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Shifting the Narrative: Women’s Wellness Beyond Wine O’Clock

Cheers, it’s finally wine o’clock, thinks single mum Katarina as she tucks her son into bed with his favourite story, then reaches for the prosecco bottle to get her through the lonely night ahead. During the global pandemic, working mum Dianne joked with her girlfriends about taking up daytime drinking to help her cope with home schooling her tribe of three. These women are not alone.

Many women, particularly those who are middle-aged, are pouring glasses of wine to signal the end of the workday. A ritual, they say, that helps them to relax and unwind.

There’s no doubt the wine market is skewed to the feminine palate — blokes will pour a beer while slapping each other on the back and cheering on their favourite footy team. Wine for women, on the other hand, is often about a get-together with the girls or a reward after a tough day of juggling their responsibilities. For some, it’s a soothing balm for sadness.

The mum wine culture has an underlying premise that a glass or two of wine will help to solve problems, ease burdens and numb feelings of failure when a woman may have dropped one of the many balls she’d been juggling that day.

A brew or few?

Across the board, both Aussie men and women love to sip, savour and sometimes scull their favourite brew. Drinking in moderation is one thing, but numbers show that one in four (25.8 per cent or five million people) aged 18 years and over exceed the recommended consumption guidelines.
James Ising, psychologist and drug and alcohol worker, says there’s no doubt Australia has an ingrained drinking culture, which can be to our collective detriment.

“I tell my clients it’s the most easily socially acceptable, affordable and most dangerous drug in our society,” he says.

Alcoholic beverages contain ethyl alcohol, which is formulated when yeast ferments the sugars in fruits, vegetables and grains. It works as a nervous system depressant, and effects mood and self-control. It relaxes, it lowers inhibitions and it can be highly addictive.

In the past, the spotlight was firmly on the younger generation and their drinking habits, but not so much anymore. Professor Kate Conigrave, senior staff specialist and addiction medicine specialist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, says young people are less likely to be drinkers than they were 10 years ago, with many swapping out alcoholic drinks for low-or no-alcohol versions.

But that’s not the case for everybody.

“Men also have reduced the amount of alcohol they are consuming; what is of growing concern is the number of women drinking to excess — particularly those who are middle-aged,” says Conigrave.

In fact, one study in the Drug and Alcohol Review journal shows about 21 per cent of women between 45 and 60 are now consuming alcohol at binge-drinking levels.

Drink up, it’s good for you

Women and men drink for a host of reasons. Socially they feel buoyed by the tongue-loosening buzz that alcohol produces. Alcohol can boost your confidence if you are shy, and some say it can also make you more creative, as it loosens inhibitions and gets those creative juices flowing.
Alcohol, particularly red wine, in some studies has been linked to longevity. It contains antioxidants called polyphenols, that may benefit blood vessels in the heart and prevent blood clots.

According to Harvard Health, over 100 studies on alcohol show a 25 to 40 per cent reduction in risk for light or moderate drinkers of heart attack, clot-caused stroke, peripheral vascular disease and death from all cardiovascular causes.

But there’s also a gigantic beer-swilling elephant in the room.

Moderation is key. With the growing burden of alcohol issues across the globe, more authorities are tweaking the numbers to reflect what the definition of moderate actually means.

New Australian guidelines were put into effect in December 2020. These are that healthy men and women should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day. The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol. Children under 18 and pregnant or breastfeeding women shouldn’t drink at all.

Conigrave, who was the chair of the Drinking Guidelines Committee, says that around the globe, with new evidence about health risks, many countries are lowering their guidelines again. “For example, Canadian drinking guidelines now recommend a max of two drinks a week,” she says.

While researchers have shown many middle-aged women are drinking to levels that place them at risk of harm, their reasons for doing so differ. Dr Belinda Lunnay, postdoctoral researcher at Torrens University with Professor Paul Ward, has completed studies with women aged 45 to 64, exploring social class and the links to why they drink alcohol.

“More privileged women had a relationship with alcohol that was for more positive reasons: drinking alcohol was a form of social connection, a celebration of success — you’ve kept all those balls in the air, being a mum, caring for parents and working, so you deserve that glass of wine,” she says.

Her recent work shows this group of women were open to reducing alcohol intake; they experienced post-drinking regret since establishing heavy drinking patterns in order to get through pandemic restrictions.

While this group perceived alcohol almost as a form of reward, Lunnay says low-income women or women living in poverty drink alcohol for different reasons. “They lead difficult lives — they drink as self-care, not to celebrate,” she notes.

Middle-aged women are open to reassessing their relationship with alcohol, including the sober-curious wellness movement, and Lunnay worries those women living on the breadline will get left behind. “If we task them with sticking to the alcohol guidelines, their hard lives make it feel impossible to do so,” she notes. “They feel they have no substitute; alcohol is the only way to reduce stress if they have a bill they can’t pay, so they have a drink.”

At the very heart of the matter lies a gap between what women need and the support they receive. And multinational booze companies that are raking in billions for their products aren’t making things any easier.

The power of marketing

There’s no doubt that successful media advertising and the drinking mindset are irrevocably linked. Many women who want to give up alcohol, or at least reduce it, are finding it tough. Clever marketing entices with low-calorie versions of your favourite alcoholic drink. Not only does advertising play to the feminine psyche with glittery or pink wine bottle labels, some are designed to celebrate women juggling it all. Lunnay says her colleague analysed wine bottle labels, showing just how targeted marketing ploys can be towards women. “One wine label was a woman reaching out with multiple arms, a direct target to women and multitasking,” she says. “This kind of social messaging makes it hard for women to think that their alcohol consumption is something that should be changed.”

Socially, the female drinking culture is saturated with gatherings that are all about drinking wine. Wine and cheese nights with the girls, “Paint and Sip” gatherings, hair appointments where sparkling wine is on offer and girls’ movie nights where goody bags and glasses of wine are the order of the day.

Social media posts still proliferate, such as “Keep calm and keep drinking” and “It’s mummy wine time”. Lunnay says behind the bravado of these posts is a sobering message. “Women don’t want to be drinking as much — but feel there are few alternative forms of stress relief, and many hide just how much they do drink,” she says.

Who’s the boss?

Alcohol can impact on your body long-term. The harsh reality is women have a marked higher susceptibility to alcohol-related health issues that can include immune and infectious diseases, as well as cancer and heart issues.

And here’s the chaser. Women can develop alcohol-related medical problems sooner and at lower levels of consumption compared to men.
Conigrave explains that this is because women have lower muscle mass and lower lean body weight. “Alcohol is spread across a smaller volume, so it’s at a higher concentration,” she explains. “Women also break down alcohol a little bit less efficiently in our stomach as it passes through.”

New research also shows a clearly increased risk for breast cancer for women who drink. Conigrave says any regular drinking increases your risk.
If you feel your drinking is controlling you rather than the other way around, try asking yourself the following: do you spend time during your day, thinking about wine o’clock and when you can pour a glass? Do you need to drink more to get the same buzz that you have in the past?

Ising says it’s important to be honest with yourself. “If you haven’t been able to stop when you’ve started to drink, or missed events because of drinking, or friends are concerned about your drinking, it probably means you have an issue with alcohol,” he says.

If you are concerned about your drinking, if alcohol is causing you or others distress and harm, your first port of call could be your GP. Acknowledging that there is an issue is a big step, but it’s also an opportunity to take control.

April Long, CEO of SMART Recovery Australia, says it’s unfortunate, but many women aren’t reaching out when they need help and support. “The biggest thing we find with people seeking help is the stigma; they don’t want to be judged,” she says.

Take a dive in your gene pool

How much you are likely to drink tends to be influenced by environmental and genetic factors. If someone in your family has an alcohol dependency issue, there’s an increased risk that another family member could also develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Long says we also can’t dispute the impact of the culture of family and community environment. “Growing up in an environment that is awash with alcohol has an influence on you and your choices.

Intergenerational drinking has a huge impact,” she says.

If you are at risk, it’s important to understand the impacts and to take steps to stay within guidelines.

Breaking the wine o’clock habit

For many, popping the cork on a wine bottle or twisting the cap off a cold brew has become a ritual. While Fran prepared dinner, she’d crack open a bottle of wine and sip as she sliced up vegetables, then pour another glass while she cooked. Over dinner she’d share a glass with her partner. Fran says it’s a habit that developed unconsciously.

Habitual drinking will take conscious thought and discipline to break. It’s important for your physical and emotional health and wellbeing to do what you can to control your alcohol intake to safe levels. Long says like any unhealthy habit, you need to acknowledge it. “Own that you have an urge or craving to drink, then press pause before you act on it,” she says. “Come up with a plan — choose options that distract you. It’s all about practical substitutes instead of reaching for that glass of wine.”

Look for your triggers and make conscious choices to find alternative ways to relax and unwind or reward yourself at the end of a long day. Connecting with nature is one. Walking or more vigorous exercise is great for your mind, body and spirit. Turn off your phone. Engage with your kids. Take them for a walk to the park before dinner. Simple ideas like having a relaxing bath, phoning a friend or doing some baking can also take your mind off pouring that drink.

You’ve got this

It’s crunch time for middle-aged women. Drinking too much will impact on our health and potentially shorten our lives.

The good news, according to Lunnay, is the tide could soon be turning. “I get the feeling women are channelling towards a change in direction, and are becoming a bit more reflective about wine o’clock,” she says.

With so much at stake, it’s a change that needs to happen. Lunnay says by focusing on wellness we can change the perspective on reducing drinking. “Every drink you refrain from you are doing something positive for your health — it switches the narrative away from giving up alcohol toward one where women feel empowered to gain wellness.”

Article Featured in WellBeing 206

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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