Even though it’s understood there are some gender differences when it comes to the nature of addiction, most people don’t realize that an addiction—especially alcohol addiction—tends to have a more profound negative effect on women than men. Therefore, it is increasingly important to be more informed about how alcohol addiction negatively affects women’s health.
Size Doesn’t Matter But Gender Does
Women are more prone to alcohol addiction for a variety of reasons. For starters, men tend to contain more body water than women, which is why women can’t handle their alcohol as well as men. Because alcohol has hydrophilic properties (which means it easily dissolves in water), women will have a higher blood alcohol level than men who drink the same amount, and the alcohol will last longer in women than men.
Also, dehydrogenase, an enzyme found in the stomach and liver responsible for breaking down alcohol for elimination from the body, is also less active in women than it is in men. Therefore, it’s no surprise that a woman’s encounter with drinking alcohol will have a more toxic effect on her body than it would for a man drinking the same amount. Unfortunately, this also means each time a woman drinks, she’s causing damage to her organs—especially when she becomes intoxicated.
Whether we realize it or not, it causes more health problems for women than men when women consume alcohol. For starters, women are more prone to suffer from cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer or other liver diseases. Brain damage like memory loss and brain shrinkage can also occur—even if the woman has only had brief episodes of binge drinking. Breast, mouth, colon, esophagus and throat cancer have been reported in women frequently consuming excess alcohol, and some women experience heart conditions from excessive alcohol use.
Although some people consume alcohol to help them sleep, it will eventually stop working as a sleep aid because it interferes with the neurotransmitters that help people get to sleep. Women can also suffer from malnutrition, dehydration, malabsorption, hair loss and hormonal issues from consuming excess alcohol.
A woman’s reproductive system is compromised when consuming excess alcohol. For example, her menstrual cycle can become irregular. She may become sterile, and the odds of having a miscarriage increase from excessive alcohol use. Also, women tend to experience more episodes of unprotected sex while intoxicated which increases their likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Developing an addiction later in life, but more rapidly
Women experience a telescoping effect when they become addicted to alcohol. Although women tend to start alcohol abuse later in life than most men, the development of Alcohol Use Disorder is more accelerated for women. Unfortunately, health concerns develop at an accelerated rate also. In other words, women may start drinking excess alcohol at a later age in life than men, but women end up developing Alcohol Use Disorder and health consequences at a faster rate than men.
In studies concerning accelerated progression and alcohol, cannabis and opioid use among women, it was found that women experience a heightened rewarding effect on the brain when using these substances. There is also a heightened impact on women’s hormones when consuming substances like alcohol which may explain why women tend to have more intensified cravings for alcohol than men (even when they have already had an excessive amount). As reported by Dr. Barbara Krantz in a post last year, Alcohol Use Disorder among women has been steadily rising since 1990.
Getting help and raising awareness
Education about the harmful effects of women’s alcohol use needs to be made accessible to youth and to women undergoing Alcohol Use Disorder treatment and recovery. Unfortunately, many women who need treatment won’t get it because of financial issues and/or poor mental health and psychological healthcare coverage. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important to ensure women have better access to educational materials and healthcare services to eliminate any social stigmas and gaps in treatment. Also, more awareness of the unique effects of women’s alcohol use is needed to create evidence-based treatment services for increased recovery success.
Editor’s Note: Increased social promotion of alcohol use and increased instances of anxiety among women has caused an increase in deaths among middle-aged women in the United States. According to reports by the Washington Post and NPR concerning the “Sober Curious” movement, an initiative created to encourage a cessation of alcohol use while undergoing treatment and recovery, people are rapidly changing their perceptions of alcohol abuse and are becoming more aware of the health effects and trends related to alcohol use and alcohol-related deaths.