MELBOURNE: This month, close to 40,000 people in Australia, mostly women, have given up alcohol for FebFast and many others will be participating in Dry July.
These events began as fundraisers for various social causes. But the main reasons people cite for participating are related to personal benefits, including giving their body a break from alcohol and improving their health.
The proportion of young people drinking has decreased over the past ten years. But more women in their 40s and 50s are drinking at risky levels. And women are catching up to men when it comes to drinking at levels that damage health.
Women’s relationship with alcohol has become a hot topic. Many women, including celebrities Nigella Lawson, Kristen Davis and Jada Pinkett Smith, have been vocal about their decisions to reduce drinking to improve their health and well-being.
WOMEN ARE MORE AFFECTED BY ALCOHOL
Women start to have alcohol-related problems sooner and at lower drinking levels than men. If a man and a woman drink the same amount, in general a woman’s blood alcohol concentration will be higher.
Women tend to be smaller and lighter than men; a person who is a lighter weight or who has a smaller body frame will be more affected than someone who weighs more or has a larger body frame. If the same amount of alcohol is going into a smaller body there will be a higher concentration of alcohol.
Even if a man and woman are the same size, women tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and a lower percentage of body water than men.
Dehydrogenase is the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the body. Women tend to have less active dehydrogenase and therefore take longer to process alcohol, so they will get drunk faster and have alcohol in their system for longer.
Women who drink experience health problems sooner and that are more severe than men who drink the same amount.
Even when women are experiencing problems with alcohol, they are less likely to seek help than men. Women represent only one-third of Australians who receive treatment from a specialist alcohol and drug treatment service.
Barriers to women seeking treatment include social stigma, fear of losing their children, and lack of availability of specific programs for women.
HOW IT AFFECTS YOUR HEALTH?
Alcohol can increase the risk of significant health problems, including cancer, brain damage, liver disease and heart disease.
Women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should not drink alcohol at all until the baby is born. If you drink while pregnant, the alcohol can go through your blood and to the baby. This can cause deformities and cognitive damage in the baby, known as fetal alcohol syndrome.
If you are breastfeeding, small amounts of alcohol can go through the breast milk to the baby. It’s better to drink after breastfeeding times rather than before or during.
The idea that a little bit of alcohol is good for your health has also been debunked - which is why Australian alcohol guidelines recommend healthy adults (men and women) should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease.
The guidelines also recommend consuming a maximum of four standard drinks on a single occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury.
The percentage of pure alcohol varies across different types of drinks, so the guidelines convert alcohol to standard drinks. In Australia, a standard drink contains ten grams of alcohol, which equates to 100 ml of wine or 285 ml of regular strength beer or cider (a middy or pot) or 30 ml of regular strength spirit. A cosmopolitan or mojito typically has two or three standard drinks.
SIGNS YOU MAY NEED TO CUT BACK
Are you drinking every day or nearly every day? Daily drinking is associated with dependence. Drinking more than the recommended limits such as more than two drinks on any day is associated with long-term health problems.
If you are needing to drink more to get the same effect, this indicates growing tolerance to alcohol and is an early sign of dependence.
Having difficulty taking a break or cutting back, or drinking more than you intended to, are signs that you have less control over how much you drink.
Are you also finding that drinking is interfering with day-to-day activities on a regular basis, for example being late for work because you have a hangover? Noticing your well-being is affected, for example, you get feelings of anxiety or depression during or after drinking, or you have trouble sleeping?
Alcohol can be relaxing while you are drinking, but it can make anxiety, depression and sleep problems worse. And are you doing things while you are drinking that you later regret?
If so, it’s time to reassess your drinking.
HOW TO CUT BACK
If you’re drinking more than you’d like to, make a plan to cut back. This might include: Setting a limit that reduces health risks; having alcohol-free days every week; having non-alcoholic “spacers” before and in-between alcoholic drinks; sipping your drinks rather than gulping them down.
Slowing your drinking enables your body to process the alcohol and you also end up drinking less; trying drinks with a lower alcohol content.
Eating before or while you are drinking can help slow the absorption of alcohol. At gatherings or meals, don’t feel like you need to keep up with everyone else. You can skip a round or two.
Most women who drink alcohol, even those who drink a little too much, don’t need specialist treatment, but taking a break from alcohol can improve your physical and mental well-being.
If you need help to cut back there are some resources online that may help. Your GP is a good place to start if you have questions or concerns about your drinking.
Nicole Lee is Adjunct Professor at the National Drug Research Institute Curtin University and Director of 360Edge, a specialist evaluation and training consultancy for the alcohol, drugs and mental health. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Conversation.