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Women and Alcohol Use: The Pandemic Factor

May 26, 2021

Last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, we all adapted to a new normal. No longer able to connect in person, we moved our lives online.

As with past national disasters and times of increased anxiety and uncertainty, alcohol use went up.

But, as COVID months and quarantines dragged on, social media and other sources normalized (as in “Mommy Juice” T-shirts) and even promoted (as in Zoom “Happy Hours”) alcohol as an integral component of socialization and stress relief.

Alcohol became an accepted way of coping with the anxiety caused by the pandemic. National alcohol sales increased by 54 percent for the week ending March 21, 2020, and online alcohol sales increased by 262 percent. The most striking statistic, however, is a 41 percent increase in heavy drinking by women (twice the increase seen with men).

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), moderate alcohol consumption, an amount determined to be “safe,” is considered one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

During the pandemic, many women have been drinking well beyond the NIAAA guidelines. Concerning given women saw an 85 percent rise in alcohol related death rates between 1999 and 2017.

The unfortunate reality is that women have disproportionately taken on several burdens during the past year. Statistically, women are more likely to have lost their job or be considered essential frontline workers and mandated to work. Additionally, those with children have had to deal with the loss of childcare and homeschooling.

More often than men, women tend to drink when they are experiencing a negative emotional state. A recent study showed that both men and women drank more frequently during the pandemic but that women were drinking in larger quantities.

This is a dangerous trend as women metabolize alcohol slower than men and are much more vulnerable to co-occurring physical and psychological comorbidities. Local and national experts are seeing a significant increase in liver disease, with women driving this spike. Alcohol use is also responsible for one-third of breast cancers and linked to other cancers, cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders.

If you are a woman and have found yourself drinking more frequently during the last year, you are not alone. The important thing to recognize is your reason for drinking and if you are at risk for developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). If you have a psychiatric illness, are drinking beyond the recommended amount per week, or are currently in recovery for alcohol or other substance use, you are more vulnerable to AUD.

If you are at risk for AUD, you can track the amount you are drinking and gradually decrease alcohol consumption. If you start to experience withdrawal symptoms, such as feeling physically ill when you stop drinking, talk to your primary care provider, as you may need medication or professional support in order to safely stop.

Your doctor may work with you to treat the disorder or refer you to a specialized program such as Rushford to receive addiction medicine expertise and psychotherapy (eg. individual and group therapy) to help decrease your drinking.

The past year has been challenging for all of us, but if you are finding yourself turning to alcohol to deal with your stressors, help is available.

Rushford, a member of the Hartford Healthcare Behavioral Health Network, offers a full continuum of addiction and mental health treatment for adults and teens throughout central Connecticut at its locations in Avon, Durham, Cheshire, Glastonbury, Meriden, Middletown and Portland. Click here for more information.

Dr. J. Craig Allen is Medical Director at Rushford and Vice President of Addiction Services for the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.