Women’s troubled relationship with alcohol is not new just more evident

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Sabrina Almeida

Canada’s chief public health officer is alarmed by the heavy drinking among women across the country. To draw attention to the severity of problem, Dr. Theresa Tam made alcohol abuse the focus of her recently issued 2018 report on public health.

With the opioid crisis and recent legalization of marijuana, Tam is worried that high alcohol consumption, which can be just as deadly, might be ignored. With research showing that the alcohol-attributed death rate for women increased by 26 per cent (compared with a roughly five per cent increase for men) between 2011 and 2017, both Tam and we have every reason to sit up and take notice.

A previous Canadian Institute for Health Information report also pointed out that more girls aged 10 to 19 ended up in hospital for alcohol-related treatments compared to boys of the same age. This indicates the young age at which the problem can start.

Stress and anxiety can cause women to drink excessively. The problem also affects all ethnic groups including South Asians and Indians. Relationship issues, abuse, work pressure and traumatic situations prompt many to seek solace in the bottle. A neighbour and classmate’s mother both widowed in their early thirties, became alcoholics after a string of failed relationships. Refusing to acknowledge that they had a problem, probably out of shame, prevented them from getting the help they needed. A 20-something woman I knew well took to drinking excessively when her parents split up. Another started drinking heavily with her recently-divorced mother in a show of solidarity. All were of Indian origin.

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A significant number of males at the few Al-Anon meetings (support group for anyone affected by another’s drinking) I attended with a friend more than 30 years ago, was a big eye opener for me. Each shared their troubling experiences with a mother, wife or sister’s dependence on alcohol. It was quite hard to digest given my previous notion and experience that it was mostly men who were consumed by it.

Some research links the liberation of women and the erosion of the stigma associated with them drinking to their increased consumption of alcohol. It alleges that women think being equal to men also extends to matching their drinking capacity. Manufacturers have chosen to capitalize on this misnomer and are now targeting this growing segment.

Pop culture further reinforces the perception that drinking alcohol is synonymous with fun and modernism. As a result, girls are trying alcohol at as early as 13, some with the approval of their families.

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It has been quite disconcerting to see young women, many who have just turned 16, put down several glasses of alcoholic beverages at our social gatherings… and their proud parents tout it as a coming of age statement!!!

Binge drinking among women in college and university is also on the rise. I know several who have made bar hopping a regular weekend activity.

The fact is that men and women cannot be equal when it comes to the consumption of alcohol. We have biology to thank for that. Our bodies are more vulnerable because we process alcohol slower. The presence of more fatty tissue than water (which retains alcohol longer), a lower level of the enzyme which processes alcohol and hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle are some critical reasons. This accounts for our quicker intoxication and the higher likelihood of developing liver and brain damage than men. As well as an increased risk of breast cancer.

The UK Institute of Alcohol Studies also highlights links between heavy drinking in women and psychiatric disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal tendencies and eating disorders.

Furthermore, some experts say that with women being more susceptible to alcohol abuse, it is very easy to cross the line of responsible drinking. Given this theory even consuming one drink every day can lead to dependence according to them. Supporting studies indicate that this risk increases as women age, with 50 per cent of the cases of alcoholism in women in the US beginning after the age of 59. Less lean muscle mass and continued loss with age, decreased effectiveness of the liver enzyme which processes alcohol and greater sensitivity of the central nervous system (also age-related) could be reasons why.

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That women are less likely to seek help for the problem adds to the gravity. Most will not acknowledge that they are alcoholics which is the first step to recovery.

Knowing that too much booze can make you hungry, eat more and put on weight might hopefully make some think twice about reaching for frequent refills. Or, that alcohol is a depressant that will tank your mood further rather than elevate it. Neither do you need to drink for “health reasons”.

In the end, substance abuse experts would like women to know that with proper treatment it is possible to recover at any age. It’s never too late to get sober. -CINEWS

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