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  • Dr. Elly ND

From "Dry January" to "Sober-Curious": how does alcohol really impact women's health?

Like many people, I found myself drinking more alcohol through the pandemic than I had before.

Drinking skyrocketed during COVID-19. Why’s it so hard to learn the facts about alcohol?

An organic winery was offering contactless red wine purchasing at a reduced price, and I felt good about supporting local while getting through difficult times in what I believed to be a health promoting way. I had handouts on my fridge outlining the health benefits of both the Mind Diet and the Blue Zones (the world's longest living populations) Lifestyles that included 1-2 five ounce glass of red wine each day. And that's what I started having with most of my dinners.

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Then, I heard Naturopathic Doctor Jordan Robertson's podcast Rethinking the impact alcohol has on women’s health. You need to ask yourself these hard questions interview with Dr. Erin Thorne ND. They discussed how social media and industry marketing can promote the idea that alcohol consumption is a normal way for women to cope with stress, while it actually leads to health problems like insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, and hypothyroidism. They also talked about both of their journeys to sobriety.

I started feeling conflicted about the red wine. I knew that alcohol increased the risk of breast cancer, and that there was no 'safe dose' amount in studies on the disease to recommend. Then, in August 2021 medical journal the Lancet published the results of a population-based study on the Global burden of cancer in 2020 attributable to alcohol consumption. The most new cases of cancer in 2020 that were caused by alcohol were of the esophagus, liver, and breast. The highest amount of alcohol-attributable cancers was represented by heavy or risky drinking, but moderate drinking also contributed, and drinking up to 10 g per day (less alcohol than what's in 5 ounces of wine) contributed 41 300 cases. Their conclusions?

Our findings highlight the need to increase awareness of cancer risks associated with alcohol use and decrease overall alcohol consumption to prevent the burden of alcohol-attributable cancers.

Now I was feeling like, without judgement and without making patients feel fearful, I needed to tell them the truth about alcohol. If alcohol was how they coped with stress, I needed to help them find other ways of coping that truly were health promoting. And deep down I knew that I needed to do the same for myself.

I had started leading the Wild Collective Niagara in the fall of 2021, and our 2nd session was on Detoxification. I had a ton of presentation slides on the science piece, from my Environmental Medicine background. But the real magic was in the connection part of the session. I had 2 jars; one labelled "I am inviting", and one labelled "I am releasing". We all wrote on 2 pieces of paper; what we desired to come into our lives, and what no longer served us, and put the notes in their respective jar. Later we burned the papers from the "releasing" jar. I kind of surprised myself by writing "alcohol" on my paper. And buoyed by the support of the group, just like a switch had been flicked, I no longer desired red wine with my dinner. Instead, for a treat, I'd have kombucha or sparkling mineral water. When I needed to decompress after work I'd either go for a walk, do an online yoga class, get in an epsom salt bath with a magazine, do a guided meditation, read a book, or write in a journal. And I felt more clarity, more at peace, and more emotionally stable.

At the end of 2021 the nutrition journal NUTRIENTS published a Special Issue called "The Impact of Alcoholic Beverages on Human Health" that included 16 published papers exploring the impact of alcohol on human health, including a review of studies on the effects of alcohol on the brain, cardiovascular system, gut and liver.

Alcohol is absorbed in the gut and increases permeability, creating a "leaky gut" and altering the gut microbiome, leading to nutrient deficiencies.

I have long loved the concept of “Dry January”; a challenge in which people take part by abstaining from alcohol use for the entire month. Maintaining balance and mindfulness can be challenging, especially after a month of indulgence and chaos with December and the holidays. This year, an interesting podcast was shared by the Globe and Mail, free to non-subscribers because it pertains to the pandemic:

How a Dry January might help your COVID anxiety

This awesome 2021 Medscape article Rethinking Your Post-COVID Relationship With Booze provides resources to satisfy "sober curiosity" that can make Dry January and beyond, easier to navigate. It lists bars and restaurants that serve alcohol-free beer, wine and cocktails, sober supportive online meeting spaces with recipes, and plant-based "Faux Buzz Brands". Check them out:

Since a lot of us simply enjoy the taste of a nice cocktail or glass of wine, this list of products and brands offer drinks that are similar in taste, but are ultimately alternatives to drinking alcohol.

*UPDATE 1: A brilliant patient of mine read this post and reached out to let me know that Vineland Estates, a local Niagara winery is selling alcohol free wines. Not just red, but white, rose, and sparking! These completely satisfy cravings, and are such a great byob to social gatherings. A Wild Collective member let me know that Henry of Pelham, here in St Catharines, is also selling the brand. My brilliant step sibling recently shared Acid League's Wine Proxies with me. They are incredible! "Layered blends of fruit, teas, spices, bitters and more, designed to pair with food and be enjoyed in your finest stemware." The LCBO has now curated low and zero alcohol offerings, and I'm finding that local bars, from Trust to Brass Monkey Local have delicious, satisfying non-alcoholic options.

*UPDATE 2: Another brilliant pal recently shared the Huberman Lab podcast episode WHAT ALCOHOL DOES TO YOUR BODY, BRAIN & HEALTH with me. It's a 2 hour episode that discusses the physiological effects of alcohol at different levels of consumption & over time. It examines peoples' complicated relationships with alcohol, & genetic differences that predispose some people to alcoholism, binge and habit-drinking. The goal of the episode is to help people make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption that are in alignment with their health goals.

One more list of resources I'd like to share with you to help satisfy your sober curiosity; books that explain how alcohol becomes a habit, and how to kick it, with links to more wisdom from the authors:

This year, I'm taking my sober curiosity beyond Dry January, and I'm inviting you to join me. Just in being curious. I hope the resources in this article help to light the spark.

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