En español | "My career was very fulfilling but also very stressful,” says Debra Henning*, 67, recently retired from a high-powered job as a pharmaceutical company executive. Upon returning home in the evening, Debra would turn to alcohol to relax. “It was difficult shifting gears — transitioning from 100 miles an hour to a more sedate home life,” she says. “A glass or two of wine helped put the stress of the day behind me, to chill out a little.”
Henning isn't alone: A growing number of women seem to be falling into a pattern of heavier drinking. A study published in 2017 in JAMA Psychiatry examining drinking habits among adults in the U.S. between 2001 and 2013, found that high-risk alcohol use — specifically women consuming four or more drinks in a day, on a weekly basis — rose about 58 percent. And while men drink more than women, research indicates that the gap between the genders is narrowing.
Why we're drinking
What's behind the imbibing? Well, stress, for starters. In an increasingly go-go world, we're looking for a way to unwind, and a glass of vino is often just the ticket. Women are also twice as likely to suffer from mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety — two common triggers for popping the cork — than men. And those of us who are 50 and older may be facing down menopause and fears of aging, dealing with the loneliness of an empty nest, grappling with the loss of a spouse or end of a marriage through divorce, or struggling with caring for an elderly parent.
Women and Drinking: How Much Is Too Much?
Moderate drinking: up to one drink a day
Heavy drinking: more than three drinks on any day
Defining a drink: A standard glass of wine is 5 ounces at about 12 percent alcohol, one beer is 12 ounces at about 5 percent alcohol and a shot has 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits at about 40 percent alcohol.
—National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
"In our 50s and 60s, we're adjusting to changes to lifestyle and in family life,” says Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. “It's easier to reach for a glass of wine, if you're stressed or depressed, than it is to see a doctor."
And let's face it: Alcohol is a terrific social lubricant. “Women are more likely to endorse the relational effects of drinking,” says Sharon Wilsnack, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “It makes us feel closer to other people.”
Slick marketing campaigns have made it easy, prodding us to pour. “We have seen a significant uptick since the mid-1990s in what I call ‘pinking of the market,’ which focuses on products designed to appeal to women,” says Johnston. You'll find everything from cotton candy-flavored vodka to wineglass holders designed to suction onto the tub wall so you can get sauced as you soak.
"It's all very glamorized,” Johnston notes, “but alcohol marketing never shows the runny mascara the next day, the heaving stomach. There are downsides to drinking we don't talk about."
How alcohol affects us
Women generally have a higher proportion of body fat than men, who possess more muscle mass. Because muscle contains more water than body fat, men are able to absorb more of the alcohol they consume.” In other words, if a man and woman of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, a woman's blood alcohol concentration will be higher, says George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
That means it takes less time and less alcohol for women to get intoxicated and experience the bad effects of booze. That risk intensifies as we age because the water content in our bodies starts to dwindle even more as we begin to lose muscle mass.
The result: Women are at a greater risk for a laundry list of alcohol-related diseases when drinking more than a moderate amount — among them cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke and certain types of cancer. And those who regularly misuse alcohol are also more likely to develop liver disease than men.
And then there's breast cancer. A 2017 report found that drinking the equivalent of one glass of wine, beer or other alcohol a day is linked to an increased breast cancer risk of 9 percent for postmenopausal women. “If you stick with low-risk amounts, by and large, unless you have other things going on, the risk is small, but it's not zero,” says Richard Saitz, a primary care physician and professor at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health.
Booze also doesn't play nice with a lot of medications women may be taking, putting them at risk for a host of dangerous reactions. “Antianxiety pills, like Xanax and Valium, can enhance the effects of alcohol and impair your alertness and ability to balance, putting you at risk for falling,” says Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director at the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at the NYU Langone Health medical center.
When drinking becomes a problem
It can be hard to tell when you've crossed the line from use to misuse. Be frank with yourself about your relationship with alcohol and the function it has in your life. “A glass of wine after work or before dinner is one thing,” says Wilsnack. “But if you're starting to rely on it — for example, you need it to socialize or to be sexual or treat it like a crutch — that's a warning sign.”
Take a test: Try cutting back, or, more revealing, try not drinking for three or four weeks and see how you feel, says Wilsnack. “If you're gritting your teeth to make it through, that's a warning sign that alcohol is becoming too important.”
While women's drinking has increased, so have their recovery options. Many have found success with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but others have sought what they believe is a more women-centric approach. Hence enthusiastic all-women support networks at sites such as Sexy Sobriety, run by the Australian Rebecca Weller (author of the 2016 book A Happier Hour), Soberistas and Hip Sobriety.
Find more help through the nonprofit Women for Sobriety, which offers online and in-person support groups; and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Helpline – 800-662-HELP (4357), and treatment locator (FindTreatment.gov).
Read the Full Series on Alcohol and Your Health