Why Alcohol Use Has Increased Among Women—And How It Has Affected Them

It turns out that alcohol use for women is more complicated than it might seem.

When she was 40, Amelia Murphy* and her husband moved from Pittsburgh—where she had lots of close friends—to Millburn, New Jersey, where they lived in 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. Murphy usually came home to an empty house, so she'd have some vodka or bourbon to keep her buzz going, and once her husband arrived an hour later, she'd have a glass of wine with him.

Eventually, Murphy 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," Murphy said, who cut way back on her drinking by using a spreadsheet to track how much she consumed. "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."

Statistics have shown that more women are drinking and that they are drinking more, as noted by a March 2019 article in Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. As of October 2020, almost 50% of adult women reported that they had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days, and 13% of women indicated that they binge drank 5 drinks approximately 4 times per month, according to the CDC.

"Drinking has a tendency to escalate—one glass turns into two and then three," said 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."

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 that, because alcohol has become so linked with relaxation, many people don't even think to question their consumption.

What Has Led to Increased Alcohol Use Among Women?

People have long used alcohol to self-medicate; however, it seems that drinking for a sense of relief has affected women significantly. "The pace at which most women live is punishing," said Ann Dowsett Johnston, MSW, 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,* an editorial consultant and single mom in Danbury, Connecticut, said she noticed her drinking increased when she panicked 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," Peterson said. "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," Johnston said. "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 a movie character's appreciation for fine wine and all the happy hours that show up on some reality television shows. "It has reached a saturation point," Johnston added.

What Are Some Unseen Risks of Drinking?

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 of their smaller stature but also due to having less fluid in their bodies, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). As a result, alcohol is more concentrated when it hits the bloodstream.

What's more, women 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 their blood alcohol levels rise more quickly and stay elevated longer, making them 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* 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,'" McCormick said.

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."

In December 2017, McCormick decided to give up alcohol for 100 days—and said that she hadn'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," McCormick said, who soon after joined a gym and took up yoga. "I had no idea how much alcohol was affecting me until I quit drinking."

Indications of Drinking Problems

It's easy to unwittingly slip into a pattern of overindulging. "If you have a hard time controlling the quantity you consume, that can be a sign that you're becoming more dependent on alcohol," said Sharon Wilsnack, PhD, a distinguished professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences who has been studying women and drinking for 20 years.

"Being able to drink more indicates you've developed a tolerance," Wilsnack explained. That's worth noting because escalating use raises the risk of liver damage. You'll also want to pay attention to your ability to stop drinking. "If you find it uncomfortable to give up alcohol temporarily—or you really can't do it—that's a red flag," Wilsnack added.

Drinking alcohol can also have significant effects on your brain and body. Consuming so much in the evenings that it affects your performance or energy the next day is one cause for concern. Additionally, 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, Wilsnack advised.

How To Dial Back on Your Drinking

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 CDC. But it makes sense to approach your alcohol use as conscientiously as you do your diet or exercise routine, said 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?" Warrington added.

Set Specific Limits

Saying, "I'm going to cut back" is too vague, Nowinski said. Instead, define your terms: You could say that you will have alcohol no more than four nights a week. Or you might decide that, on Friday and Saturday, you won't have more than two glasses, and the other nights, you'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," Nowinski explained.

Pay Attention

Noticing alcohol's in-the-moment effects may help you regulate your consumption, said 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," Glaser said. "Tuning in to how you feel can help some people stay within reasonable limits."

Get Guidance

Look into CheckUp & Choices, 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," said 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 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

According to MedlinePlus, cognitive behavior therapy can be effective in terms of 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 US 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, the 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," Warrington said. The experience may surprise you, Warrington added: "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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