Women are drinking more than ever before. In March of 2017, the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research” reported that between 1997 and 2014, women drinkers increased by nine percent. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “Women’s drinking is most common between ages 26 and 34 and among women who are divorced or separated. Binge drinking (i.e., consumption of five or more drinks per occasion on 5 or more days in the past month) is most common among women ages 18 to 25. Among racial groups, women’s drinking is more prevalent among whites, although black women are more likely to drink heavily.”
What has led to this rise in alcoholism and alcohol abuse in women? There may be many factors at work here, but what is certain: the dangers of alcohol misuse have added risks for women.
Differences Between Women and Men Drinking
According to the NIAAA, “In the United States, a standard drink is one that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:
- 12 ounces of beer with 5 percent alcohol content
- 5 ounces of wine with 12 percent alcohol content
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits with 40 percent alcohol content
Unfortunately, although the “standard” drink amounts are helpful for following health guidelines, they may not reflect customary serving sizes. A large cup of beer, an over-poured glass of wine, or a single mixed drink could contain much more alcohol than a standard drink. In addition, while the alcohol concentrations listed are “typical,” there is considerable variability in alcohol content within each type of beverage (e.g., beer, wine, distilled spirits).”
These measurements matter a lot for women. Even small amounts of alcohol affect women’s bodies differently than men’s, and women tend to suffer more ill effects of alcohol than men. There are a few biological reasons for this. Women tend to have less body water than men of a similar weight. This means blood alcohol concentrations can become much stronger more quickly. Also, women tend to eliminate alcohol from their bloodstreams more quickly than men. This can be explained by women’s higher liver volume per unit lean body mass. Alcohol also increases estrogen levels, which puts more stress on the body.
There are other environmental risk factors that need to be considered when it comes to women drinking. Women are more likely to drink if:
Drinking as an adolescent – The NIAAA states, “Results of a large nationwide survey show that more than 40 percent of persons who initiated drinking before age 15 were diagnosed as alcohol dependent at some point in their lives. Rates of lifetime dependence declined to approximately 10 percent among those who began drinking at age 20 or older. The annual rate of this decline was similar for both genders. Although in the past women generally started drinking at later ages than men, more recent survey data show that this difference has nearly disappeared.”
Genetics – Alcoholism and substance abuse is partially genetic. “Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcohol use disorder. Therefore, genes alone do not determine whether someone will become an alcoholic. Environmental factors, as well as gene and environment interactions, account for the remainder of the risk. Multiple genes play a role in a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder. There are genes that increase a person’s risk, as well as those that may decrease that risk, directly or indirectly.”
Victimization – Women who were physically or emotionally abused are more likely to struggle with alcohol and substance abuse. Drinking can be a way of coping with trauma and the stresses of life. The NIAAA says, “Physical abuse during adulthood has also been associated with women’s alcohol use and related problems. One study found that significantly more women undergoing alcoholism treatment experienced severe partner violence (e.g., kicking, punching, or threatening with a weapon) compared with other women in the community.”
The Culture of Drinking and Effects on Women
How many times have you seen social media images celebrating drinking after work or after a long day of caring for children? Drinking to cope with day-to-day stresses are becoming normalized. “Sunday Funday” celebrates the end of the weekend with what? You guessed it: more drinking. The Washington Post took note of this and says, “The ads started popping up about a decade ago on social media. Instead of selling alcohol with sex and romance, these ads had an edgier theme: Harried mothers chugging wine to cope with everyday stress. Women embracing quart-sized bottles of whiskey, and bellying up to bars to knock back vodka shots with men. In this new strain of advertising, women’s liberation equaled heavy drinking, and alcohol researchers say it both heralded and promoted a profound cultural shift: Women in America are drinking far more, and far more frequently, than their mothers or grandmothers did, and alcohol consumption is killing them in record numbers.”
This highly disturbing trend may seem like a liberating experience for women, but the medical impact on the female population cannot go unnoticed. Just like men, women can suffer some very serious consequences from abusing alcohol.
Consequences for Women Who Abuse Alcohol
For men and women alike, the consequences of alcohol abuse are real and possibly deadly.
- Brain damage: According to the NIAAA, “Views of the brain obtained by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) suggest that women may be more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced brain damage. Using MRI, researchers found that a brain region involved in coordinating multiple brain functions was significantly smaller among alcoholic women compared with both nonalcoholic women and alcoholic men.”
- Liver damage: Women develop liver disease more quickly than men. It’s possible that women’s processing of estrogen factors into this biological risk.
- Breast cancer: Frequent alcohol use increases the risk for breast cancer.
- Victimization: Heavy drinking pre-marriage has led to violent aggression in newly-married couples. Other NIDAA studies show high school women who drink frequently are more likely to be victims of dating abuse.
- Traffic accidents: Although men are more likely to drink and drive, there is a very real risk of traffic accidents by women who drink frequently. Driving under the influence can be fatal to the driver and all parties involved.
There Is Treatment for Women with Alcoholism
More often than not, there are underlying reasons for why a woman drinks. It may be a co-occurring disorder like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Unfortunately, women are less likely to get the help they need. The NIAAA says, “Women are more likely than men to face multiple barriers to accessing substance abuse treatment and are less likely to seek treatment. Women also tend to seek care in mental health or primary care settings rather than in specialized treatment programs, which may contribute to poorer treatment outcomes. When gender differences in treatment outcomes are reported, however, women tend to fare better than men.”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue. Retrieved from: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.htm#drinking
Wiley Online Library. (2017, March). Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acer.2017.41.issue-3/issuetoc
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1999). Alcohol Alert. Retrieved from: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa46.htm
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017). Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders/genetics-alcohol-use-disorders
The Washington Post. (2017). For women, heavy drinking has become normalized. That’s dangerous. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/for-women-heavy-drinking-has-been-normalized-thats-dangerous/2016/12/23/0e701120-c381-11e6-9578-0054287507db_story.html?utm_term=.9060a160f4db