Alcohol and women – the gap is narrowing
In Ancient Rome, an alcoholic woman was considered such an affront to society she could be legally put to death. It was assumed that every woman who drank alcohol was also promiscuous, another reason to put her to death. We still have women treated with rejection, disgust, prejudice, apathy or indifference who suffer from drug addiction, alcohol addiction or drunkenness.
Today, the gap between the amount that women drink relative to men is much narrower and in the younger age groups, girls are drinking more than boys. Recent studies show that in Ireland 52% of young women compared to 48% of young men have been drunk before the age of sixteen. Looking at the damage that alcohol inflicts on women this is an alarming statistic and needs to be highlighted. Women are more vulnerable than men to the medical consequences of alcohol.
Women need to educate themselves on the harmful effects of alcohol on their bodies.
When we look at research carried out, it states that addiction or dependence on alcohol progresses at a faster rate in women than in men, a phenomenon referred to as the “telescoping effect”. For example women develop alcohol induced liver disease, with a lower intake and fewer years of drinking than men. They are more likely than men to develop alcohol induced hepatitis and to die from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. Women are also more susceptible to alcohol related heart disease than men, even though they may drink less alcohol than men over their lifetime. Other studies have identified an an association between drinking alcohol and breast cancer with one study by Hernandez and his colleagues stating that women who consume just one drink per day have a 1O% higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink. They also have an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, as well as a weakening of the heart muscles which affect the lungs. Alcohol also affect the brain with binge drinking, (now a regular thing with women) causing heart irregularity and sudden death. It also causes problems with stomach ulcers, internal bleeding and cancer.
Research also shows that female reproductive health is affected by the heavy use of alcohol and it also markedly interrupts regular menstrual cycling, ovulation and fertility. For young girls even moderate alcohol use has been shown to reduce oestrogen levels and also disrupts normal growth and body development. In midlife, alcohol misuse can result in early menopause as well as impacting on hormone levels, affects bone health and accelerates cognitive and physical decline. Many women use alcohol to increase sexual responses, where in fact, it decreases sexual functioning. Prolonged use of alcohol has been found to have a negative effect on desire or arousal for women.
Because women have more body fat than men, alcohol is less diluted in women and it takes longer to break down, so women get drunk faster than men. It is important that women do not try to keep up with the rate men drink at for that reason. Alcohol is measured in standard drinks. A pint is two standard drinks and a pub measure of spirits is 1.1 standard drinks. A glass of wine or beer is one standard drink. ( A half a pint is a standard drink).
Drinking three or more standard drinks a day puts women at risk of diverse health problems and drinking more than 11 standard drinks across a week should be the maximum. If you drink more than this you are drinking too much. If you can drink large amounts of alcohol be it wine or any other, without getting drunk, it does not mean that that is ok. You have developed a tolerance for alcohol by drinking a lot and this means you are drinking regularly over the risk limit which leads to damage to your internal organs, including the pancreas which is extremely painful and can be fatal.
Depression is closely linked to heavy drinking in women and women who drink alone at home are more likely to have drinking problems. This is becoming more of a problem with cheap wine and other alcohol being freely and cheaply available in off-licenses. Female alcoholics have a death rate of 50 to 100 percent higher than those of their male alcoholics. Alcohol abuse leads to a pattern of missing work or skipping child care responsibilities, drinking in dangerous situations, such as before or while driving or having fractious relationships within family and friends, getting into fights and being aggressive and unruly.
Young women under the age of 21 should not drink alcohol according to the research experts. Drinking at an early age increases the likelihood of liver, heart and brain disease and the suppression of the immune system. Because women become pregnant in their twenties and thirties, this group faces the greatest risk of having babies with growth, mental impairments and foetal alcohol syndrome which is caused by drinking during pregnancy.
Older women are especially sensitive to the stigma of being an alcoholic and thereby hesitate to admit to having a drinking problem. They are more likely to use other medications that can affect mood and thought, such as those for anxiety and depression. These psychoactive medications can interact in harmful ways with alcohol. Aging reduces the body’s ability to adapt to alcohol leading to high blood pressure, depression, sleeping problems, heart problems and falls. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women over 65 should limit their drink to one a day.
If you drink more than the safe amount every day, examine these signs of alcoholism:
- craving or a strong need or compulsion to drink;
- loss of control or the inability to stop once you have begun;
- physical dependence, like having withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, shakiness, anxiety;
- tolerance, the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to get the same buzz.
Women should also recognise that other factors escalate drinking further when they are experiencing the following; parents and siblings with alcohol problems, a partner who drinks heavily, the ability to “ hold her liquor” more than others, a history of depression, a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse. The presence of any of these factors is a good reason to be especially careful with drinking. Much research to understand the consequences of alcohol abuse and addiction in women and to find new ways to prevent and treat alcoholic problems are ongoing with the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Most of the research done previously was about men.
Finding out why women drink too much is the first step. The role of genetics, and family environment and also a woman’s life such as the type of job she has, whether she combines family and work, a change in marriage status, divorce, departure of children, infertility, relationship and sexual problems all appear to add to the necessity of women drinking to excess. Scientists also want to know why women in general seem to develop long-term health problems more quickly and are examining issues like alcohol and breast cancer and the extent that alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis in some women. They are also trying to determine how to identify women who may be at risk for alcohol problems and to ensure that treatment will be effective when the time comes. Binge drinking has become fashionable and acceptable leading to blackouts and memory damage and the ability to remember and to learn.
So why have there been such an increase in women drinking alcohol? Given the long-term damaging effects to mental and physical health why would anyone lay up such a store of problems? Drinking leads to feelings of sadness and depression and those who consume alcohol have a much higher risk of suicide or attempted suicide. We have a serious problem with binge drinking in Ireland, and this can and does lead to alcohol poisoning and it can be fatal. Hangovers that make you miserable is highlighting the body’s way of saying “you are abusing me”, leaving headaches, sick stomachs and depression to be dealt with the next day.
Drinking alcohol is a choice we make. We can live quite well and even happier without it, so is the time here when we must ask ourselves “why”. Try abstaining for a while and see if life becomes better, easier and more tranquil. I can assure you it will.
Peg Hanafin, MSc. 5/08/2014
Author of “Getting more out of life”