Women and alcohol: women drinking more than an occasional celebratory glass of champagne isn’t a new phenomenon. In the past 100 years, women have been consuming enough alcohol to close the gender gap in alcohol consumption, binge drinking, and alcohol use disorder. By 2016 a 3:1 ratio for risky drinking habits in men versus women became closer to 1:1. Then as we all know, in 2020, a pandemic arrived and drinking increased dramatically for everyone, especially women.
“Women are more likely to drink alcohol as a coping mechanism than compared to men,” said Beth Siegert, CPC, CPRC, ACC, CFAA. “A lot of research points to this tendency leading to a higher risk of developing an alcohol dependence. For decades, I have noticed that female clients of mine are very surprised to learn this. I think this lack of knowledge is at the center of women’s negative outcomes from alcohol,” she said.
American women have a solidified relationship with alcohol. Parity with men and the increase in drinking due to the difficulties of the pandemic have resulted in a need to immediately focus on alerting women to the mental and physical health effects of too much alcohol and how to deal with a now very common concern: “Am I drinking too much?“
Women and Alcohol Across a Century
How do we know how things have changed for women and alcohol? Researchers Tim Slade, Cath Chapman, and Maree Teesson of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia sought to quantify the landscape between men and women and their alcohol consumption. The researchers examined data from an impressive sample size of over 4 million men and women, gathered from 68 studies located in 36 different countries. The data spanned men and women born in the early 1900s to those born in the late 1900s— across the globe. In all 68 studies, data had been collected on both men’s and women’s drinking across at least two time periods, therefore, presenting a ratio between the two genders.
The researchers found that amongst people born in the early 1900s, men were: more than 2x likely than women to drink, 3x more likely to drink in ways suggesting problematic alcohol use, and 3.5x more likely to experience alcohol-related harms. Amongst people born in the late 1900s, these ratios had decreased to almost one. In summary, by the end of the last century, men’s and women’s drinking had almost reached parity.
Women Are Drinking to Cope With the Pandemic
Across the board, consumption of alcohol increased at a dramatic rate once the pandemic established itself. In the very first week of lockdown in March 2020, Americans flocked to liquor stores. According to Nielsen consumer market measurements, during the first week of lockdown, spirit sales were up 75%, wine by 66%, and beer up by 42%. For those too afraid to venture out to a liquor store, online sales of all types of alcohol were up by 243%.
Research has shown that it is women, not men, who are drinking more as a coping mechanism to the increased stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic and its resulting lifestyle changes. A study by the RAND Corporation found that during the pandemic, women increased by 41% heavy drinking days compared to pre-pandemic. “My concern is that drinking as a coping mechanism to the pandemic, with the added grief people are experiencing, the resulting duration of heavier alcohol consumption can be longer,” Siegert stated, “This duration can increase chances of developing an issue with alcohol. Considering that women are more negatively affected by alcohol both physically and mentally, this is worrisome.”
Drinking is Harder on the Female Body and Mind
Women metabolize alcohol differently than men. This difference in physiology produces unequal outcomes that are worse for women. Alcohol affects women more quickly than men and at lower levels of consumption.
The principle difference is that women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men and therefore their bodies are exposed to higher concentrations of alcohol for longer periods of time. Proportionally speaking, female bodies contain less water and more fat than men’s bodies. Since water dilutes alcohol and fat retains it, exposure increases for women. Additionally, women have less of an enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) that breaks alcohol down before it reaches the bloodstream. These factors make it so that at any point while drinking, women have a higher blood alcohol content (BAC), exposing the body to more damage.
Contrary to only focusing on the damage to the liver, it must be noted that alcohol has a negative effect on other parts of the body, namely the heart and the brain. Heavy drinking also increases risks for hypertension, cancer, stroke, and alcohol-impaired accidents. Further, it is estimated that one-third of breast cancer cases could be prevented if women abstained from alcohol, were physically active, and maintained a healthy weight.
Women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety and depression. This is where alcohol is not as friendly to women as portrayed in marketing and social media. Alcohol is a sedative and a depressant that affects the central nervous system. Temporarily, it can help a person feel calmer. This may be very appealing to a person feeling anxious. However, as a person’s blood alcohol content decreases and then returns to a normal level again, feelings of anxiety can increase because alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
When it comes to depression, alcohol can lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels, both of which regulate mood. Lower levels of these hormones can increase feelings of depression. Stress hormones are temporarily ineffective with the consumption of alcohol. Altogether, alcohol’s depressive effects on the brain and nervous system exaggerate symptoms of depression.
Women and Alcohol: Better Communications Can Lead to Improved Outcomes
Along with the changes in society accepting women drinking alcohol, education, and portrayal in media needs to reflect the reality of the public health issue at hand. Publications need to speak directly to women and acknowledge their concerns that are sources of stress and anxiety. Especially due to the visual nature of today’s communications, imagery needs to change to feature women. “We need to help girls and women recognize issues and feel more comfortable asking for guidance,” Siegert stated.
Where to Start to Get Help You Need:
Talking to a medical professional is a smart first step. Often, a physician will assist a person medically while also referring to a therapist to discuss underlying issues. Recognizing that recovery from an addiction is a daily effort, many people seek out the help of a coach to help clients map out how to live their new life free of addiction, and as a source of judgment-free support.
Disclaimer: The information in the above article is not intended to replace the formal opinions of medical professionals.