When it comes to alcohol, drinking and addiction, the differences between men and women are stark. Women metabolize alcohol differently, become alcoholics at a different pace than men and are more susceptible to the dual diagnosis of addiction and mental illness. Women are even triggered to drink by different things than men. Women need to be aware of these differences, as much of the research conducted on addiction has focused on men. Understanding how alcoholism develops in women is crucial to making the right choices about drinking.
Metabolism of Alcohol
Metabolism refers to the chemical processes in the body that break down food and drinks and turn them into energy and waste products. Size is one way in which most men and women differ in terms of alcohol metabolism. Most men are bigger and can therefore metabolize alcohol more quickly than women. But there is more at work than size. An important chemical in the body that breaks down alcohol is called dehydrogenase. Women naturally have less of this chemical. This means that even a man and woman of the same size who drink the same amount will metabolize alcohol at different rates. The woman’s body will break it down more slowly and the alcohol will remain in her body longer.
Alcoholism and Health Risks
Women face greater health risks from drinking and especially from becoming dependent on alcohol. Because women metabolize alcohol differently, they are more likely to develop physical health problems related to drinking, including liver damage and heart disease. Women are also at risk of developing breast cancer when they drink. Even one drink per day elevates this risk.
Drinking and Mental Health
Alcohol addiction is more common in men, but alcoholism combined with another mental illness is more common in women. Depression affects twice as many women as men. Some women have depression alone, but many experience it along with alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Alcohol is a depressant and can trigger depression or make existing depression worse. Women also report having anxiety, low self-esteem and stress from relationships or work at greater rates than men. They often cite these as reasons for drinking.
Everyone who drinks too much has a trigger or multiple triggers. These are situations or feelings that lead to picking up a drink and are a way in which men and women differ in their drinking habits. Women are largely triggered to drink by negative emotions. The most common ones that lead a woman to start an unhealthy drinking habit are depression and stress. Also playing a role is a negative internal voice. This is a voice that tells a woman that she is not good enough and other low self-esteem messages. For men, the triggers to drink are more external. They drink when in social situations or when experiencing peer pressure from others. Men are sometimes susceptible to emotional drinking, but are more likely to be triggered by anger or stress.
It is important for women to understand that drinking and alcoholism can have a devastating impact on their lives. When more women are educated about alcohol, more will make better choices about drinking.