What makes women drink more alcohol than men?

"If we want to help women, we can’t continue to use men-based models for medical research."

 Woman has a drink (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Woman has a drink
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

An occasional drink can be really nice, and for the most part it doesn’t cause health problems. 

But excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many diseases and serious health conditions. So, it’s important to understand the factors, or triggers, that lead different people to such excessive consumption. Without addressing the root of the problem, it’ll be difficult to change consumption habits.

A new study sheds light on one of these triggers, and the significance it has for half of the population. Stress, researchers found, is a much more significant trigger for women in the context of excessive alcohol consumption than for men. 

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, they examined the chances that ordering a soft drink after a stressful day would cause study participants to continue from there and order alcoholic beverages. 

They found that in women this transition is much more common than in men.

Men in general are more likely to develop a drinking problem than women, but researchers say the gender gap is narrowing, and women are more likely to develop diseases due to excessive alcohol consumption. 

"Some people can  drink an alcoholic beverage or two and stop, and in contrast there are people who just keep drinking and can’t stop," Dr. Julie A. Patock-Peckham, an assistant research professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, said in a press release.

She added that the impairment of alcohol control is one of the early markers of alcohol-related disorders, and we know that stress contributes to both impaired alcohol control and regulation. And this area of the effect of stress on the ability to control the amount of alcohol we drink isn’t well researched in women.

Know when to stop

During the experiment, researchers invited 105 men and 105 women to their lab, which they designed to look like a bar, with real barstools, a barman and in general a relaxed bar atmosphere. 

Researchers divided the participants into two groups: those who had had a tension and stress-saturated day, and those whose day was calm. Half of the subjects were served a drink containing the equivalent amount of alcohol for three cocktails, while the other half were served three soft drinks. Afterwards, all trial participants were given free access to the bar and could order any alcoholic drinks they wanted for 90 minutes.

Patock-Peckham added that we know that both heredity and environment have an effect on excessive drinking. We can’t do anything about genetics. But we can change environmental factors.

There is a close link between stress and difficulty controlling alcohol consumption, and since we can influence stress, we wanted to examine whether certain stressors have led to a disruption in the regulation of alcohol consumption.

At the end of the 90 minutes, participants were tested to assess the amount of alcohol they consumed. Their findings showed that exposure to stress led to higher alcohol consumption in all trial participants. 

In men who experienced it, however, a more significant difference was observed in the manner of alcohol consumption between those who started the experiment with an alcoholic beverage (drank more) and those who started it with a soft drink (drank less). Women who experienced a stressful day, though, drank more alcohol whether their first drink was alcoholic or not.

Patock-Peckham concluded that women have enough stress to drink more, but for that to happen to men, they need this initial boost of the first alcoholic beverage, which is why studies like these are crucial. 

"The consequences of alcohol consumption are different for women and men, so we can’t continue to use men-based models if we want to help women,” she said.