7 Real Worries With Women and Drinking

by Lauren Evoy Davis Health Writer

Alcohol use among U.S. women is up—an uninterrupted rise since the end of Prohibition, says George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Among all adults 18 and older, alcohol use has been increasing, with females increasing faster than males." Back in 1900, male drinkers outnumbered female imbibers by three-to-one when measuring prevalence, frequency, binge drinking, and early-onset drinking. But today the drinking habits and outcomes of both sexes are barely distinguishable—with women sometimes tippling more. Here’s why that’s a cause for concern.

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Habitual Drinking Harms Health

“Anything you do three times per week is considered a habit,” says Julie Landford, R.D., a licensed nutritionist from Winston-Salem, NC. And once women form an alcohol habit, they’re at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems, plus cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon. (Research shows that women who consume about one drink per day have a 5% to 9% higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink at all.) “Women are [also] more likely to experience blackouts, brain atrophy, and cognitive deficits,” adds Dr. Koob.

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Cognitive Health Is at Risk, Too

This steady uptick in women’s drinking is definitely “worrisome” for women’s physical health, says James C. Garbutt, M.D., adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill—and it doesn’t benefit their emotional well-being, either. “Isolation and stress are both triggers for drinking,” he explains. The pandemic and quarantines have forced many women to juggle work and childcare to even greater extremes than they normally do. Some may turn to alcohol to cope, Dr. Koob says, which can “lead to an alcohol use disorder."

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College Women Binge Drink More

Women who consume four or more drinks during a single sitting are binge drinking, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2019, 22.2% of women age 18+ reported they engaged in binge-drinking in the past month, according to NIAAA. Another national survey reports that more than half of college-age women reported they drank alcohol in the last year, with 33% engaging in binge drinking during the same period. “Long-standing gender differences in drinking and binge drinking among young adults are disappearing, with females in college now more likely to drink than their male counterparts,” Dr. Koob says.

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Middle-Aged Women Drink More, Too

It’s easy for busy, professional women to pour that extra glass of wine while cooking dinner or after the chores are done for the night. And these extra, quaffed calories can lead to weight gain, especially for those who are middle-aged. A study that followed close to 8,000 women drinkers (aged 39 and up) who imbibed lightly to moderately for 12.9 years showed that 41.3% who were previously of normal weight became overweight or obese during that time frame, with a body mass index (BMI) above 25.

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Drinking Is Risky for Both Sexes

There are other risks for both female and male drinkers. Accidents on bikes, in cars, in pools and on boats contribute to numerous fatalities each year. In 2018 alone, 10,511 people in the U.S were killed in a traffic accident where the driver was impaired, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Alcohol can loosen inhibitions, and sexual encounters can become violent when one or both partners are impaired. Approximately 50% of student sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol. It’s not strangers assaulting unknown victims. Nearly 90% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, research shows.

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Alcohol Is a Sleep Disrupter

Alcohol is used by some people (women and men alike) for its relaxing, sleep-inducing effects. But falling asleep and staying asleep are two very different things—and alcohol actually disrupts the natural sleep cycle, according to the Sleep Foundation, preventing you from going into a deep, restorative sleep called REM. This can lead to a cycle of insomnia (chronic sleep disruptions, night after night). And, of course, using alcohol to get sleepy can eventually lead to alcohol use disorder.

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How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Women should not drink more than one drink per day, per the Mayo Clinic. Just don’t go crazy with the pour to make up for it! A single drink means 12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine, or a cocktail made with 1.5 oz. of spirits. Alcohol can affect every woman differently, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—with food being a mitigating factor. Drunkorexia is an increasingly common condition where either gender (but often women) restricts calories from food to save room for liquid calories from booze. This can lead to disordered eating—and even addiction.

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Recovery Groups Lend Support

The good news? There is help if you or a loved one has developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery are meeting remotely during the pandemic, and slowly adding in-person gatherings. Just like drinking, recovery is no longer a “boy's club”—many women serve as sponsors for other women. “Sponsorship is when a woman who has been through the 12-step process helps another woman by providing supportive trust in friendship," says one member of AA. "It is a critical part of recovery.”

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Meds and Online Trackers Can Help

Medications such as Campral (acamprosate) and Revia (naltrexone) can “help reduce cravings, thoughts of drinking, and irritable, restless feelings that sometimes come with chronic drinking,” says Dr. Garbutt. So can cognitive-behavioral therapy. Research shows how both can help women change their drinking habits. “I've had many patients who struggled with trying to get alcohol use under control. It wasn't until they tried a medication that they succeeded,” Dr. Gabrutt says. For those not ready for an “all or none” lifestyle, online trackers assist you with “mindful drinking,” which asks drinkers to tune into why and how they drink.

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Build New Habits for Better Health

Although excessive alcohol use can be habit-forming, one has the power to form good habits too. Consider swapping that after-dinner wine with an after-dinner walk. Or flip the script on occasion with a non-alcoholic (but colorful and tasty) mocktail. New, fancy drink concoctions minus all the alcohol allow party-goers to celebrate without the mood-altering affects, risks, next-day hangovers, and regrets. And who wouldn’t say “Cheers!” to that?

Lauren Evoy Davis
Meet Our Writer
Lauren Evoy Davis

Lauren Evoy Davis is a lifelong storyteller with a passion for health and wellness. Her writing career has focused on cancer care, supportive care, new therapies, and the interplay of technology and medicine. You can find her at LaurenEvoyDavis.com.