Women and Alcohol – the Unique Health Risks
According to the CDC, nearly half of adult women report drinking alcohol. 13% of adult women, and 18% of women of child-bearing age binge drink. Females in their teens and early twenties drink/binge more than their male counterparts. In fact, the gender gap is closing on women of all ages, and the impact of COVID-19 has amplified their drinking patterns and mental health concerns. Given that excessive alcohol use is associated with more than 27,000 deaths among women each year, the rise in alcohol consumption among women and girls is a concerning trend.
The Unique Health Risks Women Face with Substance Use
Women have unique issues with substance use that make them more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. It is notable that 15% of women report they have used illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs as well. Drugs and alcohol uniquely impact a woman’s hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy and menopause. And women suffer the health consequences of alcohol more quickly than men (even with lower levels of consumption).
Although men tend to drink more than women, biological differences in body structure and chemistry cause most women to absorb more alcohol than men and metabolize it more slowly. The effects of alcohol occur more quickly and last longer for women. Hence, women are more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol than men.
Unique Health Risks
Women are impacted by diseases, injuries and harms associated with alcohol:
Shrinkage of the brain and cognitive decline develop more quickly in women than men.
Women have a higher risk of cirrhosis and other liver diseases than men.
In women, the risk of damage to the heart muscle occurs at lower levels of alcohol consumption and over fewer years than men.
Alcohol is associated with mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and colon cancer. In women there is an added risk of breast cancer (even at low levels of alcohol use).
Excessive alcohol use increases the risk of infertility, fetal alcohol syndrome, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and sudden infant death syndrome. There is no know safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy.
Sexual and Domestic Violence
According to the CDC, “Excessive alcohol use, particularly binge drinking, is a major contributing factor to sexual violence. Changes in alcohol-related policies can reduce sexual violence in communities.”
Substance Use Disorder
Women have a greater risk for hangovers and blackouts. Similarly, women progress more quickly than men from first using alcohol to developing an addiction, a phenomenon known as telescoping.
Gender Responsive Treatment
Why are women drinking more? To cope, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). In fact, women are more likely to drink to cope with stress than men. And those who drink to cope have a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder – a double whammy for women.
And even though women are drinking more and closing the gender gap, they are still less likely to enter treatment. But when they do enter treatment, research shows that women have better outcomes when they are in women-only facilities. Gender specific treatment focuses on mental health and trauma, rekindling of relationships and education about the gender specific aspects of addiction.
Having gender-specific treatment allows us to craft evidence-based programming tailored to the emotional, relational, and psychological needs of women. This increases engagement in treatment, and allows us to quickly uncover the underlying causes of substance misuse and disorder.
Rae Green, JD, LPC, CAADC, Founder Sanford Behavioral Health
At Sanford House at Cherry Street for Women, our priority is individualization. We understand that each person who comes through the door has needs, obstacles, priorities, and strengths that are unique to them. The Cherry Street residents and their therapists work collaboratively to establish an individualized plan for treatment and beyond. Every recovery journey is special. We have a deep level of respect for the diversity in perspectives, experiences and ideals about sobriety and health. We want our female gendered clients to be able to focus on issues that are akin to their recovery needs and journey.