Reducing alcohol consumption is an important protective factor for good health. Alcohol has many negative impacts on our physical and mental health. With access to the right tools and information, individuals are able to make informed decisions and change their consumption patterns by knowing their own limits, understanding the health and social risks that are associated with consuming alcohol, and by following best-practice low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines to reduce health risks and alcohol-related harms.
Guidance on Alcohol and Health
In January 2023, new Canadian Guidance on Alcohol and Health was released by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA). This new guidance replaces the old Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines (aka “LRDGs”) and provides evidence-based advice on alcohol to support people in making informed decisions about their health. The release of this new guidance followed public and stakeholder consultations, focus groups, and two years of research of the latest evidence around alcohol-related harms.
The guidance is based on the principle of autonomy in harm reduction with the fundamental idea that everyone has a right to know that all alcohol use comes with risk.
Key points from the new guidance include:
- There is risk associated with alcohol use.
- The more alcohol you drink per week, the greater your risk of developing certain cancers, heart disease, stroke and other alcohol-related harms.
- Any reduction in the alcohol you consume per week has benefits.
- No matter where you are on the continuum, for your health, less alcohol is better.
- What is a standard drink size?
Although alcohol comes in many different forms, it still has the same effects when consumed. Standard drink sizes are therefore used to account for the percentage of alcohol by volume. In the following diagram, each standard drink contains 13.6 grams of alcohol.
- When is zero the limit?
- When pregnant or trying to get pregnant, there is no known safe amount of alcohol use.
- When breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is safest.
- Alcohol should not be consumed with other substances.
- Alcohol should not be consumed when taking medication that interact with alcohol.
- Alcohol should not be consumed when playing sports or engaging in dangerous physical activities.
- Alcohol should not be consumed when driving a motor vehicle or using machinery.
- Zero alcohol is safest for those living with alcohol dependence.
- Less Is Best Campaign
In November 2023, the Chief Public Health Office launched a provincial campaign to raise awareness about the new Canadian Guidance on Alcohol and Health.
More information on the campaign and resources can be found here.
Learn About Alcohol
- What is alcohol?
Alcohol is a depressant drug that, when consumed, can affect the way we feel, think and behave. The psychoactive properties of alcohol slow down our heart rate, breathing and thoughts which can lead to risky behaviours and unsafe choices.
Alcohol is a legal substance in Canada (and PEI) and is produced by fermenting or distilling grains, fruits or vegetables. There are many kinds of alcoholic beverages which carry different percentages of alcohol. Fermented beverages include beer and wine, which have a maximum alcohol content of about 15 percent. Distilled beverages, often called “hard liquor” or “spirits,” such as rum, whisky and vodka, have a higher alcohol content.
- What happens when we consume alcohol?
When consumed, alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine. From there, it travels through the body to the brain where activity between the nerve cells slows down and things like balance, coordination, vision, speech and the ability to make important decisions become inhibited.
Health and Social Risks
Alcohol has harmful impacts on individuals, households, communities, and society, yet it remains an incredibly normalized part of our culture (e.g., it is often consumed during celebrations and important life events). Compared to other substances, the harms associated with alcohol are often less known or ignored.
Alcohol affects every person differently, with gender, age, mental and physical health, medical conditions, etc. all playing a key role. Other factors, such as the type and amount of food in your stomach, the environment you are in, whether you have taken any other substances, etc. will also impact how quickly alcohol may affect you.
- Short-term risks
Short-term effects of consuming alcohol vary but can include:
- Altered mood, energy levels, concentration and memory
- Altered judgment and movement, impaired muscle control and vision, slurred speech, nausea and vomiting, headaches, drowsiness
- Difficulty breathing and can even be the cause of coma or death
- An interrupted sleep, which can in turn have a negative impact on your mental well-being
- Increased risk of injury and/or exposure to violence
- Increased feelings of anxiety and/or depression
- Unconsciousness and/or blackouts (memory lapses)
- Long-term risks
Long-term, alcohol can have serious effects on both our brain and body and can cause:
- Ongoing mental health conditions
- An increased risk of type 2 diabetes and weight gain
- Increased risk of a range of cancers and diseases, such as liver, breast and colorectal cancers, stroke, etc.
- Heart issues, such as high blood pressure, heart damage and heart attacks
- Liver failure
- Brain-related damage and impairment
- Fertility issues
- Lost productivity
- Loss of social connections
- Alcohol & Cancer
Globally, alcohol is one of the top three causes of cancer deaths. In Canada, alcohol was linked to 7,000 new cancer cases in 2020 alone.
Most Canadians are not aware that alcohol can cause cancer. There are many reasons for this, however, evidence shows that the more informed the public and consumers are, the more they will support alcohol policies to protect their health. Strong health messages, including warning labels on alcohol products, can help to shift drinking behaviours.
Reducing your alcohol consumption will help to reduce your risk of developing cancer.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the diagnostic term used to describe the impacts on the brain and body of individuals who were exposed to alcohol prenatally. It is a lifelong disability and each individual with FASD is unique with areas of both strengths and challenges.
FASD is the leading developmental disability in Canada and affects 1.5 million Canadians (more than autism and cerebral palsey, for e.g.).
There is no safe amount of alcohol or time for alcohol use during pregnancy.
- Pregnant or planning to be pregnant
- Driving or using machinery
- Taking medicine or drugs that interact with alcohol
- Living with mental or physical health problems
- Living with alcohol dependence
- Playing sports or engaging in dangerous physical activities