Why some women are pushing back against alcohol and the wine-to-unwind culture

Drinking among women has increased steadily in recent years, and some are urging that consumption guidelines be updated to reflect the health risks.

Guidelines on alcohol consumption should be revised to reflect the health risks, doctor says

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Featured VideoAlcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic and it could be putting many women at an increased risk of breast cancer. A growing group of women are pushing back against the wine-to-unwind culture.

Allison Garber says from the outside it looked like she had it all together.

The communications business owner and mother of two may not have looked like a problem drinker. But she says she found herself willing the clock to hit 5 p.m. every day so she could open a bottle of wine and pour a glass. Then "not so patiently" waiting for her kids to go to bed so she could have a few more.

Garber decided she had a problem with drinking in 2018 and sought help. She's been sober now for more than two years and is thankful her recovery came before the pandemic did.

"I am so glad that I was not still stuck on this train where I viewed alcohol as a reward for getting through a tough day," she said. "[The pandemic] just amplified everything. It has amplified how we use alcohol as a form of self-medication, as a form of self care.

"And that message is reinforced almost everywhere you go. You've had a long day, pour yourself a glass of wine."

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Drinking among women has increased steadily in recent years. In 2018, the Report on the State of Public Health from Canada's chief public health officer identified alcohol use in women as one of the most pressing concerns of our time. The report highlighted that from 2011 to 2017, deaths attributed to alcohol increased by 26 per cent among Canadian women, while alcohol-related deaths in men increased just five per cent.

The pandemic has led to soaring alcohol sales and some Canadians are reporting increased binge drinking. A Statistics Canada survey released in January shows many Canadians are not just pouring themselves a single glass. Almost one in five who responded to the survey said they consumed five or more drinks — the equivalent of a bottle of wine — on the days they reported drinking alcohol in the previous month.

The agency says this is higher than before COVID-19 hit.

When women drink, the health effects can be staggering. Drinking three to six alcoholic beverages a week increases the risk of breast cancer in women by 15 per cent. Women who drink two glasses of wine daily have a 50 per cent increase in their risk of breast cancer.

"What we might consider to be very modest amounts of alcohol are still really significant from a health perspective," said Dr. Jennifer Wyman, associate director of the Substance Use Service at Women's College Hospital.

Right now, Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend no more than 10 drinks per week for women and 15 for men. The agency in charge of these guidelines, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, is looking now at whether they should be changed.

The current guidelines need to be revised to reflect the risks, said Dr. Wyman.

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One drink a day or seven a week would likely be more reasonable, she said, adding that the guidelines are meant to be a maximum even though they may not always be treated that way.

Dr. Wyman says she thinks some people view the guideline's 10-drinks-a-week maximum and interpret that as being what the average person is drinking. "And therefore, if that's what they're drinking, then they're sort of within the middle of the spectrum and they're doing OK, as opposed to that's really the maximum number that you should be thinking about," she said.

"And it doesn't mean that you should be aiming to hit that every week. That should be the tops."

Just as the upper limits for alcohol consumption are different for women and men, so are the reasons why they drink. The pressure put on women to fill several different roles has many counting down to the time that they can pour a glass of wine, Dr. Wyman says.

"I think that women tend to drink as a coping mechanism," she said.

A report from Canada's chief public health officer identified alcohol use in women as one of the most pressing health concerns, with deaths attributed to alcohol increasing by 26 per cent among Canadian women from 2011 to 2017. Since then, the pandemic has led to soaring alcohol sales. (iStock)

Alcohol is often seen as the quickest decompression tool, says Ann Dowsett Johnston, who wrote the book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.

"If you can't get to a yoga class, if you can't figure out how you're going to fit that in, or a long bath, or a walk around the block — you're making dinner, you're at the vegetable chopping block, you pour a glass of wine."

Alcohol consumption is reinforced socially as well. Girls nights out, popping champagne for a celebration, wine at a book club. It's how we celebrate, relax and reward ourselves, Dowsett Johnston said.

It has also become a social media phenomenon that moms need wine to cope. There are wine glasses emblazoned with "mom juice" and "because kids."

"I think the whole notion of mommy drinking has become a meme, and I think that there's far too much humour about it. I think it's a serious social issue."

Dowsett Johnston says the pandemic has only added to the burdens many women carry.

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The "mommy juice" marketing to help cope is something life coach Alexis McCalla resents.

"You're making an assumption that they can't handle their life, so they have to go out and drink," the Whitby, Ont., mother said. "And now you're normalizing it."

McCalla never drank an amount even close to the 10 drinks a week upper limit, but said she found herself having a glass of wine to unwind during the pandemic more often than she normally would.

Previously, opened wine bottles would go unfinished. But she says she found herself making more frequent trips to the liquor store to numb the fear she was feeling about COVID-19.

She says she journaled and asked herself tough questions, and in the end realized she was drinking more because she worried about her family getting sick during the pandemic.

Once McCalla got to the root of her fears, she says she decided to stop drinking, doing an alcohol-free period with a few of her clients. She's also working with some of them to address the anxieties at the core of their alcohol consumption.

McCalla has had a single glass of wine since then and found she wasn't interested in restarting, realizing she was getting a better night's sleep and a harder workout the next day if she didn't open a bottle.

"I could have gone and read another book. I could have spoken to friends or journaled and learned more about myself."

Life coach Alexis McCalla said once she decided to cut out alcohol altogether, she realized she was getting a better night's sleep and a more effective workout the next day. (Alexis McCalla)

McCalla and the women she has helped are not the only ones questioning their drinking.

Dawn Nickel is based in Victoria, B.C. She's the founder of SheRecovers, an addictions recovery program tailored to women. Nickel says in the last year, the number of women who have reached out has exploded.

"Our Facebook group went from 2,000 people to 7,800 in the last year."

Nickel says not every woman contacting the program has an alcohol abuse disorder. For some, abstinence is the goal, for others it could be cutting back.

"We just talk about, like, what are your goals? What's your intention? Do you want to slow down? Do you want to stop? You pick it and we'll support you to get there."

The pandemic may have led to more drinking, but with so many recovery programs now online, Nickel says finding help is also easier and more convenient than ever. So is finding a safe space to question why they need alcohol to cope.

"There's so much support for them now," Nickel said. "We're having these conversations for the first time in society around what we're being influenced by, and who says we have to have a bottle of wine every evening to unwind."

For Garber, recovery involved a more traditional 12-step program.

"I knew that if I continued down this path, I was going to face some dire consequences. I could see it clearly. And so I made a choice to reach out to a friend who I knew was in recovery herself."

Now, Garber is supporting other women who reach out and need help. She joined a running club and trains for races. She runs on the waterfront every Saturday and on the days when Halifax's famous clouds part, she takes a moment to stop and take a picture of the sunrise, grateful for how far she's come.

"I stop at the same place every time," she said. "It's just this chance to say thank you to whatever it is out there that helped me stay here."

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