when an event or gathering isn’t specifically dry, offering non-alcoholic options like mocktails can make everyone feel more welcome and less pressured into drinking, she says.
Dry January can be a helpful exercise but drinking less isn’t all or nothing, Sherk and Deane both stressed.
“It’s very hard to go from drinking all the time to just staying 100 per cent sober, and not everyone wants to do that anyways,” said Deane. “So don’t get hung up on it if you don’t make it the whole way through dry January, because all the other days still count.”