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How can sober curiosity support cancer prevention?

Cancer Council SA had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Belinda Lunnay a public health expert collaborating with Professor Paul Ward in the Research Centre for Public Health, Equity and Human Flourishing at Torrens University, about her recent study on Sober Curiosity. This topic is of interest to Cancer Council SA’s prevention team, as there is a connection between alcohol consumption and cancer.

‘Sober curiosity’ refers to the exploration of a person’s relationship with alcohol, with a focus on developing a more ‘mindful’ approach to drinking. Dr. Lunnay’s study revealed that middle-aged women are becoming sober curious following increased drinking during COVID-19 lockdowns. The isolation and stress of the pandemic led to drinking more than usual, and realising this was unsustainable patterning, women were thinking about ways to cut down drinking.

The term ‘Sober Curious’ comes from a book by Ruby Warrington, and now underpins a social wellness movement. It describes taking stock of the reasons for consuming alcohol in the first place, and in circumstances where drinking alcohol would usually be involved. The desired goal is a long-term sustainable reduction.

Dr Lunnay’s research uncovered various challenges faced by middle-aged women in cutting down their drinking. Women in the study who are more affluent reported feeling social pressures to drink and a saturation of alcohol in their everyday contexts that made declining drinking difficult. On the other hand, working-class women felt they resorted to alcohol as a coping tool for everyday stresses, making it harder for them to explore alternatives.

Despite challenges, women who cut down their drinking reported positive changes in their lives.

“Things like sleeping better, better skin, hormones are more balanced, menopausal symptoms are not as bad,” says Dr. Lunnay.

Additionally, these women felt empowered by taking control over their alcohol consumption and breaking free from social expectations.

The study also examined whether ‘sober curiosity’ led to decreased, unchanged, or increased drinking among the women. One interesting finding was that women who kick off their social event at home with low or no alcohol drinks on an occasion reduced their drinking overall, rather than drinking more to compensate.

“Where reduced alcohol patterns have been established, they were maintained, and emerging research on the use of no and low alcohol products for drinkers not diagnosed with alcohol dependency supports this” Dr. Lunnay explains.

Dry July served as a valuable ‘circuit breaker’ for many women exploring cutting down their drinking. By participating in the event, people can gain an opportunity to reassess their relationship with alcohol. We are pleased to advise $151,404.93 was raised for our South Australian 13 11 20 cancer nurse service in this year’s Dry July.

The Cancer Council is also committed to equity in cancer prevention and notes Dr Lunnay’s research queried the suitability of leveraging sober curiosity for all women, including socially marginalised women who rely on alcohol to cope.

For more information on the link between alcohol and their cancer risk, please click here. You can find out more about sober curiosity and read Dr. Belinda Lunnay’s paper here.

If you’ve been thinking about reducing your drinking to improve your health, here are our tips to help:

1. Keep non-alcoholic options at home.

Stock your fridge and pantry with tasty non-alcohol drink options such as flavoured teas, sparkling water with fruit and other non-alcoholic drinks.

2. Organise social catch ups that don’t centre around alcohol.

Find social alternatives that don’t involve alcohol. Instead of catching up with mates at the pub, pick a location where alcohol isn’t easily available such as a café for a morning coffee, the beach, or the movies.

3. Plan alcohol-free days each week.

Having a few alcohol-free days each week will help you reduce total consumption (given alcohol increases cancer risk in a cumulative way) and break any bad habits, such as reaching for a drink each day after work.

4. Alternate alcoholic drinks with water.

If you drink alcohol, stay hydrated and drink water to quench your thirst. A good habit to get into is alternating alcoholic drinks with a non-alcoholic drink like water.

5. Sign up for Dry July in 2024 or other moderation challenges.

If you’ve been thinking about taking a break from alcohol, Dry July is the perfect opportunity to give your body a much-needed break, all while raising funds to support South Australians impacted by cancer.