Gender Issues and Alcoholism in Men & Women
In this article Addiction 411 explains the different issues related to alcoholism in men and women. Below are the contents of this page.
Alcohol is a destructive substance, and in larger amounts, it acts as a poison to the body. The body’s organs, tissues, cells, structure and function become severely impaired and damaged with chronic ingestion. Often the damage cannot be reversed.
There are many factors that determine a person’s response to alcohol and to its effects. Health issues related to alcoholism are all encompassing, but there are certain differences related to the impact of alcohol on women and men.
Genetic, biological, psychological, psychosocial and environmental factors all combine to determine whether a man becomes an alcoholic or not. That means that one man may drink less than another and still become an alcoholic. Despite these differences, statistics and case studies reveal a commonality about men who drink.
Men drink excessively more than women do. In addition, there is a link between alcohol and violence. Although alcohol does not cause violent behavior, it affects that part of the brain that inhibits violent behavior. Without that inhibition, an intoxicated, aggressive man may act impulsively upon his anger. (1)
Beyond an increase in anger and aggressive behavior, men may also have alcohol-related impulse control and the distorted perceptions that can then lead to inappropriate behavior. They engage in higher-risk behaviors as well, such as drinking and driving.
About half of the people with liver disease have no symptoms or non-specific symptoms, such as excessive fatigue. By the time more specific symptoms appear, damage can be severe. Physiology separates men from women in their ability to absorb and handle different quantities of alcohol. Men have more of an enzyme that enables them to metabolize alcohol faster than women.
Excessive and chronic alcohol use has a negative impact on the male reproductive system. Alcohol can interfere with testicular function and can disrupt hormone production. Because of this, the “reduction of male secondary sex characteristics such as facial and chest hair” occurs. (3)
Women do not have to drink as long or as much as men to develop serious illnesses from alcohol. The female body is far more sensitive to alcohol than the male body because of differences in how women process alcohol. Women tend to develop alcoholism later in life than men. (4)
Alcohol affects women differently than men due to their body chemistry. A woman’s body has more fat and less water than a man’s. Women also have less of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol. When a woman drinks, the alcohol absorbed is less diluted and enters the bloodstream at higher concentrations. As a result, women become intoxicated more quickly. (5)
Brain damage from chronic or intense drinking can be profound. While both men and women experience a decrease in both white and grey brain matter due to alcohol consumption, women who are alcohol dependent “exhibit deterioration in planning, visuospatial ability, working memory, and psychomotor speed….Women [also] appear to be at greater risk than men for Alzheimer’s disease…” and are more vulnerable to alcohol related brain damage.
An estimated 4 million women consume large enough quantities of alcohol to threaten their health and safety. The following areas reflect some of physical and social consequences of excessive alcohol consumption for women.
Many healthy women experience fluctuations in hormone levels that contribute to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Alcohol can worsen these conditions because it disrupts the production of hormones. Some studies indicate that women of childbearing age who are heavy drinkers will have problems with infertility.
Both men and women experience cardiac problems like atrial fibrillation, palpitations, stroke and hypertension. However, when alcohol consumption is considered, women with the same level of heart disease as men have consumed only 60 percent as much alcohol. And, women who drink excessively are at greater risk than men for heart damage.
Alcohol places men and women at greater risk than the general public for several forms of cancer. Included within this group is breast cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the greater the intake of alcohol for women, the greater the risk of developing breast cancer.
Gender is a key factor in liver disease (cirrhosis) Women are unable to metabolize alcohol as quickly as men because they lack specific liver enzymes. This is why women feel intoxicated so quickly and why they get sick faster.
While there may not be a direct link between alcohol abuse, depression and obesity, many alcoholic women do struggle with varying degrees from all three conditions.
Traffic Crashes. Although women are less likely than men to drive after drinking … and to be involved in fatal alcohol-related crashes … women have a higher relative risk of driver fatality than men at similar blood alcohol concentrations ... (9)
Victimization. Using data collected in a large general population survey, [researchers] found that women who reported being sexually abused in childhood were more likely than other women to have experienced alcohol-related problems and to have one or more symptoms of alcohol dependence. Another study found that women in alcoholism treatment were significantly more likely to report childhood sexual abuse and father-to-daughter verbal aggression or physical violence compared with women in the general population … (10)
According to the SAMHSA’s Pathway Course Online Fact Sheet on women, violence and alcohol, 85 percent of all “victims of intimate partner violence” are women. The issue of female substance abuse (alcohol and drugs) and partner violence is complicated. Prior physical and verbal abuse often leads to addiction for women, as does living with an active alcoholic or addict.
“Chronic alcohol abuse exacts a greater physical toll on women than on men. Female alcoholics have death rates 50-100 percent higher than those of male alcoholics…”(11)
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