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July 23, 2020 • read
Alcohol, how much is too much?
Canada has a drinking problem. About 20% of us report that pandemic stay-at-home orders mean drinking is now an everyday activity. And our pre-pandemic drinking stats weren’t that great either — 19% of us were heavy drinkers in 2018. That doesn’t mean that we’re a country of alcoholics, but it’s still concerning. So how do we strike the balance between enjoying ourselves and staying healthy? Read on to find out how much alcohol is too much.
Define problem drinking
There are two main kinds of problem drinking: binge drinking and alcoholism (alcohol use disorder). And while they might seem similar, they’re actually quite different. There is no set amount of drinking that defines someone as an alcoholic. Alcoholism means that you have a physical dependence on alcohol — you can’t stop using it even if you want to, whether you’re drinking two drinks a day or 20.
While it might sound like it’s exclusively for college and university students, binge drinking doesn’t necessarily mean beer funnels and rounds of shots. Binge drinking is considered five or more drinks for a man, and four or more drinks for a woman, in a two hour span. And even if you only do it once a week, the health effects of binge drinking can be just as serious as alcoholism. Your liver isn’t designed to process a whole bunch of alcohol at once, which means that the health risks of drinking seven drinks in one night are significantly worse than drinking the same number spread out over a week.
How much should I be drinking?
There’s no issue with enjoying a glass of wine, a beer or another alcoholic beverage from time to time. But the line between healthy and problematic might be thinner than you think. We’ve long heard that consuming one drink a day is good for heart health. And while it might be, recent research seems to show that drinking even as few as three times a week increases your risk of developing cancer.
Because so many factors affect how our bodies process alcohol, it’s hard to put a specific number on how many drinks is alright. In general, one or two drinks over a night is fine — as long as you’re not doing it every night. But depending on what you’ve eaten recently, how much you weigh, how accustomed you are to drinking and whether you’re taking any other drugs or medication (among other factors), two or more drinks in two hours could be too much. And of course there are certain circumstances where even one drink is too many. You shouldn’t drink at all if you are pregnant or bed sharing with a child, or if you are operating machinery, for example.
How much do Canadians drink compared to other people from other countries?
Most Canadians aren’t going for a lunchtime pint the way the English do, but that doesn’t mean we’re drinking a whole lot less than they are. The average alcohol drinker in the United Kingdom consumes 15.6 litres of pure alcohol a year. Canada lags behind that a little at 13.8 litres.
Compare us to Australia, however, and the numbers tell a different story. Australian rates of alcohol use disorders are much lower than ours— only 6.1% of men and 2.7% of women. In contrast, 12% of Canadian men and 4% of Canadian women qualified as having an alcohol use disorder. We’re not on the same level as the United States where 17.6% of men and about 10% of women have an alcohol use disorder. And we’re well below Russia where almost 37% of men do. Still, the amount of problem drinking in Canada is concerning.
Short and long-term effects of alcohol
We know fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) affects the babies of women who drink while pregnant, and we’re all too familiar with the effects of drunk driving — 40% of car crashes in the country are caused by drunk drivers. But the short-term effects of excessive drinking can also include alcohol poisoning, irregular heartbeat, respiratory depression, and even death.
And the long-term effects are even more stark. They include:
- Increased risk for dementia
- Increased risk of stroke
- Increased risk of cancer
- Increased risk of early death
- Cirrhosis of the liver
Your kids are paying attention to your drinking
It’s not only Canadian adults who are struggling with high-risk alcohol use. A lot of underage kids are drinking in Canada — 40% of kids in grades seven through 12 drank in the last 12 months. And the average age that they had their first drink at was 13. That matters, because research suggests that individuals who begin drinking under the age of 14 are more likely to have issues with alcohol dependence later in life than those who start at 21. Children look to their parents to figure out what is socially acceptable. Modelling low-risk alcohol consumption can influence them to adopt appropriate drinking behaviour later in their lives.
No one wants to take away your wine, but it’s good to be aware of how much you’re actually consuming and remember that you don’t need to be an alcoholic to have a drinking problem. If you’re concerned about your drinking, alcoholics anonymous offers a number of different resources including online meetings. And as always, you can speak to a doctor or connect with a mental health professional.