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How Alcohol Abuse Affects Women

Alcohol abuse affects everyone negatively, but it is especially detrimental for women. 

Stress plays a significant role in starting and sustaining alcohol use, and women are more prone to stress than men.

Women also have a higher risk of developing multiple mental health conditions throughout their lifetimes. The most common is depression co-occurring with anxiety.

Stress is strongly connected to all phases of alcohol addiction, including:

  • When the drinking starts
  • Maintenance of drinking
  • Relapse after quitting drinking

Long-term alcohol use is strongly associated with serious health risks in both sexes. However, women with AUDs have a higher risk of developing alcohol-related liver injury than men. This includes cirrhosis and hepatitis. Women also have a greater risk of alcohol-related cancer, such as breast cancer.

How Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently Than Men?

Research shows a woman's health risks are higher when she has an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This is due to how her body process alcohol.

Women who drink heavily should understand these risks and seek support or treatment when necessary. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use is linked to more than 27,000 female deaths annually. About 13 percent of women binge drink and about half of all adult women reported drinking alcohol in the last month.

Women are at greater risk from alcohol-related disorders because problems develop sooner when they drink heavily.

They usually weigh less than men, which means the average woman’s body can’t tolerate the same amount of alcohol as a man can.

Their bodies also have less water than men’s bodies, so even if they weigh the same as a man, their BAC increases faster than it does for men.  

For example, if a woman binge drinks, she will likely become more intoxicated than a man who drank the same amount of alcohol. She will also get drunk quicker. Binge drinking is defined as consuming 4 or more drinks in 2 hours (for women).  

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Causes & Symptoms of Alcoholism in Women

Women experience alcohol use disorder for different reasons. Everyone is different and everyone has their reasons for drinking too much or developing an addiction.

No formula of factors cause alcoholism in women, but women are more likely to develop AUD than men because of how their bodies process alcohol. Over-indulging is riskier for women and is cause for concern for many people.

Some of the most common reasons women drink too much and/or develop AUD include:

  • Stress
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Social pressure
  • Low self-confidence

Symptoms of alcoholism in women include:

  • Frequent bouts of excessive drinking
  • Absenteeism from work or school
  • Alcohol cravings
  • Increasing tolerance of alcohol
  • Drinking in risky situations
  • Drinking alone
  • Neglecting health and hygiene
  • Driving after drinking
  • Blacking out or losing time
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Lack of appetite
  • Hiding alcohol
  • Personality or mood changes

Drinking too much alcohol also causes physical effects. Some of the health issues women experience when they have AUD include:

  • Morning shaking
  • Frequent nausea
  • Abdominal cramping and diarrhea
  • Flushed face
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Signs of malnutrition

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) rates have increased in women by 84 percent over the last 10 years. In men, AUD rates have risen by 34 percent.

- ScienceDirect

Link Between Anxiety and Alcoholism in Women

Once a female reaches puberty, until about the age of 50, she is twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder than a male. Anxiety disorders develop in women earlier than they do in men.

Women are also more prone to developing multiple mental health conditions throughout their lives than men. The most common is depression co-occurring with anxiety.

The reason women are more prone to anxiety than men may be related to differences in brain chemistry. For example, a woman's fight-or-flight response is more active than a man's. This response also stays activated for a longer period, which is partly related to higher estrogen and progesterone levels.

Some research shows that female brains process serotonin slower than male brains. Serotonin is a necessary hormone that balances moods, feelings, and overall well-being. The hormone may also impact the body's response to anxiety and stress.

In one study, women who experienced two or more stressful events in the last year were 4 times more likely to develop alcoholism. Men who had the same experiences were 2.5 times more likely to develop alcoholism.

- ScienceDirect

Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse in Women

There are several health risks associated with alcohol abuse, including:

Liver Damage

Liver damage is a concern for anyone who drinks excessively, but it’s more of a risk for women than men. Drinking heavily increases the risk of cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis.

Heart Disease

Women already have a higher risk of heart disease and that risk increases even more with excessive use of alcohol. Long-term alcohol abuse is a primary cause of heart disease in women, even those who consume less alcohol than men.

Brain Damage

Brain damage develops faster for women who abuse alcohol than for men. Excessive alcohol use disrupts normal brain development, so it’s especially risky for teenage and young adult females.

One study showed that teen girls who engaged in binge drinking showed less brain activity and performed worse on memory tests than their male peers. Binge drinking also negatively impacted their decision-making abilities.

Women tend to blackout more than men when drinking excessively and experienced more frequent memory gaps.

Breast Cancer

A woman who drinks excessively is increasing her risk of breast cancer. There is evidence that women who drink one drink per day increase their risk by nearly 10 percent and that risk increases as they consume more alcohol.

Alcohol and Medication

Alcohol consumption negatively impacts women who are using certain medications. You should abstain from alcohol if you are using any of the following:

  • Sleeping pills
  • Pain relievers
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Other sedative medications

Pregnancy and Alcohol

Consuming alcohol during pregnancy puts a developing baby at risk. Any exposure to alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of cognitive, physical, and behavioral issues after birth.

Babies exposed to alcohol in utero are at risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Alcohol consumption during pregnancy also increases the risk of miscarriage and pre-term labor.

Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should abstain from alcohol.

Does a Woman You Know Need Help With Alcoholism?

There are several treatment options available for women with AUD, including:

Understanding the root of AUD and simultaneously treating other conditions or mental health issues is essential to the success of recovery. It’s also important to have the support of family and friends during treatment and recovery.

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Resources

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“Women and Alcohol.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 26 Apr. 2019, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/women-and-alcohol.

“Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism).” Drugs.com, Drugs.com, 2019, www.drugs.com/health-guide/alcohol-use-disorder-alcoholism.html.

CDC - Fact Sheets-Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health - Alcohol. 2019, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/womens-health.htm.

“Women and Alcohol.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 26 Apr. 2019, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/women-and-alcohol.

H, Bob. “Dilemma of the Alcoholic Marriage.” Al-Anon Family Groups, 1 June 2015, al-anon.org/blog/dilemma-of-the-alcoholic-marriage/

“Facts.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/women/facts.

Steinglass, Peter. “A Life History Model of the Alcoholic Family.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 6 Aug. 2004, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1545-5300.1980.00211.x.

Steinglass, P. “The Alcoholic Family at Home. Patterns of Interaction in Dry, Wet, and Transitional Stages of Alcoholism.” Archives of General Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 1981, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7235860.

MacKenzie R. Peltier, Terril L. Verplaetse, Yann S. Mineur, Ismene L. Petrakis, Kelly P. Cosgrove, et. al. (2019). "Sex differences in stress-related alcohol use." https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289518300729.  

Nace, Edgar P. “Therapeutic Approaches to the Alcoholic Marriage.” Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Elsevier, 18 June 2018, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193953X1830858X.

O'Farrell, Timothy J., and Gary R. Birchlery. “MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS OF ALCOHOLIC, CONFLICTED, AND NONCONFLICTED COUPLES*.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 8 June 2007, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1752-0606.1987.tb00705.x.

Deniker, P., De Saugy, D., & Ropert, M. (1964). The alcoholic and his wife. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 5(6), 374–381. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0010-440X(64)80047-X

Bailey, Margaret B. “The Family Agency’s Role in Treating the Wife of an Alcoholic.” Social Casework, vol. 44, no. 5, May 1963, pp. 273–279, doi:10.1177/104438946304400505. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/104438946304400505?journalCode=fisd
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