Responses To Alcohol: How Do Men And Women Differ?

There are some surprising differences between men and women and not only how they respond to alcohol consumption, but also why they begin drinking in the first place. Until recently, alcohol consumption by women was not as acceptable as it is today, so recent increases in alcohol use by women while expected, affords some unique insights into the physiological factors and gender roles within society that contribute to women drinking.

Physiological Differences Between Men and Women

Physically, women and men are different. Women are generally smaller than men, with less overall body weight. Though smaller, they have higher storage of body fat than men. Alcohol is stored in body fat, so women retain more alcohol than men, leading to longer effects of alcohol when drinking. Additionally, alcohol resides within the water in our bodies (mostly within our blood). Being smaller, women generally have less water and consequently experience higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood when consuming similar amounts to their male counterparts.

Another key difference between genders is that men benefit from increased production of the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme, which helps break down alcohol before it even reaches the bloodstream, making them more tolerant to alcohol consumption.

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External Influences on Gender and Alcohol Consumption

Many external influences appear to factor in alcohol consumption and its impact on genders. The most evidence comes from the marketing of alcohol to men and women. Both the beer and wine industries have their target audiences and it shows in corresponding consumption between genders. Men, who represent the target audience of the beer industry, consume more beer than women.

Similarly, in the 1970s, as it became more socially acceptable for women to purchase alcohol, they became the new target audience for the thirsty wine industry and subsequently are the primary consumers of wine in the United States.

Alcohol Addiction in Women

Women today are drinking more than ever before, and this increase is occurring across ethnic divides. In the past decade, emergency rooms treating women who have consumed alcohol in excess rose by more than 50% in the United States, while the number of women seeking treatment for alcohol dependency tripled.

The resulting increase in women facing alcohol addiction is a growing body of literature on the topic of alcoholism in women. One notable difference between women and men consuming alcohol is how they begin using the drug.

In a recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) study examining gender and alcohol consumption, it was noted that women tend to deliberately ponder stress and fear-based imagery longer than men, evoking a higher incidence of anxiety. Another study noted a stark contrast between men and women suffering from alcohol dependency with nearly 75% of women coming from backgrounds of sexual or physical violence compared with only 27% of men. While men tend to begin drinking socially, women appear to consume alcohol as part of a coping strategy to handle stress and anxiety.

The overall experience of drinking between genders appears to differ significantly as well. Women tend to report feeling more feminine or sexier after drinking, while men reported feeling powerful.

Women, who have a lower tolerance to alcohol, tend to develop a dependency on the drug faster. Due to higher concentrations of alcohol in the bloodstream by drink, they are also more likely to develop adverse health effects from alcohol, than men.

Alcohol Addiction in Men

Men are more likely to engage in drinking to model after others who drink, or in giving in to pressure from peers who encourage them to consume alcohol in social settings. Men tend to express feelings of empowerment with alcohol consumption and may drink to feel emboldened in social situations.

Men who have high expectations of performance, whether from their own perceptions or from those of family, are far more likely to drink to regain a sense of confidence from the effects of alcohol.

Men are more often exposed to media images of men drinking, leading many young and underage males to believe drinking is not only safe but also an appropriate behavior.

Rates of alcoholism among men are significantly higher than among women and young men are far more likely to engage in binge drinking and suffer the resulting health and legal consequences.

Alcohol-Related Health Risks for Women

  • Women who drink at least one glass of alcohol per day are more likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not consume alcohol.
  • Women who drink suffer greater risks of heart disease and liver inflammation than men.
  • It takes less alcohol to affect a woman, than a man, making women more vulnerable to sexual assault and other alcohol-related violence or disease.
  • Women who drink alcohol regularly may experience changes in their menstrual cycle.
  • Since one in two women who consume alcohol are of childbearing age, women face an increased risk in unintended pregnancy and health risks to babies born to drinking mothers.

Alcohol-Related Health Risks for Men

  • Men who consume alcohol are more likely to commit suicide than women who consume similar quantities.
  • Alcohol abuse can cause sexual dysfunction as well as reduced fertility in men.
  • Men are likely to behave more aggressively while drinking, increasing the risk of physical or sexual assault and related legal consequences.
  • Men are significantly more likely to be involved in and injured or killed in motor-related accidents than women when they drink.
  • Men are more likely to engage in binge drinking, which carries a whole host of adverse health effects including brain damage, ulcers, nerve damage, and increase in the risk of stroke and other cardiovascular complications.
  • Men tend to see elevated blood pressure before women when consuming alcohol.

Treatment Outcomes for Women and Men Vary with Type of Treatment

One significant difference between men and women and alcohol consumption is in their access to treatment for alcohol addiction. Women face a host of barriers in seeking treatment that includes economic factors and family obligations. Women tend to require more assistance in terms of housing and transportation as they enter and follow up with a treatment for alcohol abuse.

Today, treatment facilities are broadening their scope to include childcare services, gender-matching therapists with participants, and some facilities are now gender-specific. Generally, treatment outcomes are similar between men and women when the consistency of care is upheld.

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