Women and Alcohol: Risks, Effects & Treatment

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Last Updated - 05/08/2024

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Updated 05/08/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that women and girls are consuming alcohol at higher rates, with concerning patterns of alcohol use and misuse.
  • Women face unique health risks from alcohol, including liver disease, brain damage, heart disease, breast cancer, infertility, pregnancy complications, and mental health disorders.
  • Physiological differences make women more sensitive to alcohol’s effects, leading to higher blood alcohol concentrations and a higher risk of health problems.
  • Alcohol use during pregnancy can result in serious complications for both the mother and the fetus, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
  • Alcohol misuse can exacerbate social issues for women, including domestic violence, mental health disorders, and economic insecurity.
  • Effective treatment for women with alcohol use disorder (AUD) should be gender-responsive and may include psychotherapy, medication-assisted treatment, support groups, and holistic approaches tailored to women’s unique needs.

Both Women and Girls Are Drinking More

Studies indicate that women and girls are increasingly using and misusing alcohol. While this could be a reflection of societal changes that have made women more comfortable with sharing their drinking habits, there are still many concerning points of data when it comes to patterns in women’s alcohol consumption. 

  • Data from the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) showed that around 9% of women aged 18 and older had an alcohol use disorder in the past year.
  • 47% of adult women reported drinking alcohol in the last month.
  • Around 13% of adult women claimed to binge drink. 25% of these women reported binge drinking weekly, and 25% have at least six drinks during a binge drinking session.
  • Nearly 18% of women ages 18 to 44 (child-bearing age) binge drink. 
  • 10% of pregnant women drank alcohol during their pregnancy, while 4.5% engaged in binge drinking.
  • In 2021, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that 27% of female students currently drank alcohol. While there was a 12% decrease since 2011, this is still 8% higher than their male counterparts.

Alcohol’s Unique Physical Health Risks in Women

Women face unique health challenges related to alcohol consumption, which manifest in various physical health risks. 

  • Liver disease: Women with regular alcohol misuse are more prone to developing alcohol-associated hepatitis and cirrhosis, a form of permanent liver damage.
  • Brain damage: Studies show that women develop alcohol-induced brain damage more rapidly than men and adolescent girls who binge drink may experience greater cognitive impairments compared to their male counterparts. 
  • Heart disease: Women are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease than men, even with lower levels of lifetime alcohol consumption. 
  • Breast cancer: Alcohol consumption may increase the risk of breast cancer. For each additional drink per day, the risk climbs significantly, suggesting a dose-response relationship between alcohol intake and breast cancer incidence.
  • Infertility: Chronic drinking can impact the menstrual cycle, ovulation, and overall fertility. Excessive alcohol use can also cause premature menopause.
  • Pregnancy complications: Heavy drinking and binge drinking have been linked to various pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm deliver, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). 
  • Mental health disorders: Alcohol can significantly impact a person’s mood and emotional stability. While some women may report temporary relief from stress or anxiety after drinking, this is often followed by mood swings and emotional instability.

Why Women Are More Sensitive to Alcohol’s Effects

Women are generally more sensitive to the effects of alcohol compared to men due to several physiological differences that affect how alcohol is processed in the body. Here are some key factors contributing to this increased sensitivity:

  • Body water content: Women typically have a higher percentage of body fat and a lower percentage of water compared to men. Since alcohol is water-soluble, it becomes more concentrated in a woman’s body, leading to higher blood alcohol concentrations from the same amount of alcohol.
  • Metabolizing enzymes: Women have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme in the stomach that helps metabolize alcohol before it enters the bloodstream. This reduced enzyme activity means more alcohol reaches the blood and remains there longer, enhancing its effects.
  • Hormonal variations: Hormonal fluctuations, particularly of estrogen and progesterone, can affect the metabolism of alcohol. For instance, higher estrogen levels can slow down the rate at which the body processes alcohol, increasing its impact.

These physiological differences not only make women more vulnerable to the intoxicating effects of alcohol but also contribute to a higher risk of developing alcohol-related health problems over time.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Alcohol consumption can lead to a range of reproductive health issues, including fertility problems and risks during pregnancy. Excessive alcohol use is known to increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery. Moreover, alcohol exposure during pregnancy can result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which encompass a variety of developmental, cognitive, and behavioral problems in the offspring.

Pregnant women are advised to abstain from alcohol entirely, as no safe level of consumption has been established for this population. Alcohol exposure during pregnancy can lead to a spectrum of adverse developmental outcomes for the fetus, including fetal alcohol syndrome.

Alcohol and Breast Cancer Risk

Alcohol consumption has been identified as a significant risk factor for breast cancer. According to research, even moderate drinking can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute notes that the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Studies have shown that women who consume about three alcoholic drinks per week have a 5 to 9% higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who do not drink at all. This risk appears to increase for each additional drink women consume each day.

Various mechanisms are thought to contribute to the increased risk. Alcohol may increase estrogen levels, which is a known promoter of breast cancer growth. Additionally, alcohol can lead to oxidative stress and generate harmful byproducts like acetaldehyde, which can damage DNA and proteins essential for cellular health. 

The National Cancer Institute also highlights that alcohol’s impact on the body’s ability to absorb and use various nutrients, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, folate, and carotenoids, could also play a role in the development of breast cancer.

Alcohol Misuse and Domestic Violence

Alcohol’s impact on women’s vulnerability to domestic violence is significant. Women in abusive relationships often have higher rates of substance misuse, and those who have been victims of IPV are at an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorders (AUDs), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. These mental health issues may lead to alcohol as a maladaptive coping mechanism, further entrenching the cycle of abuse and substance use.

It’s crucial to understand that while alcohol can distort reality and judgment, potentially leading to an overreaction to situations, it does not justify or cause abusive behavior. Nevertheless, alcohol use can play a role in the dynamics of domestic violence, emphasizing the need for targeted interventions to address both substance use and domestic violence simultaneously.

Treatment Approaches for Women with Alcohol Use Disorder

To address AUD in women, it’s important to understand the specific challenges they face. Treatment options for women with AUD should take into account social pressures, expectations, and personal experiences that may affect their recovery. Research shows that women often have more severe clinical issues at the beginning but can achieve comparable short-term outcomes to men when engaged in mixed-gender programs. Therefore, treatment options for women with AUD should be multifaceted and gender-responsive.

Women-only rehabilitation programs with female-specific content have been shown to provide numerous benefits, including a supportive environment free from gender-based distractions. These programs focus on evidence-based interventions tailored to women’s unique needs, such as coping with negative emotions and enhancing social networks supportive of abstinence. Gender-specific treatment often leads to higher retention rates and better post-treatment outcomes in terms of substance use and criminal activity reduction.

Effective treatment options for women with AUD include individualized treatment plans that may consist of 

  • Psychotherapy
  • Detoxification
  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Support groups
  • Holistic approaches such as acupuncture, yoga, and art therapy
  • Dual-diagnosis treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders like depression and anxiety
  • Transportation assistance and childcare

Individually-Tailored Alcohol Addiction Treatment for Women

Getting help for alcoholism at The Recovery Village Columbus can greatly improve the chances of overcoming alcohol addiction. The center’s team of professionals works closely with each patient to create and continuously adjust treatment plans that ensure long-term success.

The Recovery Village Columbus offers several treatment options, including medical detox, inpatient rehab, and more, to provide you with personalized care at our Joint Commission-accredited facility. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to take the first step toward living an alcohol-free life.


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