Alcohol abuse affects women differently than it affects men, even when they drink smaller amounts. There are more health risks for women, including liver disease, breast cancer, and brain damage. While women are just as likely as men to be successful with sobriety, women who abuse alcohol may have more challenges finding accessible treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction.
Risks of Alcohol Abuse for Women
Women don’t have to abuse alcohol to experience increased health risks. Women around the world drink alcohol for many reasons including special occasions, to feel sociable, to unwind, or to have fun with friends or family. Many are able to drink in moderation and have no problems with alcohol, but there are some unique risks to all women. Men are more likely to drink alcohol and have problems than women, but women are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol.
Women develop health issues sooner and after drinking smaller amounts than men. Additionally, women are more likely to drink alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate co-occurring disorders like depression, and anxiety, and stress, negative self-esteem, and negative self-worth.
Women who drink more than moderately (exceeding seven drinks a week) are more likely to suffer car accidents, trauma, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, and suicide. They are also much more likely to go on to develop an alcohol dependence or addiction to alcohol.
Women Who Abuse Alcohol More Vulnerable to Health Risks Than Men
Women are more vulnerable than men to the following health risks:
- Brain damage – Women are more susceptible to brain damage due to alcohol than men, including loss of brain functioning and reduced brain size.
- Liver disease – Women are more likely to develop alcohol-related liver problems like hepatitis and are more likely to die from liver cirrhosis than men.
- Breast cancer – Alcohol abuse also increases a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer.
When compared to women who don’t drink, or who drink moderately, women who are heavy drinkers are more likely to suffer:
- Falls and fractures
- Early menopause
- Infertility issues including miscarriage
- Heart Disease
How Alcohol Abuse Affects Women’s Bodies
Alcohol is metabolized more slowly in a woman’s body than in a man’s. The result is that one drink for a woman has about twice the effect it does for a man. Women also tend to advance from their first drink to alcohol-related problems to dependence and the need for addiction treatment more quickly than men.
There are several biological factors that play a part in making women more affected by alcohol.
- Enzymes – Women have smaller amounts of the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase than men. These enzymes break down alcohol in the stomach and liver. Because levels of these enzymes are lower in women, they absorb more alcohol into their bloodstream than men.
- Body fat – Women’s bodies typically have more body fat and less water than men’s. Body fat retains alcohol and water dilutes it, causing alcohol to remain in women’s bodies at higher levels. This causes the brain and other organs to be exposed to alcohol for longer periods of time.
- Hormones – Hormonal changes that women experience during menstrual cycles may change the way alcohol is metabolized.
The above biological factors explain why women are more affected by alcohol, becoming more intoxicated even when drinking smaller amounts than men.
History of Abuse Increases Risks for Alcohol Abuse in Women
Research has shown that people who experience sexual or physical abuse in childhood have a higher risk of alcohol abuse and addiction. Because women are more likely to have suffered abuse during childhood than men, they are disproportionately affected by alcohol abuse. Additionally, the following are true:
- Women who suffered abuse (physical or sexual) during childhood are much more likely to drink, have negative consequences as a result, and become physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol.
- Physical abuse in adulthood, which affects women more than men, raises the risk of alcohol abuse.
- Alcohol is involved in as many as three-quarters of all rapes and domestic violence against women.
- Women with a family history of alcoholism are more likely than men with the same history to have a problem with alcohol.
Dual Diagnosis and Alcohol Abuse Treatment for Women
Women also face different barriers to seeking treatment than men. Men are more likely to seek help for their drinking problems from alcohol treatment facilities, while women are more likely to go to their primary care doctor or mental health professionals.
Women who abuse alcohol:
- Are reluctant to be labeled alcoholics
- Frequently attribute their issues to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and stress
- May be reluctant to go to a treatment facility due to the stigma attached to women drinking
These things result in women not getting the care and treatment that they need in order to have long-lasting sobriety, even though research shows that they are just as likely as men to recover from alcoholism.
Women experience other barriers to entering treatment programs as well. Some of those include:
- Financial challenges – Women typically have lower paying jobs than men, and may have trouble affording the cost of treatment even if they have insurance.
- Mental health issues – Women may be more likely to seek treatment for mental health disorders than addiction. However, if the conditions are not treated as co-occurring disorders, rates of relapse are very high.
- Childcare – Women with young children often face challenges in finding adequate care for them while receiving treatment. They may also fear that they will lose custody if they admit to having a problem with addiction.
While there are challenges for everyone, but perhaps more for women, in seeking help for alcohol abuse or addiction, there is hope. More and more facilities are providing comprehensive treatment for co-occurring disorders.
Alcohol abuse affects women more harshly than men, but women are every bit as likely to get and stay sober as their male counterparts, so it’s important that they take the right steps and find a facility that can help them get on the road to recovery.
- Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- Women, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The Facts About Women and Alcohol, Univerity of Washington Women’s Health
- Women and Alcohol: The Hidden Risks of Drinking, HelpGuide.org