White Coat, Black Art·The Dose | Q&A

Is 'Dry January' during the pandemic a good idea?

Considering taking some time off from alcohol? Addictions specialist Dr. Peter Selby says booze breaks like "Dry January" are a good idea, especially in light of a new study showing Canadians are binge-drinking during the pandemic.

Taking a month-long break from alcohol can be a good test for whether you have a problem

'Dry January' is an increasingly popular movement to cut out alcohol for a month. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

More Canadians are drinking more during the pandemic. But with the start of a new year, some are embracing "Dry January."

The idea is simple: give up alcohol for the entire month. The concept has been around for a number of years but the pandemic has upped the stakes. With more people drinking and the second wave of COVID-19 crashing over much of Canada, losing the booze may be trickier than ever. 

A recent survey from The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto found that more than a quarter of participants reported binge-drinking in the previous week.  

Men reported slightly higher rates of binge-drinking than women. And people with kids under 18 years of age at home were significantly more likely to binge-drink (32 per cent) than those without kids at home (24 per cent). 

According to a report last year from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, boredom and stress were driving people to drink more during the pandemic. With people isolated and at home, Zoom cocktails with friends and "quarantinis" became habits for some people — as well as additions to our new pandemic lexicon.  

But now it's a new year, and a month without alcohol offers a chance at a reset. 

So is taking a month-long break from alcohol a good idea? 

Dr. Peter Selby, a clinician scientist specializing in addictions at CAMH, thinks so, although he cautions really heavy drinkers should seek medical help before they stop drinking.

But for many people, giving up alcohol for a month can be a good test to see if they have a problem, he told The Dose and White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman. And he offered tips for keeping on track if you're trying to go dry for January — or any time. 

Here's part of his conversation with Goldman. 

First of all, how do you define binge-drinking? 

It's different for men and women. For men, it's five or more standard drinks. That means a drink that contains 13.6 grams of alcohol. So that's one beer, five ounces of wine or an ounce-and-a-half of liquor. And for women, it's four or more per occasion.

What are your thoughts about virtual happy hours or Zoom cocktail parties that seem to have been cropping up in the last few months? 

If you are having a Zoom call or meeting people and, you want to connect, yes, certainly having something that you can celebrate with is helpful, but it doesn't always have to be alcohol. We are a culture that gets together around alcohol. 

We need to start thinking about how we have a healthy relationship with alcohol consumption, says Dr. Peter Selby. (CBC)

Harms from alcohol can happen even if you're not addicted. So general advice now worldwide is coming down to less is better. Less is better for mental health. Less is better for physical health and social health. Less violence. We are concerned with the pandemic that there's been an increase in intimate partner violence.

It's not as simple that alcohol is all good or bad, but we really need to start thinking about how we have a healthy relationship with alcohol consumption. 

What about problem drinking? How do we know if our drinking has become a problem? 

We are drinking at higher levels than the guidelines in Canada, which is seven for a week for women and 14 for men. But essentially it starts becoming problematic when it starts interfering with your day-to-day functions in your role. So whether it's health, whether it's your social relationships, or that your drinking is becoming problematic because your doctor is saying, well, you know, it looks like your liver is getting a bit swollen. But it could also be affecting your relationships, your work, your absenteeism, things like that.

I want to ask you about one aspect of this pandemic that we've talked about before: how stress and isolation can worsen existing addictions or dependencies, including alcohol. What are you seeing on that front now that we're almost a year into this? 

My colleagues at work much more on the front lines are seeing more people who are in the emergency and in the medical services who are seeking treatment for alcohol use. But the bulk of people are not hitting that threshold. They're still functioning, and ... it's not coming up against society because most of them are at home. 

If you are drinking in the morning or you have alcohol on your breath from the previous night, if you are staying and living alone, no one detects that on you. However, if you are going into the office for 8 a.m. and you were late or you came in with a hangover and you had alcohol on your breath, somebody would know that and detect that. 

My fear is that as people are bingeing more, we will see the effects in the form of tipping people into more severe forms of alcohol problems in the years to come. 

So then what are your thoughts on "Dry January" especially this year? 

It's a great test to know if the problem is greater than what you think it is. So if you say I'm going to go dry in January, but unable to meet that goal, then you really have got to think about, well, maybe alcohol has more control over me than I have over it.

Stress and isolation can worsen existing addictions or dependencies, including alcohol, say medical experts. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

And if it is that you're having difficulty stopping, then seek some help online or in person, through your physician or through telemedicine to get some help about whether you need to stop completely or to moderate or to take some medication or even to go into a treatment program. 

What tips do you have for increasing the likelihood of making that dry January a success? 

It's people, places and things that make you want to drink. You're looking at alternatives for that. Often when people are drinking heavily, they're spending a lot of time on drinking. So think about how they could spend that time differently on more creative and constructive things, whether it's physical activity or working out or artistic activities. 

Things that can keep you busy are important ways to keep yourself away from alcohol and taking it one day at a time rather than trying to say, "OK, I'm going to make it 30 days without it." But just go one day and see how long you can make it. 

Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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