Shattering the Glass: Women and the Increase in Problematic Drinking
Historically, problematic drinking has been associated with men. While men are still more likely to consume larger amounts of alcohol, women represent a rapidly increasing segment of the United States’ problematic drinking population. Regardless of a person’s gender, excessive alcohol consumption can result in negative health risks and long-term consequences. However, alcohol can affect women more than men due to biological differences, making them more susceptible to detrimental health complications.
Alcohol use in women is a growing concern, but there are many reasons why this dangerous trend may be gaining traction. Understanding how alcohol affects women and what factors may be contributing to the increase in problematic drinking can help you know when it’s time to seek addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one.
Alcohol Use in Women
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), frequency and quantity of alcohol use have increased among women but decreased for men in recent years. This increase in drinking affects women across demographics, regardless of age, socioeconomic background or cultural differences. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal 13% of adult women report binge drinking, while 25% admit to doing so weekly.
Binge drinking and alcohol use in general have also increased among high school girls, with 26% of female students admitting to consuming alcohol and another 15% reporting binge drinking. Although binge drinking doesn’t necessarily indicate an alcohol use disorder, it can increase your risk of acquiring one. You’re also more likely to become addicted the younger you start drinking.
Why Is Problematic Drinking on the Rise for Women?
There are many reasons why problematic drinking may be increasing among women, such as societal pressure, mental health issues and changing norms about women’s alcohol consumption.
Alcohol has long been used as a form of self-medication, helping people find relief from negative emotions or situations. In today’s society, many women feel pressured to balance navigating a successful career with maintaining the image of being a perfect wife and mother. This pressure to “have it all” can result in increased stress levels, causing women to use alcohol as a way to relax and escape from reality.
About 1 in 5 women in the United States experience a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, and they’re at a higher risk for developing a mental illness than men. Women may use alcohol to alleviate mental health symptoms if they’ve never received treatment or don’t have healthier coping mechanisms.
Over the past century, societal norms have shifted surrounding women’s alcohol consumption. It’s become more socially acceptable for women to drink, resulting in more alcoholic products, such as skinny cocktails and fruit-flavored liquor, designed to appeal to women. Movies and TV shows have also increasingly featured women attending happy hours or drinking alcohol as a way to relax, equating drinking alcohol to having a good time and leading a luxurious lifestyle.
Risk Factors Contributing to Problematic Drinking in Women
Many risk factors can contribute to problematic drinking in women and men, including family history and genetics. How early in life a person starts drinking can also result in excessive alcohol consumption or an alcohol use disorder later in life. One significant risk factor more commonly found in women is victimization, which can refer to any type of abuse, including childhood abuse and domestic partner violence. Research reveals 1 in 4 women experience severe physical or sexual intimate partner violence, compared to 1 in 9 men. Other risk factors include:
- Family history of drug or alcohol abuse
- Pressure from a spouse or partner who drinks heavily
- History of mental illness such as depression or anxiety
- Building a tolerance to alcohol and needing larger amounts to feel the same effects
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Effects of Alcohol on Women
Women have a higher chance of developing certain health issues from heavy alcohol use. For example, women are more likely to develop mental health disorders or use other substances. There are also numerous physical health issues women are more likely to develop from drinking than men, including:
- Liver disease: Women are at a greater risk of developing alcohol-related liver diseases such as cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis.
- Cancer: Alcohol is linked to many cancers, including liver, colon, throat and esophagus. For women, drinking is also associated with breast cancer, even if you only consume small amounts.
- Brain function abnormalities: Women experience declining brain function, shrinking brain tissue and brain damage faster than men from alcohol use. Adolescent girls who binge drink are also more likely to experience memory and decision-making problems than adolescent boys.
- Heart problems: Even with low alcohol consumption, women are more likely to experience heart disease, high blood pressure and heart tissue damage.
- Pregnancy complications: Drinking while pregnant raises a woman’s risk of having a baby with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which can cause birth defects, intellectual disabilities and behavioral issues. It also raises the risk of miscarriage, preterm delivery, stillbirth and sudden infant death syndrome.
How Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently Than Men?
Alcohol affects women’s bodies differently than men’s, and it can often be in more harmful ways. For instance, women’s bodies contain more fat and less water than men’s. Since fat doesn’t absorb alcohol and water helps dilute it in your system, women typically end up with a higher blood alcohol concentration.
Women also can’t metabolize alcohol as fast as men, meaning the substance stays in their system for longer. This is from having lower levels of gastric alcohol dehydrogenase, a digestive enzyme that assists in breaking down alcohol. Due to this, women become intoxicated more quickly than men, even if they consume the same amount of alcohol.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment for Women
Problematic drinking among women is a rising phenomenon that needs to be further addressed and studied. Intervention and prevention strategies are crucial in providing adequate support to help women misusing alcohol get needed help and develop healthier coping skills. If you’re worried a loved one may have a drinking problem, signs to look for include:
- Using alcohol more frequently
- Experiencing cravings when not drinking
- Continuing to use alcohol despite recurrent interpersonal issues
- Missing work, school or other responsibilities due to drinking
- Experiencing withdrawal systems when attempting to stop
- Regularly using alcohol in dangerous situations such as driving
The most effective way to overcome an alcohol addiction is to seek professional treatment. Mayflower is a state-of-the-art residential drug and alcohol recovery center in greater Boston providing acute detox and inpatient treatment to help individuals during the first stage of recovery. By offering personalized alcohol rehab services, we can help you successfully manage withdrawal and work through problematic drinking habits to overcome your addiction for good. Contact us today to learn how our services can provide you or a loved one with the support you need.