Alcohol is the number one abused substance within America. According to Harvard Health Publications, an important shift in alcohol research has taken place—until the early 1990s, research focused predominantly on the effects of substance abuse and dependence in men. Now however, an influx of federal funding has changed the scope to better include women, resulting in important changes in the way we understand women and addiction.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), within the United States, of adult women, 46 percent report consuming alcohol within the last 30 days, while 12 percent report binge drinking an average of five drinks per setting, three times a month. In terms of alcohol dependence, women fall under men, with 2.5 percent meeting the diagnostic criteria of alcohol dependence, in comparison to 4.5 percent for men. Despite this discrepancy, women’s drinking behaviors and health concerns are of great import, and present numerous risks that are unique to their gender.
Social And Environmental Factors May Shape This Reality
According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), in comparison to men, women have a higher likelihood of having a history of sexual or physical abuse, and also have double the chance of experiencing a mood disorder. They also note that there is a stigma within our culture that may prevent some women from feeling comfortable in seeking treatment, especially as other sources report, with older woman.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s booklet, Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue, expounds on how a woman’s relationship status may even play into her alcohol consumption, stating “Research suggests that women who have trouble with their closest relationships tend to drink more than other women. Heavy drinking is more common among women who have never married, are living unmarried with a partner, or are divorced or separated. (The effect of divorce on a woman’s later drinking may depend on whether she is already drinking heavily in her marriage.) A woman whose husband drinks heavily is more likely than other women to drink too much.”
Women’s Unique Physiology Makes Them More Susceptible To Alcohol’s Effects
Gender can influence the way that a substance affects a person’s body, in a capacity that can be detrimental to the user, and make them more prone to addiction. Harvard Health Publications notes that women generally weigh less than men, influencing the capacity in which the alcohol can effect her body. This is because women typically have a higher ratio of body fat to water, which translates to less water that can dilute the alcohol, and more fatty tissue that can hold onto it. This puts a woman’s organs at greater risk of facing a higher intensity of exposure to the alcohol.
Harvard continues to tell us that a woman’s body actually processes alcohol differently than a man’s, most notably because two key enzymes that are responsible for breaking down the alcohol once it enters our bodies—aldehyde dehydrogenase and alcohol dehydrogenase—are present in lower amounts, leading to a higher absorption of alcohol within the blood. Thus, as the CDC notes, a woman may drink the same amount as a man, but experience a higher alcohol concentration in her blood than a man.
Harvard also asserts that women are more apt to experience telescoping, which is when a person moves more quickly from simply using an addictive substance to becoming dependent on it. This phenomenon can expedite a woman towards experiencing the risks that an alcohol addiction exerts on her body and mind.
Certain Risks Are Greater
Because of the fact that women can develop alcohol dependence at a faster rate than men, certain damage that occurs at the hand of alcohol abuse develops more quickly, including liver damage and brain issues, like brain atrophy and memory troubles, which may result sooner after excessive drinking than with men. This excessive drinking may cause heart troubles in a greater capacity, even when they drink at lower levels than their male counterparts. There is also concern of:
- Binge drinking decreasing inhibitions, which may increase the odds of incurring a sexually transmitted disease
- Increased risk of breast and other cancers
- Binge drinking putting a woman at a greater risk of sexual assault, especially for those in college
A German study, originally published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that a alcohol dependent woman’s rate of mortality is 4.6 times higher than a peer of the same gender that does not suffer from dependence, which was over double the increase for men, at 1.9 percent.
Concerns Regarding Pregnancy And The Welfare Of Your Child
If you’re one of the 10 percent of women that the CDC reports are pregnant and drinking, you’re not just affecting your life—your behavior has a direct toll on the health, wellbeing, and future life of your unborn child, not to mention it can create complications during your pregnancy.
Drinking during pregnancy increases the odds that your child will have a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, the worst being Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which can cause various birth defects and mental retardation.
The CDC tells us that other serious risks during pregnancy include increased rates of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
The risks of alcohol abuse extend not only to women who are currently pregnant, but to those who may desire to be pregnant. The CDC reports that “Excessive drinking may disrupt the menstrual cycle and increase the risk of infertility.” Additionally, binge drinking behaviors may put a woman in this position when she doesn’t desire it, as it decreases inhibitions, which may increase the risk of unintended pregnancy.
Signs Of Alcohol Abuse Or Addiction
In order to get help, a person or their loved ones must first come to the realization that there is a problem at hand. In order to do so, it can be useful to understand the signs or symptoms of a problem. The following list of key indicators is referenced from NCADD’s website:
- Sudden changes in behavior, marked by mood swings or other emotional changes
- Deterioration of personal care and grooming habits
- Isolation from family and friends and/or decreased involvement in activities or interests that were previously important
- Tardiness or negligence in connection with employment or child care duties
- Being under the influence in situations that are potentially dangerous to yourself or others, such as your children. An example includes driving your children while under the influence.
- Legal repercussions for your drinking, such as undergoing arrest and receiving a DUI or DWI.
- Exhibiting emotionally or physically abusive tendencies towards other people while drinking.
- Drinking despite the obvious impact and detriment to your family, personal, vocational, or social obligations.
- Finding that you cannot stop or decrease the amount of alcohol you consume once you commence drinking.
- If you suddenly stop drinking, withdrawal symptoms are present
- Finding that you need to drink increasing amounts in order to achieve the same effects (developing a tolerance).
If you witness any of these behaviors in yourself or someone close to you, don’t hesitate to seek help—the sooner you reach out, the sooner you can decrease the damage of this destructive lifestyle.
Harvard Health Publications reports that women-only treatment centers aren’t necessarily more effective than co-ed facilities, however, they do note that in the case of specific concerns—such as abuse, trauma, or psychiatric disorders—a woman may be “more likely to recover in gender-specific treatment programs that address these factors.” Beyond this, some women may simply feel more at ease, encountering only women as their peers, due to the fact they might offer an increased level of understanding and accountability because of the greater instances of shared experiences.
There are certain factors that you should consider when choosing a facility to ensure that you or your loved one receives effective treatment. A good rehab center should offer the following:
- Treatment that takes into account each person’s individualized concerns
- Behavioral health therapies
- Nutritive support as a woman’s body has specific health needs, in addition to the fact that alcohol can ravage your body’s health and nutritional foundations
- Medically-supported detoxification
- Medication-assisted treatment
- Treatment of co-occurring disorders
- Family therapy and support
Please, don’t let your alcohol abuse or addiction get any further out of control. Help exists. A wide variety of dynamic and engaging alcohol treatment programs can give you or your loved one a leg up over alcohol, so that you can begin living a sober and directed life.
Harvard Health Publications — Addiction in women
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Fact Sheets – Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health
Wiley Online Library — Excess Mortality of Alcohol-Dependent Individuals After 14 Years and Mortality Predictors Based on Treatment Participation and Severity of Alcohol Dependence
National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence — Alcoholism, Drug Dependence and Women
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