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The pandemic may have created a nation of problem drinkers — and many are women

Jan 22, 2022, 2:55 PM
A woman drinks alcohol. Alcohol consumption doesn't help heart risks according to study....
Studies in the past have suggested moderate alcohol consumption can help promote heart health. But not everyone is convinced. Photo credit: Africa Studio/Adobe Stock

(CNN) — For many people, social drinking is a celebrated pastime. At least it was in the good old days — you know, before we began living Covid’s nightmare version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.”

During the pandemic’s repetitive grind, enjoying an occasional glass of wine with the girls has been replaced by Zoom wine hour, or worse, drinking in solitary confinement.

“The data we have shows that drinking is definitely up since the start of the pandemic — around a 14% increase in the number of drinking days per month,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital.

For women, the numbers are even higher, Wakeman said. “There’s actually been a 41% increase in heavy drinking days among women since onset of the pandemic.”

Why would more women be turning to drink than men?

“Studies have shown the complexities of balancing home, work and caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women,” said Dr. Leena Mittal, chief of the women’s mental health division in the department of psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“There’s also a lot of marketing of new alcohol products targeting women and especially moms,” said Mittal, at a time when everyone is watching a lot more TV. Add to that the pre-pandemic “mom wine culture that normalized and, in some ways, even glorified” alcohol, and the line between social drinking and at-risk drinking can quickly “become blurry,” she said.

A tale of lost boundaries

The pandemic has also blurred the boundaries between home and work for many women. Mittal tells the story of one of her female patients who walked home from work in pre-pandemic days.

“She would have a 30- or 45-minute walk that served as exercise, it served as alone time, it served as stress relief,” Mittal said. “She could transition from work to home responsibilities, and in the end, it gave her a buffer.”

But since the pandemic, those lines have blurred. In an effort to create a sense of space for herself, and for her mother who lived with her, Mittal’s patient began to turn to alcohol instead.

“After her kids went to bed, she would have a glass of wine or two with her mother. Sometimes it would be tea, but often it would be wine and it quickly became more than they had been drinking in the past,” Mittal said. “And I think this is a really common story.”

Coping is even harder for those who were already struggling with alcohol and substance abuse before the pandemic began, experts stress.

“It’s like the whole society is on fire, including those who have known mental health and substance use disorders,” Mittal said.

Health dangers of drinking

A higher level of drinking in women is worrisome, Wakeman said, because of the link between alcohol and the risk of female breast cancer.

“Any amount of drinking does increase your risk of breast cancer, and that is a unique risk among women,” Wakeman said. “There really is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to breast cancer.”

There are many more consequences from drinking too much, for both women and men. Accidents and injuries are associated with drinking, even moderate amounts. Domestic violence is often fueled by alcohol, as is child abuse. It also plays a role in myriad health concerns.

“You could have health-related consequences from alcohol use outside of addiction,” Wakeman said. “Like high blood pressure, acid reflux, liver disease and liver injury, which is something we’re seeing a huge increase in, particularly among younger people and women in a way that we’ve never seen before.”

Not to mention the toll on mental health, including depression, anxiety and more.

“A number of studies have shown that increased alcohol use in the pandemic has been associated with increased mental health symptoms, even in people who didn’t have prior diagnoses or prior mental health needs,” Mittal said.

Have you crossed the line?

Man or woman, how do you know if your use of alcohol has crossed to the dark side? One telltale sign is when drinking is beginning to interfere with your ability to go through your daily life, experts say.

“Alcohol use disorder is defined as compulsively using alcohol despite having negative consequences from your use, such as an impact on your relationships, your ability to function in your job or in whatever roles you have in your community,” Wakeman said.

Another sign: You continue drinking despite that negative impact on your physical or mental health. And it doesn’t have to be calling in sick or working with a hangover.

“It can also be not feeling well or having a hard time getting up in the morning,” Mittal said. “And don’t forget relationships. Are you having more disagreements? Are people in your life expressing concern or noting that you’re different? Hiding your drinking, or lying about it, these too are concerning behaviors.”

Here’s a red flag: You’re pouring big drinks without realizing it. Current American Heart Association guidelines call for no more than two standard drinks a day for men and one for women and anyone 65 and older. But just what is a standard drink?

“It’s 12 ounces of a regular beer, four ounces of regular wine or one and a half ounces of liquor if you’re drinking spirits,” Wakeman said. “Yet people may be pouring a huge goblet of wine and not realize that it’s actually two or three servings of wine and not just one.

“We know that millions of Americans drink above those levels, even in pre-pandemic times,” she added. “In 2019, some 66 million Americans had episodes where they were drinking higher than those recommended limits.”

If you (or a loved one) appears to be struggling with alcohol, don’t hesitate to reach out for help, experts stress. There are many different support groups that can assist, such as 12-step programs and individual therapy.

If you find yourself with no true red flag, but want to reduce consumption for your overall wellness, Mittal suggests doing so with compassion.

“We’re all experiencing unprecedented amounts of stress and trauma. Everybody has limits, and we’re all being pushed beyond our limits right now. Self-compassion is really important in all of this,” she said.

“I always worry about people feeling like they’ve done something wrong if they are drinking more than is good for them,” she added. “It’s not a moral failing. If you’re seeing signs that things aren’t going as well as they could, give yourself some grace and focus on self-care instead of drinking.”

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The pandemic may have created a nation of problem drinkers — and many are women