Alcohol use among women on the rise

How much wine is too much?

Contributed by Shyamala Jagtap, MD

More and more women are coming forward to admit what was once an occasional social indulgence has become a serious alcohol problem. These women are not just talking about enjoying an occasional glass or two of wine in the evening. Instead, it’s more like a habit of three or more glasses each and every night. And perhaps most shocking, the women aren’t the stereotypical alcoholics. They have families and friends, are highly educated, live in nice homes and have fulfilling, successful careers. Recently, two very high-profile women came forward to admit they were alcoholics. Elizabeth Vargas, whose son referred to her nightly wine as “mommy’s juice,” and award-winning writer and editor Ann Dowsett Johnston, who thinks of herself as the “poster child” for a new kind of high-functioning alcoholic.

So why are women drinking so much?

There are many reasons as to why women are consuming more alcohol—parity between themselves and men, stress, depression, and a plethora of alcohol products/advertising geared toward women. The real danger is women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol’s toxic effects.

The effects of alcohol on women.

Women are more vulnerable to alcohol’s toxic effects than menWomen’s bodies have more fat, which retains alcohol, and less water, which dilutes it, so women drinking the same amount as men their size and weight become intoxicated more quickly. Men also have more of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol before it enters the bloodstream. This may be one reason why alcohol-related liver and brain damage appear more quickly in heavy-drinking women than men.

How do I know if I have a problem?

It took a while for both Vargas and Dowsett Johnston to come to the realization that they were drinking too much. Like so many other female alcoholics, they were both very high-functioning, maintaining successful careers and relationships. If you can identify with any of the following scenarios, you may have a problem.  

  • You’ve felt you should cut down on your drinking.
  • People annoy you by criticizing your drinking.
  • You sometimes feel bad or guilty about your drinking.
  • You sometimes have a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover.

If you think you have a problem, its important to get help. If you don’t know whom to turn to, your primary care provider is a good place to start.

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