Alcohol is a commonly misused substance that affects men and women differently. Historically, men have been more likely to consume larger amounts of alcohol, but excessive drinking in women has increased over the years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 13% of adult women binge drink, with 25% of those doing so weekly.
Binge drinking is the most common form of excessive drinking and can cause numerous health complications. Understanding the effects of excessive drinking on women’s health and how to safely reduce alcohol intake can help you or a loved one end unhealthy drinking patterns before they cause physical or mental damage.
What Is Excessive Alcohol Consumption?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is repeated alcohol consumption that raises blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. For women, this equals four or more drinks in about 2 hours. Many people who drink excessively don’t have an alcohol dependency, but repeated heavy drinking can increase the risk of alcohol use disorder and other serious health risks, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Various cancers, including liver, throat or mouth
- Weakened immune system
- Learning and memory problems
- Interpersonal issues with family, friends or colleagues
Effects of Excessive Drinking on Women’s Health
Because of their differences in body composition from men, women can unknowingly cross the line from moderate to excessive drinking. Women gain a higher blood alcohol level with each drink consumed than men, causing them to become intoxicated faster and maintain blood alcohol levels longer, putting women at an increased risk for long-term health complications.
Additionally, menstrual cycles may contribute to excessive alcohol consumption in women. In the week leading up to menstruation, the female reproductive hormone, progesterone, peaks and rapidly declines. This decline can cause higher levels of anxiety, which may influence women to drink alcohol to self-medicate these feelings.
Regardless of the reasoning, excessive alcohol consumption can have short- and long-term effects on women’s health.
Since alcohol is a diuretic and eliminates water from the body, it can cause dehydration. On average, women already have less water in their bodies than men, and drinking large amounts of alcohol can increase their risk of dehydration and cause more severe hangover symptoms, such as headaches and muscle cramps.
Women are also more likely to experience blackouts from alcohol, putting them at an increased risk of bodily harm. Binge drinking is a major contributor to sexual violence, and since women are already more likely to experience sexual violence than men, excessive drinking only increases that risk further.
Other short-term health effects of binge drinking include:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Miscarriage or stillbirth
- Risky sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex
- Injuries from falls or other accidents
Women are particularly susceptible to long-term health complications from excessive drinking, which can include:
- Liver diseases, including cirrhosis and alcohol hepatitis
- Pregnancy complications affecting the baby, including birth defects, intellectual disabilities or behavioral issues
- Heart disease or heart muscle damage
- Brain function abnormalities, including shrinking brain tissue and brain damage
- Cancer affecting multiple organs, including the mouth, throat and colon
There’s also a strong link between alcohol intake and an increased risk of breast cancer. While even light drinking can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, her chances increase with her alcohol intake. One study concluded that a 10-gram increase in daily alcohol consumption raised the risk of breast cancer by 5% in premenopausal women and 9% in postmenopausal women.
Mental Health Risks of Excessive Drinking
Alcohol is an antidepressant that can disrupt neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It also affects the brain region that controls inhibition, which is why many people feel more relaxed or confident and less anxious after a drink. However, these emotions are often short-lived. Chemical changes in the brain caused by drinking alcohol can also result in negative feelings such as depression, anxiety and anger.
Women are already more likely than men to struggle with mood and anxiety disorders, and excessive drinking can increase their risk even further. Exposure to sexual violence while binge drinking can also raise a woman’s risk of developing mental health conditions, including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance use disorders
We are here for you 24/7
Alcohol is often used as a coping mechanism to alleviate negative mental health symptoms. Because drinking alcohol can also cause mental health issues, using it as a coping mechanism can create an endless cycle of toxic drinking patterns that are hard to break and may lead to an alcohol use disorder.
How to Safely Reduce Alcohol Intake
Reducing alcohol intake can be challenging, especially if you’ve been drinking a long time or are frequently around others who also drink excessively. However, it’s possible to safely reduce your intake by incorporating small changes into your drinking patterns. Here are a few strategies that can help:
- Set limits: Determine how many days during the week you plan on drinking and how many drinks you want to consume. For example, you can decide to have no more than two drinks per night on Friday and Saturday nights only.
- Count your drinks: Keep track of how many drinks you consume by documenting them in the notes app on your phone and ensuring you’re following standard drink sizes. It can be difficult to track exactly how much alcohol you’re consuming at home if you don’t measure it, but following standard drink sizes can prevent overconsumption.
- Avoid triggers: If certain people, places or activities encourage you to drink more, avoiding them altogether may be necessary to reduce consumption. You can also suggest alcohol-free activities when making plans with others or keep less alcohol in the house to reduce the temptation to drink more.
- Seek support: Don’t be afraid to seek support from friends, family members or health care professionals if you’re struggling to reduce intake on your own. Reaching out for help can prevent excessive drinking from becoming an addiction and help you build a support network to turn to instead of alcohol when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
For some women, not drinking at all may be the best option, especially if you’ve struggled with an alcohol use disorder before or can’t control intake once you start drinking.
Consider Professional Treatment for Excessive Drinking
Excessive drinking can cause serious health complications in women, so it’s important to seek professional help if you’re worried about your consumption. A professional can assist you in reducing your alcohol intake and learning healthier coping mechanisms before excessive drinking spirals into an alcohol use disorder.
Mayflower Recovery is a drug and alcohol recovery center in the Boston area providing alcohol detox and inpatient rehab services. Don’t wait to seek help for problematic drinking behaviors. Contact us today to learn more about our services and take the first step toward sobriety.