How alcohol addiction affects women
While there are numerous substances that can pose a major threat to a person’s life, alcohol could be considered the most concerning for a few key reasons. For one, it’s a legal substance that’s available for purchase at licensed liquor stores, some grocery stores, and restaurants.
As long as a person can present proof of being of legal drinking age, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the amount of alcohol he could potentially buy and consume. And being a legal substance, many people assume that it’s much more innocuous than its reputation might suggest. In fact, it’s this resistance to consider alcohol as dangerous as street drugs like heroin or crystal methamphetamine that can mislead people to succumb to alcohol addiction.
Concerning the issue of substance abuse—particularly alcoholism—and gender differences, do women have an elevated risk for alcohol addiction? Or are women more affected by alcohol addiction? What are the factors that contribute to alcoholism among women? And what are the unique recovery needs of women who suffer from alcohol addiction?
In an age when gender is beginning to be redefined in society, there are still some biological aspects that contribute to an individual’s potential for addiction, the way substances may affect them, and general factors that pertain to the majority of a specific gender. For the purpose of this page, “women” will be used to refer to individuals who were assigned female at birth.
Drinking among women has become more acceptable and less taboo over the years, especially for post-graduates just beginning their careers in the workforce. No longer are the days of binge drinking keg parties held exclusively for fraternities.
Women are reportedly drinking just as much or more than their male counterparts for a variety of factors. Whether it’s “keeping up with the boys” in a corporate setting or to cope with the stresses of daily life, women are turning to alcohol on equal grounds as men.
But based on statistical data, alcohol affects women somewhat harsher than it does men.
According to sources like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), adolescent females abuse alcohol just as much as adolescent males, but the rate at which women abuse alcohol declines as they progress into adulthood due to many women switching to other substances. It’s also been found that women are more likely to resort to alcohol abuse as a means of coping with emotional distress or social anxiety.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends no more than one standard drink per day for women, compared to two per day for men. Yet, it is also mentioned that women who consume one drink per day are 1 percent more likely to develop breast cancer in their lives, which increases for each extra drink they consume per day. Women who abuse alcohol are also more likely to develop liver and heart diseases faster than their male peers.
In terms of gender differences, it’s about societal impact. Teenage girls are more likely to engage in underage drinking than their male peers, which some studies indicating that girls are socializing with older male groups at an early age and are then introduced to drinking. This poses greater risk for sexual assault and/or rape, consuming other illicit substances while intoxicated, and alcohol poisoning (based on average weights for teenage girls, who can become drunk much faster than men).
As women get older, alcohol abuse tends to decline for the majority of women, whereas men are more likely to continue heavy drinking habits. Yet, for women who develop an addiction to alcohol, the effects of alcohol abuse may weigh heavier on women. This could mean greater health concerns, such as unplanned pregnancies; higher risk for assault or injury; and potential for domestic abuse.
As such, some addiction treatment centers cater exclusively to women or have programs where women can discuss common issues (e.g. single motherhood, sexual abuse, and discrimination) and how alcohol contributed or affected them personally.
Among women in particular, surveys have shown that nearly 6 percent of women will have consumed alcohol at some point within the past thirty days while almost 2 percent will admit to at least one episode of binge drinking within the same time frame.
About 3 in 5 women drink alcohol somewhat regularly while 1 in 5 women report binge drinking alcohol regularly. More than 1 percent of pregnant women continue drinking alcohol during pregnancy and more than three percent continue binge drinking during their pregnancies.
Pregnant women between the ages of 35 and 44 are the age group with the highest rate of alcohol abuse at 19 percent, or almost 1 in 5 women. The second-highest groups—both at 13 percent—were unmarried pregnant women and pregnant women who had just recently graduated from college.
Among nonpregnant women, rates of alcohol abuse are highest in adolescents and very early adulthood, decreasing with age as women alcohol abusers switch to other substances. Additionally, it’s been found that women of color and other marginalized groups, especially black women, tend to drink less during adolescence and exhibit a much higher rate of alcohol abuse as they reach middle age, which tends to be the opposite of the pattern exhibited by women overall.
Like men, women may engage in drinking as a means to celebrate or socialize with people, to “unwind” and relax, or release stress and anxiety from a busy work day. And also like men, women may use alcohol as a self-coping mechanism to handle mental illness, trauma, and societal expectations.
Some reasons that lead women to abuse alcohol are:
Because women are regarded as “more social” than men, there is an added pressure to perform certain characteristics in certain settings. Teen girls might turn to alcohol to get rid of nerves and socialize with their peers better. Women in the workforce adopt more assertive, confident attitudes to maintain respect from their coworkers and thus may frequent the after-work happy hour with their male peers to get insight on exclusive business opportunities and information. And women may drink before dates, during dates, or in nightclub settings to become more flirtatious and sexually confident.
Women who are in a failing marriage or relationship, going through or have been recently divorced, or stuck in a toxic relationship with their partner may use alcohol to cope with stress, depression, and anxiety. This is particularly true for mothers who are struggling to financially support their families, are going through custody battles with their ex-spouses/partners, or who have had to go through major life changes during middle age.
Coping with Abuse
Domestic abuse of any kind is a large contributing factor to why some women abuse alcohol. Whether physical, emotional, or sexual, abuse can trigger women to develop a dual-diagnosis of both a mental illness and addiction. Women suffering from domestic abuse are also statistically more likely to be introduced to illicit substances from their abusive partners, which then adds to more susceptibility to be abused even further.
Women who struggle with mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may use alcohol to cope with their conditions. Reproductive disorders, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or thyroid disorders, such as hyper- and hypothyroidism, will experience hormonal fluctuations that may develop depression even with medicated treatment. And while some women may understand seeking therapy for mental disorders, they may not feel the need to seek treatment for depression as a symptom or result of a physical condition, and thus choose alcohol as a way to numb the concerns.
Some physical side effects women may develop from excessive drinking can be: damaged liver and kidneys, weakened immune system, reproductive issues (including difficulty becoming pregnant, miscarriages, and infertility), and an increased chance of developing cancer, such as breast cancer.
Mental side effects include depression, mood instability, frequent anxiety, and possible ties with other mental health disorders.
Frequent abuse of alcohol can also cause women to be vulnerable to sexual assault and other crimes, such as violent attacks, mugging, abduction, and other acts of violence.