Most people have had at least one experience where they drank too much and may have even become ill or said or done embarrassing things. Having one or even a few of these experiences does not make someone an alcoholic, but a pattern of heavy drinking can be an indication of an underlying problem. About 15 million adults in the U.S. have an Alcohol Use Disorder, a disorder characterized by repeated episodes of problem drinking, with over one-third of these being women. Women have unique risk factors for problem drinking, underscoring the importance of women becoming more aware of these risks as well as potential signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder.
Alcohol Use Disorder and other Substance Use Disorders are patterns of problem use that impact a person’s health, mental health, relationships, careers, or any other important part of their lives. People with a mild form of the disorder may experience only occasional problems related to their drinking, but the disorder can get worse if a person continues drinking.
As the disorder progresses, a person may experience more serious consequences like the loss of employment or housing, it becomes more difficult for the person to stop drinking. Like other drugs, alcohol activates certain pleasure centers in the brain, creating “reward pathways” that can cause a person to have cravings, develop a tolerance, and sometimes even experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. These symptoms often indicate a person has become physically addicted to alcohol; many people with Alcohol Use Disorder do not experience this until they have been drinking heavily for several years, if at all.
The majority of people who drink alcohol do not have an Alcohol Use Disorder, but regular or heavy use of alcohol can increase the risk of developing one. Women who are under high levels of stress or who have pre-existing mental health conditions are also at higher risk of developing Alcohol Use Disorder. Mental health issues like depression or anxiety are closely linked to alcohol use. When stressed out or depressed, many women turn to alcohol to cope. While alcohol can provide short term relief, it often worsens stress and mental health symptoms in the long run, particularly when it is used frequently or in large amounts. Further, people who use drinking as a coping skill are more likely to have or develop an alcohol problem than people who drink for social reasons.
Women’s use of alcohol also seems to be closely related to their sexual health. When drinking, women are more likely to have unprotected sex, risking unwanted pregnancies or exposure to infections. Women who are on birth control are more likely to forget to take a dosage, risking unwanted pregnancies.
While alcohol does not directly reduce the effectiveness of birth control, birth control pills which contain hormones cause women to metabolize alcohol more slowly, prolonging the intoxicating effects. For women who are trying to get pregnant, the use of alcohol can impact their fertility. If they continue drinking while trying to conceive, they may unknowingly expose their baby to alcohol, which greatly increases the risk a miscarriage, complications, or impaired fetal development.
Women need less alcohol than men to become intoxicated and also metabolize it slower, meaning they get intoxicated more easily and stay intoxicated longer. Drinking four or more drinks over the course of two hours or less is considered Binge Drinking. According to recent research, between 2002-2013, there was a 58% increase in the number of women who reported weekly binge drinking. Most women who binge drink do not have an Alcohol Use Disorder. Some may drink only once or twice a month but tend to drink heavily during these times. Even infrequent binge drinking is dangerous, especially because infrequent drinkers may not know their limits, increasing their risk for alcohol poisoning, a potentially fatal condition. Binge drinkers may also experience times when they “blackout” while drinking, doing and saying things they do not remember the next day. This can result in damaged relationships, injuries, and many other consequences, especially since alcohol is known to reduce inhibitions and impair judgment.
Long term use of alcohol is known to increase a woman’s risk for a range of health and mental health problems. Women who drink are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. They are also more likely than men to develop liver disease like Cirrhosis. Alcohol use also increases the risk for heart problems, cancer, and new research suggests chronic alcohol use may even shrink a person’s brain. Research shows that these long-term effects of alcohol use occur more often in women than in men, and tend to occur sooner in life. Women also are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, and more likely to develop these complications than men who drink the same amount.
Factors that place women at higher risk for problem drinking are different than the factors that place men at risk. Drinking in women is closely related to their sexual health as well as their mental and physical health. Women need less alcohol than men to experience these negative health impacts, are more likely to experience them, and often experience them at younger ages than men. For these reasons, alcohol use is riskier for women than it is for men and should be closely monitored. Women who notice signs of problem alcohol use should consider seeking treatment, which is often effective at preventing or managing an Alcohol Use Disorder.
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About The Author:
Hailey is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist with over a decade of experience helping people manage mental health and addiction issues. In addition to working with clients, she provides training and mentoring for newly licensed counselors and is a board-approved supervisor with the NCBLPC and NCSAPPB. Hailey has a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from NC State University and has continued to work in North Carolina to further her efforts of improving the quality of services being provided in her community.
- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPCS)
- Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist (LCAS)
- Certified Clinical Supervisor Intern (CCS-I)