Why Alcoholism Looks Different in Women

The most common depiction of an alcoholic is a man who binge drinks and behaves badly — but in truth, alcoholics come in all shapes, sizes and scopes. Women are just as likely as men to suffer negative effects from alcohol use disorder, but the symptoms of alcoholism can look much different in women than they do in men. If you suspect that you or a woman you know is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, this guide may be of immense help.

How Men Experience Alcoholism

Studies show that men are roughly four times more likely to develop alcoholism than women, which adequately explains the typical depiction of an alcoholic as male. Research has yet to explain exactly why men are more likely to experience an alcohol use disorder; likely, it is both genetic predisposition to enjoying the effects of alcohol paired with a social directive to drink more heavily at a younger age.

Some studies have found that men’s brains produce more of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, when they drink than women’s brains do, which might drive them to consume more and more often, leading to a use disorder. Further research found that heavy drinking weakens this dopamine response, compelling men to consume even more alcohol to achieve the good feelings they associate with intoxication. Because men develop alcohol tolerance faster and with greater ease than women, men are much more likely to slip into dangerous drinking habits and use disorders than women are.

In men, alcohol use disorder is defined as consuming more than 15 alcoholic drinks per week. Often, men who are suffering from alcohol use disorder engage in a larger number of risky behaviors, which put themselves and those around them at risk of serious injury or death. For example, drunk men are more likely than drunk women to drive under the influence of alcohol, and men are more likely to become physically violent with those around them.

How Women Experience Alcoholism

Though women experience alcohol use disorder and addiction at lower rates than men, the number of women suffering from the effects of alcoholism is on the rise. Older women, especially, are succumbing in larger numbers to alcohol-related diseases, like cirrhosis and chronic liver disease, likely because societal roles for women are shifting and a long life of hard work and little reward can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like overconsumption of alcohol.

Typically physically smaller than men, women tend to have naturally lower tolerance for alcohol, which means they cannot consume quite as much in one sitting or overall before experiencing negative effects. For women, drinking more than three drinks per day or more than seven in a week is considered disordered use. Women are less likely to engage in risky or violent behaviors while intoxicated; instead, they are likely to fall short of their responsibilities, like work and childcare, and develop strained social relationships. As opposed to men, who may binge drink in public with impunity, women who drink excessively tend to do so alone and continue to socially withdraw as their disorder worsens.

What Women Can Do About Alcohol Use Disorder

Fortunately, alcohol use disorder does not need to be a death sentence — for men or for women. Women who believe that their drinking habits are getting out of control, or people who know women who are developing unhealthy drinking patterns, can turn to trusted alcohol recovery centers for help.

After a woman engages in an alcohol detox, which involves eliminating alcohol from the body in a safe and secure environment, she will be connected with a number of professional therapists and treatment providers to identify the causes of her alcoholism and the best methods for returning to life without returning to alcohol in a dangerous and destructive way. For most alcoholics, total abstinence and lifelong sobriety is necessary for ending alcohol use disorder, but for others, addressing an underlying trauma or comorbidity can allow a woman to develop normal and healthy drinking habits.

Anyone can become an alcoholic, which means anyone can suffer the negative health and social effects of alcoholism. The sooner we recognize the wide breadth of symptoms of alcohol use disorders, the sooner everyone suffering from alcohol abuse can receive treatment.