Alcoholism & Addiction

The Effects of Alcohol and Gender Differences

The effects of alcohol use and alcoholism in women set them apart from their male counterparts in many ways. Women become intoxicated faster and progress into alcoholism more rapidly than do men. Women also are more likely to develop alcohol-related health problems more quickly and severely than men, thus making alcoholism, in some ways, a statistically more catastrophic and progressive illness for women than for men.

This has not always been the case. Alcohol use and alcoholism was for many generations considered to be a man’s issue, but this appears to have changed significantly over the past 50 years or so. Since World War II there have been many shifts in the drinking habits and alcoholism rates of women. Several factors seem related to this increase in alcohol use and health-related problems for women. Some of these are:

• more social acceptance of women drinking
• more women in the workplace
• change in social roles of women
• less gender stereotyping

The biological makeup of women has been well documented as increasing their susceptibility to alcoholism and to other alcohol-related health issues. This causes several differences in the effects of alcohol consumption between men and women. For example, one drink of alcohol reacts in a woman’s body closer to the way in which two drinks would affect a man. This leads to quicker intoxication, faster development of alcohol dependence and a faster development of alcohol-related health problems such as cirrhosis, hypertension and alcohol-related brain damage.

Women’s bodies contain less water and more fatty tissue than do the bodies of men. Women also have been found to have less dehydrogenase in their bodies. Dehydrogenase is an enzyme necessary for the breakdown of alcohol. They are typically smaller and have less body weight than men which causes women who drink the same amount of alcohol as men to process it slower, feel its effects longer and to become more intoxicated. All of these factors cause women to become intoxicated quicker and stay intoxicated longer than men thus creating the ideal biological environment for alcohol-related complications.

The health risks of alcohol for women occur even in binge drinking and other patterns of alcohol abuse not just in alcohol dependence and, again, are significantly different than for men. For example, women have a greater risk of developing alcohol-related liver and pancreatic conditions in a shorter amount of time than do men. These conditions are also more likely to be of greater severity in women. In fact, statistically, more alcoholic women die from cirrhosis than do alcoholic men. Other serious health issues that appear to increase for women who drink are incidents of ulcers, osteoporosis, heart disease and reproductive problems. Additionally, women with late stage chronic alcoholism tend to develop alcohol-related health complications such as malnutrition and anemia more quickly than their male counterparts who are also in the same stage of illness.

An additional factor for women is that they tend to drink with their male companions or spouses at a similar rate and volume of intake. This is a social dynamic that also contributes to accelerated effects of alcohol use in women compared to men. It appears that the man in a relationship will very frequently set the pattern of alcohol use for the couple. This may be because a couple who drinks together to achieve intoxication will have to accommodate the male’s slower intoxication rate. A woman who drinks with a male companion regularly will then be susceptible to consuming more alcohol than if she were drinking to intoxication by herself.

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