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Do moms need too much wine? Women's drinking habits spark concern

September is National Recovery Month. Women are at greater risk for some of the negative effects of alcohol, but their drinking is catching up to men.
Woman with Alcohol
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/ Source: TODAY

As Dana Bowman’s family grew, so did her appetite for alcohol.

Bowman, who lives in Lindsborg, Kansas, didn’t drink much in high school or college, and occasionally enjoyed alcohol in her 20s. But she began drinking more when she got married and her “affair with alcohol” hit its lowest point when she had children, she wrote in her blog.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, especially as a parent,” Bowman, 47, who is the author of “Bottled: A Mom's Guide to Early Recovery,” told TODAY.

Anxious that she didn’t know how to raise kids “perfectly,” Bowman turned to alcohol, hiding bottles in her closet, her boots and in the laundry room because “that's safe — my husband never went in there,” she said.

White wine was her drink of choice — the perfect camouflage since it would seem impossible to the outside world that a mom of two could become an alcoholic if she was just drinking a lovely vintage, Bowman noted. She was relieved to find many parenting groups on Facebook considered wine to be “medicinal” — a perfectly normal part of a harried mom’s routine.

At her worst, Bowman drank about a bottle of wine a day, sometimes imbibing additional drinks, perhaps a cocktail or two, she recalled.

‘A real shift’

Experiences like Bowman’s have experts concerned.

“Alcohol use is increasing among women in the United States at a time when it’s decreasing among men,” said Aaron White, a biological psychologist and senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “There has been a real shift.”

One recent study found women are now drinking almost as much as men, closing a historically wide gap.

Another study found rates of binge drinking increased by 17.5 percent among women between 2005 and 2012, but rose just 4.9 percent among men for that same period.

The rate of alcohol-related visits to U.S. emergency rooms spiked by almost 50 percent between 2006 and 2014, especially among women, the government announced in January.

From 2000 to 2015, death rates for chronic liver disease and cirrhosis — often associated with alcohol abuse — increased 57 percent for women 45 to 64 years old, and 18 percent for women ages 25-44, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Problem drinking rose by 83 percent among women between 2002 and 2013, according to a study published last year in JAMA Psychiatry, an increase the authors called “alarming.”

What’s going on?

Researchers say they can only speculate.

With many women delaying marriage and children, they’re extending their young adulthood — traditionally the risk period for alcohol problems — which can set a pattern of alcohol consumption patterns for years to come, said Katherine Keyes, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Then, there’s the role of industry and alcohol advertising. More wines and spirits are being marketed towards women: Is that a response to demand, or is it driving demand? Keyes suspects it’s a combination of both.

Women also often face “having-it-all” stress: The pressure to have beautiful, perfect children; a wonderful family and a “perfect life in multiple dimensions,” said Sharon Wilsnack, an expert on drinking behavior in women and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of North Dakota.

Research suggests that while men tend to use alcohol for its positive reinforcement — they drink to party, “get wasted,” have fun; women are more likely to turn to alcohol for its negative reinforcing effects — to decrease feeling bad, and temporarily melt away some anxiety and stress, White said.

For some, boozing it up may send a message of freedom. “I think the gender equality issue is huge… [they demonstrate] ‘Look, we can be just as gross as the guys can. We can get just as drunk and be as obnoxious as they are,’” Wilsnack said.

Meanwhile, social media posts can make it look like it’s perfectly normal to sip chardonnay all day long: “The more of your friends who are drinking wine in the middle of the day… the more you see that, the more normalized it becomes to you and the more you’re likely to engage in it,” Keyes said.

All the buzz about wine can give it an aura that it’s somehow different from other booze. You can buy art, T-shirts, mugs devoted to wine. Wilsnack said she was taken aback when one of her grandkids gave her a giant wine glass with “Nana” engraved it for Christmas. In fact, wine glass capacity has increased sevenfold in 300 years, one study found, and some companies are selling wine-holder necklaces to make wine drinking more convenient.

“It can create an expectation that [wine] is not only good and safe, but fun and healthy,” White said. “There’s a risk of glorifying one of the delivery mechanisms of alcohol… It’s still alcohol, no matter how good it tastes or how pretty it is.” Women now drink most of the wine — 57 percent — in the U.S., according to Wine Market Council and Nielsen data.

Alcohol affects women differently

Too much alcohol is a serious health issue for women, all of the experts agreed. The U.S. government advises that if alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation — defined as up to one drink per day for women and two for men, though a recent study found no amount of alcohol is safe for either sex.

But because women tend to weigh less and have less water in their bodies than men, they are more vulnerable to the same amount of alcohol. So if they’re drinking like the guys, it’s probably taking more of a toll on their bodies, Wilsnack said.

Alcohol increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast among women, the CDC warns. Women who drink are also more vulnerable to brain and heart damage than men.

Inflammation of liver from drinking and an unhealthy relationship with alcohol progress more quickly in women than men, White noted.

Do you have a problem?

Trouble signs can include spending a lot of time drinking; finding that alcohol interferes with your work or home life; or being unable to socialize without alcohol. You can find a checklist on the Rethinking Drinking website.

Any dependence that makes you say “I have to have it every night when I come home from work” is worrisome, Wilsnack said. Try going a week without alcohol and see how you feel, she suggested. Many people feel better — they sleep better and lose weight. But if you really miss it or can’t do it, that would be a red flag, Wilsnack said.

If you think you’re drinking too much, Keyes emphasized there are safe, effective treatments that don’t require going away for 30 days and disrupting your life.

A first step may be asking your doctor: What does healthy drinking look like for me?

Bowman, the Kansas mom who once drank a bottle of wine a day, finally decided she had had enough. She stopped drinking in 2011, had a week-long relapse, but has now been sober since New Year’s Day 2014.

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