It turns out our relationship to alcohol is more complicated than it might seem. Here’s a look at why women are drinking more than ever before, and what it means for our health.

By Ginny Graves
March 19, 2019

Six years ago, when she was 40, Amelia Murphy* and her husband moved from Pittsburgh, where she had lots of close friends, to Millburn, New Jersey, a suburb filled with strangers. Murphy’s job as a content manager for a large corporation was demanding, and to unwind, she’d grab drinks with colleagues a few nights a week. She usually came home to an empty house, so to keep her buzz going, she’d have some vodka or bourbon, and once her husband arrived an hour later, she’d have a glass of wine with him.

Eventually, she made friends, and when they got together on the weekends, she’d often end up sipping four or five drinks. “All our social activities revolved around alcohol,” says Murphy, who has since cut way back on her drinking by using a spreadsheet to track how much she consumes. “A part of me felt it was excessive, but alcohol is a quick, easy way to shift gears—and when everyone’s doing the same thing, it doesn’t seem like a problem. It’s just the norm.”

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That’s never been truer than now. The latest stats confirm what most of us who enjoy mimosas with brunch already know. More women are drinking—and women are drinking more. A 2017 study sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism laid out our new pro-booze culture in stark terms: From 2001 to 2013, the prevalence of alcohol use among women in the U.S. rose nearly 16 percent. And during the same time frame, the percentage of women who have four or more drinks on a given day on a weekly basis shot up 58 percent.

Between career and financial pressure, the needs of kids and senior parents, and adjusting to empty nests and aging bodies, life can feel like a high-wire act, and sipping something smooth can ease the strain. The trouble is, now that booze has become so linked with relaxing, many of us don’t even think to question our consumption. “Drinking has a tendency to escalate—one glass turns into two and then three,” says psychologist Joseph Nowinski, PhD, author of Almost Alcoholic. “That doesn’t mean you’re an addict, but you should be aware that you’ve moved from low-risk drinking to a level that’s more dangerous.”

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How We Got Here

People have long used alcohol to self-medicate. But today, more of us need the relief of a buzz than ever. “The pace at which most women live is punishing,” says Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. “You race home from a busy day at the office and have emails from work waiting for you and food to prepare and laundry piling up. The easiest thing to do when you’re standing at the cutting board making dinner is pour yourself a glass of wine. It’s the ultimate decompression tool.”

Anxiety over the times we’re living in may play a role too. Helena Peterson,* 45, an editorial consultant and single mom in Danbury, Connecticut, says she noticed her drinking increased when she became freaked-out over the state of the world: “For a while, it got to the point where I could barely watch the news without a glass of wine,” says Peterson. “I had trouble sleeping and was gaining weight, so I cut back on both the news and the booze. Within a week, I had more energy and felt less anxious overall.”

Cultural forces surely fuel our consumption as well. “Since the mid-1990s, there’s been a ‘pinking’ of the alcohol market, with skinny cocktails and berry-flavored vodkas,” says Johnston. “Now there’s surround-sound messaging in movies and on TV that alcohol is the best way for women to relax and reward themselves.” Consider Olivia Pope’s appreciation for fine wine, and all the happy hours on the Real Housewives franchises. “It has reached a saturation point.”

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The Unseen Risks

A few glasses of cabernet may make you feel warm and fuzzy, but the consequences of routinely over-imbibing are anything but. Women are more susceptible than men to the effects of alcohol, not only because we’re smaller but also because we have less fluid in our bodies. As a result, alcohol is more concentrated when it hits the bloodstream. What’s more, our stomachs have lower levels of ADH, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol and reduces absorption, and the ADH in our livers is less active. That means our blood alcohol levels rise more quickly and stay elevated longer, making us more prone to short-term effects, like slurring and stumbling, as well as longer-term health dangers—including liver damage, heart disease, and cancer.

There are social hazards, too, of course. That’s what led Allie McCormick,* 36, to rethink her habit. She had started drinking more to cope with stress from work and her 90-minute commute on L.A. freeways. “If I was home alone, I’d often open a bottle of wine and finish it. I told myself, ‘I’m an adult, and I can relax in a way that feels good to me,’ ” she says.

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But there was a downside. “I’d get so drunk I’d start bickering with my husband over something silly or text a friend I hadn’t seen in months at midnight saying, ‘You’re my best friend.’ I behaved in ways that made me cringe the next day.” On top of that, McCormick didn’t feel great. “I was often tired, and I had this chronic, low-grade depression. I just felt blah,” she says.

In December 2017, she decided to give up alcohol for 100 days—and hasn’t had a drink since. “A few weeks in, my mood lifted, and I started hopping out of bed in the morning, ready to tackle the day,” says McCormick, who soon after joined a gym and took up yoga. “I had no idea how much alcohol was affecting me, until I quit drinking.”

Has my drinking become a problem?

It’s easy to unwittingly slip into a pattern of overindulging. Here are some hints that your habit may be creeping into the danger zone:

You vow to have just one glass of wine but end up sipping more. “If you have a hard time controlling the quantity you consume, that can be a sign that you’re becoming more dependent on alcohol,” says Sharon Wilsnack, PhD, a distinguished professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Friends mention things you said or did that you don't remember. Alcohol disrupts activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that plays a key role in the formation of new memories, and the more you drink, the more impaired your memory becomes. Blacking out can happen if you imbibe on an empty stomach or you down several drinks in quick succession. But when it’s a regular occurrence, take notice, says Wilsnack, who has been studying women and drinking for 20 years.

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You wake up lots of mornings feeling groggy and fuzzy. Consuming so much in the evenings that it affects your performance or energy the next day is cause for concern.

You used to get a nice buzz from a single G&T. Now you need two. “Being able to drink more indicates you’ve developed a tolerance,” Wilsnack explains. That’s worth noting because escalating use raises the risk of liver damage.

You tried to cut back for a month but couldn't stick with it. “If you find it uncomfortable to give up alcohol temporarily—or you really can’t do it—that’s a red flag,” says Wilsnack. 

Dialing Back

These strategies can help you take a more mindful approach to alcohol.

Most women who drink regularly don’t have a diagnosable substance use disorder—even those who drink daily or binge on four or more drinks on one occasion, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But it makes sense to approach your alcohol use as conscientiously as you do your diet or exercise routine, says Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious. “Many of us go along without thinking about our consumption. Being sober curious means stepping outside that contract and questioning yourself: Do I really want to have a drink right now? What’s the impact to my mental, emotional, and physical health; to my work life; and to my relationships? What would happen if I chose not to drink?”

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If you feel it’s time for a change, here are six tips from experts. Set specific limits. Saying, “I’m going to cut back” is too vague, says Nowinski. Instead, define your terms: I will have alcohol no more than four nights a week. On Friday and Saturday, I won’t have more than two glasses, and the other nights, I’ll stick with one. “Being specific gives you a greater sense of control—and you can pat yourself on the back every time you meet your goal,” he notes.

Pay attention. Noticing alcohol’s in-the-moment effects may help you regulate your consumption, says Gabrielle Glaser, author of Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—and How They Can Regain Control. “I chatted with a woman who tracked her mood and realized that one or two drinks made her feel happy, but a third made her feel morose, angry, and sloppy,” she says. “Tuning in to how you feel can help some people stay within reasonable limits.”

Get guidance. Look into CheckUp & Choices (checkupand choices.com), an online program that can help you assess your drinking and—if you’re interested—develop skills to scale back. “Our studies have shown that with a few simple tools, you can reduce consumption by about 50 percent,” says Reid Hester, PhD, director of research at the organization. The checkup alone costs $34, and the full program is $79 for three months, with a money-back guarantee.

Join a community. Moderation Management (moderation.org) is a free program that starts with 30 days of abstinence and includes a “mutual-help” environment with meetings that you can attend in person or dial into by phone as you work on changing your habits.

See a therapist. Research shows that cognitive behavior therapy is particularly effective at helping people curb their drinking. You’ll strive to identify situations and emotions that trigger your desire to drink—and learn tools to avoid or cope with them.

Socialize in new ways. While women are drinking more, there are signs that as a culture, we may have reached a turning point. The volume of alcohol consumed in the U.S. dropped in both 2017 and 2018—and there are new options for alcohol free social gatherings. For instance, Warrington founded Club SÖDA NYC, an event series for the sober curious that includes parties, meet-ups, talks, and workshops. Likewise, a new app, Loosid, can help you find sober events as well as groups in your community that promote sober living.

Getting together at a bar may be the most obvious way to socialize, but it’s far from the only one. “You can meet friends for coffee or tea or exercise or alcohol-free meals,” says Warrington. The experience may surprise you, she adds. “I was worried about my first sober wedding, but I actually felt good—and, ironically, more confident. I realized I had been outsourcing my confidence to alcohol for years.”

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