Women & Binge Drinking: Our Comprehensive Guide

Editorial Team

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Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), to give it its medical title, is defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disorder.” Just like other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease or hypertension, if the condition is left untreated, it will worsen in nature, for both women and men, and may possibly result in death.

However, many AUD sufferers, or those with another significant alcohol problem, often believe they do not actually have a diagnosed disease, or that they require medical treatment to improve such a diagnosis.

In fact, in the 2013 National Survey of Drug Use & Health (NSDUH) study, it was reported that of those who needed addiction treatment and didn’t receive it, approximately 95.5% didn’t think they had a medical issue or problem in the first place. That’s nearly all of them.

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A more disturbing image of the nation’s alcohol use, and, in particular, the rise in prevalence of AUD, came in 2017, with the publication throughout mainstream media of the study in JAMA Psychiatry which reported that cases of AUD rose by a deeply concerning 49% in the first decade of the 2000s, resulting in 1 in 8 U.S. citizens (or 12.7%) meeting the diagnostic criteria for the disease.

The authors of the study stated that alcoholism is a significant catalyst in mortality for both men and women from a wide array of ailments, such as “fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)*, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, liver cirrhosis, several types of cancer and infections, pancreatitis, type 2 diabetes, and various injuries.”

Note: FASDs are a group of conditions that can occur in someone whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy, resulting in various  physical problems, as well as behavior and learning difficulties. These are discussed in detail later in this article.

Binge drinking in the U.S.

Furthermore, the number of deaths from these conditions, particularly alcohol-related cirrhosis and hypertension, have risen concurrently over the study period. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 88,000 people a year die of alcohol-related causes, which is more than twice the annual death toll from opiate overdose.

In this article, we’ll discuss the following aspects of women and binge drinking, including physical health dangers, particularly for pregnant women, and the social dangers and risks:

  1. Alcohol Use & Misuse by Women in the U.S.
  2. What is Binge Drinking?
  3. Why is Binge Drinking Physically Dangerous for Women?

Alcohol Use Disorder: The Clinical Definition

AUD is clinically defined as:

A chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”

AUD ranges between mild, moderate, and severe subclassifications, and recovery is possible – regardless of severity. Because alcoholism is classified as a mental health disorder, its definition and diagnostic criteria are found in the 5th. Edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

1. Alcohol Use & Misuse by Women in the U.S.

Before we look at the topic of binge drinking among women, let’s first see how alcohol use and misuse in the U.S. is distributed between the sexes. As you look through these statistics, you will see that, although it is primarily men who are, by percentage, the more likely to be an excessive drinker or suffer from AUD, it is young women who are more likely to abuse alcohol, especially to engage in binge drinking and other excessive drinking, and, worryingly, less likely to seek treatment for the issue.

The most recently available NSDUH study, released in 2019, presents a disturbing in-depth analysis of alcohol use by women in the U.S., particularly in teenagers and young women, including:

Women and binge drinking

1. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the U.S.

Adults, aged 18 and older

  • 14.1 million adults (5.6% of this age demographic) had AUD:
    • 8.9 million men (7.3% of men) and
    • 5.2 million women (4.0% of women)
  • In 2018, the most recent year for which this treatment data is available, 7.9% of adults who had AUD in the past year received treatment:
    • 8.0% of males and
    • 7.7% of females

Youth, aged 12–17

  • Approximately, 414,000 adolescents (1.7% of this age demographic) had AUD:
    • 163,000 males (1.3% of males) and
    • 251,000 females (2.1% of females)
  • In 2018, around 5.0% of youth who had AUD in the past year received treatment
    • 5.6% of males and
    • 4.6% of females

2. Alcohol-Related Deaths in the U.S.

An estimated 95,0005 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, meaning alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the country (first is tobacco, and second is poor diet and physical inactivity).

3. The Economic Burden

In 2010, alcohol misuse cost the U.S. a colossal $249.0 billion, and, notably, around 75% of that total burden was related to binge drinking.

4. Family Consequences

Sadly, a 2012 study found that more than 10% of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol issues

5. Underage Drinking

A quick glance at the following figures shows that young females are more likely to engage in excessive alcohol consumption than males.

Prevalence of Underage Alcohol Use, aged 12-20

  • 39.7% of people report that they have had at least 1 drink in their lives
  • About 7.0 million people (18.5% of this age demographic) reported drinking alcohol in the past month:
    • 17.2% of males, and
    • 19.9% of females
  • Approximately 4.2 million people (about 11.1%) reported binge drinking in the past month:
    • 10.4% of males and
    • 11.8% of females
  • Approximately 825,000 people (about 2.2%) reported heavy alcohol use in the past month:
    • 2.1% of males and
    • 2.3% of females

6. Consequences of Underage Alcohol Use

Research clearly demonstrates that alcohol use as a teenager can interfere with normal adolescent brain development and increase the risk of developing AUD. In addition, underage drinking contributes to a number of possibly life-changing consequences, including injury, sexual assault, and even death – including those from car crashes.

7. Alcohol Use & College Students

Aged 18-22 

  • 52.5% of full-time college students drank alcohol in the past month, compared with 44.0% of other people of the same age
  • 33.0% of college students ages reported binge drinking in the past month, compared with 27.7% of other persons of the same age
  • 8.2% of college students ages reported heavy alcohol use in the past month, compared with 6.4% of other people of the same age
  • For students aged 18-24, researchers estimate that each year:
    • 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including car crashes
    • 696,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking
    • 97,000 students report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape
    • Roughly 9% of college students meet the criteria for AUD
    • About 1 in 4 college students report academic problems from drinking, eg.
      • Missing class
      • Falling behind in class
      • Doing poorly on exams or papers, and
      • Receiving lower grades overall

2. What is Binge Drinking?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), binge drinking is defined as:

A pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours. Most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder.”

However, that said, binge drinking still represents a serious public health issue in the U.S., and it is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol abuse across the nation.

What is binge drinking

The Numbers on Binge Drinking

One in six adults in the USA will binge drink. They do this about once a week, or four times a month; in one instance of binge drinking they will, on average, consume about seven drinks per binge. This results in 17 billion total binge drinks consumed by adults annually. In terms of ages and demographics, binging is most common among younger adults aged 18–34 years, but the 35 and older crowd consume more than half of the total binge drinks.

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The Dangers of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is associated with many health problems, including unintentional injuries like car accidents, falls, burns, and alcohol poisoning. Binging also brings the risk of general violence including homicide and suicide; chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and liver disease. Binge drinkers are also at risk of a variety of cancers including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon. Memory and/or learning problems and overall alcohol dependence may also result.

There are also unintended financial costs associated with binge drinking and these are incurred at a national level. Drinking too much costs the US $249 billion in 2010. These costs occur within a multitude of sources, including losses in workplace productivity, health care expenditures, and criminal justice costs.

Binge Drinking – A Male-Dominated Occurrence?

The myth of the over-indulgent fraternity brother and films like the 1978 John Landis classic “Animal House” and 2003’s “Old School” all help to perpetuate the idea that binge drinking is only a male problem. Certainly, the numbers would seem to support this theory. Binge drinking occurs twice as much among men than among women. Men consume four in five total binge drinks. And, in terms of the college demographic, binge drinking is more common among people with household incomes of $75,000 or more and higher educational levels. In fact, most people younger than age 21 who drink alcohol report binge drinking.

Mixing opioids and alcohol can be deadly

Women and Binge Drinking

However, there are also numbers showing that women do indeed partake in binge drinking. According to WebMD, although it is unknown why binge drinking among women from the ages of 30-44 has jumped from 21% in 2006 to 42% in 2018. This means that in just over a decade, the percentage of women binge drinkers has doubled. Also, while overall, the level of excessive drinking has decreased, there is one notable exception: women from ages 44-55 and without kids; those numbers remained consistent.

Many of the risks stemming from binge drinking are of special concern to females, including domestic violence situations, intimate partner violence, and /or sexual assault. Sexually transmitted diseases are always a risk factor. Other potential problems that may arise from binge drinking could be unintended pregnancy and poor pregnancy outcomes like miscarriage and stillbirth, fetal alcohol disease, and sudden infant death syndrome.

3. Why Can Binge Drinking Be Physically Dangerous for Women?

As the 2019 NSDUH study described above shows, an estimated 95,0005 people die from alcohol-related causes annually here in the U.S., and approximately 27,000 of those are women.

To understand how exactly binge drinking is physically dangerous for women, we first need to look at the various health dangers that excessive alcohol abuse poses to both sexes, and then look at the health dangers that are specific to women due to their biology. Furthermore, there are additional physical dangers that are better described as “social dangers” in nature, where a woman who has been binge drinking can, sadly, become the victim of crime (obviously, men are not immune from this danger, either).

The Physical Health Dangers of Binge Drinking for Both Men & Women

These are the most common physical health dangers for both men and women if they binge drink. These physical effects and resulting medical conditions are as follows:

Gastrointestinal Tract: Of all the body’s tissues that are affected by excessive alcohol consumption by binge drinking, the gastrointestinal tract gets hit the hardest, due to its direct exposure to high concentrations of alcohol following drinking (ingestion). Repeated excessive alcohol consumption, like binge drinking, can result in a loss of intestinal barrier integrity, and this leads to various bacteria and toxins entering the bloodstream, which may result in a range of medical conditions.

Liver: Second only to the gastrointestinal tract for the most exposure to high alcohol concentrations during binge drinking, the liver is the major organ that most people think of as the most “at risk” from excessive levels of alcohol over an extended period of time. However, the liver is a major organ for a reason – if the liver is unable to function properly, and it fails, it can result in death.

Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) is caused by damage to the liver from years of excessive drinking, eg. regular binge drinking. Years of such alcohol abuse can cause the liver to become inflamed and swollen, and the damage from this can cause scarring, known as cirrhosis. Be under no illusions – cirrhosis is the final stage of liver disease:

  • ARLD: The Various Symptom-Dependent Stages of Liver Disease
    • Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: The 1st. stage of ARLD, where fat starts to accumulate around the liver. Importantly, it can be cured by complete abstinence from alcohol
    • Acute Alcoholic Hepatitis: The 2nd. stage of ARLD, where alcohol abuse causes inflammation (swelling) of the liver. In some cases, treatment can reverse the damage, while more severe cases of alcoholic hepatitis can lead to liver failure
    • Alcoholic Cirrhosis: The 3rd. stage of ARLD, where the liver is scarred from alcohol abuse, and the damage is irreversible. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure
  • The statistics for the prevalence and associated death rates of ARLD in the U.S. are very concerning indeed:
    • In 2018, there were 83,517 liver disease deaths among individuals, aged 12 and older, and 42.8% of these involved alcohol
      • For men, 52,499 liver disease deaths occurred – 45.4% involved alcohol
      • For women, 31,018 liver disease deaths occurred – 38.5% involved alcohol
    • Among all cirrhosis deaths in 2013, 47.9% were alcohol-related
    • Alcohol remains the 2nd. most common cause of liver cirrhosis after hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection
    • In 2009, alcohol-related liver disease was the primary cause of around 1 in 3 liver transplants
    • Fatty liver is present in approximately 95% of heavy drinkers
    • 10-15% of patients with alcoholic hepatitis have the fulminant form of the disease (sudden liver failure) with a high mortality rate
    • Another 5-10% of patients with alcoholic hepatitis develop a prolonged and fatal illness
  • Binge Drinking & Liver Disease: A 2017 study into the link between binge drinking and liver disease by UC San Francisco found that alcohol consumed during 7 weeks of intermittent binge drinking harms the liver by causing both fatty liver tissue and the early stages of inflammation. The study’s senior researcher, Professor Frederic Hopf, PhD., stated, “We sometimes think of alcoholic liver damage as occurring after years of heavy drinking. However, we found that even a short period of what in humans would be considered excessive drinking resulted in liver dysfunction. It is important to intervene early to counter the dangers associated with binge drinking habits.”

Pancreas: Located between the liver and the gastrointestinal tract, the pancreas is also highly susceptible to alcohol-induced tissue injury. Heavy, chronic alcohol consumption, eg. because of binge drinking, is a clear contributing factor in the development of pancreatitis.

Heart, Blood Vessels & Blood: Binge drinking is associated with the increased risk of several cardiovascular conditions, including hypertension, stroke, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and sudden death. Additionally, chronic alcohol use can lead to blood anemia, low platelets, and a suppressed immune system.

Cancer Risk: Alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancers of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.

Kidneys: Alcohol is a diuretic, which causes the kidneys to produce more urine. This, and especially accompanied by vomiting, can lead to dehydration and dangerously low levels of sodium, potassium, and other minerals and salts.

Bones / Muscles: Long-term alcohol abuse can interfere with the absorption of calcium and actual bone formation, and can possibly lead to osteoporosis.

Brain & Central Nervous System: Heavy alcohol use increases the risk of brain damage and stroke, and can lead to dementia and/or impaired balance and coordination. In the short-term, it can lead to difficulties in decision-making and impulse control, impaired balance and hand-eye coordination, blackouts, and the loss of consciousness.

Mental Health: In addition to the possible development of AUD, binge drinkers are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and psychosis.

How Alcohol Affects Sleep Long-Term

The Physical Health Dangers of Binge Drinking Specific to Women

Although men are more likely to drink alcohol and consume larger amounts, a woman’s biological differences in body structure and chemistry means that most women absorb more alcohol (they will have a higher blood alcohol level after drinking the same quantity of alcohol), and then take longer to metabolize it (the effects occur more quickly, and then last longer). Therefore, excessive alcohol use, such as binge drinking, poses unique health risks to women and girls.

Further to the information provided above on the physical health dangers shared by men and women, it’s important to note that women who drink alcohol excessively are at increased risk for heart muscle damage at lower levels of consumption, and over fewer years of drinking than men. Furthermore, as stated above, alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer; in women, drinking is associated with breast cancer, even at low levels of consumption.

Alcohol, Pregnancy & Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD): It is important to remember that there is no known safe limit for alcohol consumption during pregnancy – the reason why family physicians always recommend that alcohol is unsafe during pregnancy, and women should completely avoid alcohol during their term. Drinking alcohol either before pregnancy or during pregnancy, however, can result in the baby being born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD); there are 3 types of this disorder:

    • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): FAS is the most severe form of FASD, which is associated with intellectual disabilities and birth defects in new-borns. In 1996, FAS was estimated to be present between 0.5-3.0 cases per 1,000; however, more recently, the prevalence of FASDs has been found to be as high as 20-50 cases per 1,000. Sadly, defects in babies born with FAS are irreversible.
    • Alcohol-related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): Babies born with ARND can have intellectual disabilities, and problems with behavior and learning, such as math, memory, attention, judgment, and poor impulse control
  • Alcohol-related Birth Defects (ARBD): Babies born with ARBD can have problems with the heart, kidneys, bones, or with hearing, and, often, it is a combination of these

Additionally, excessive alcohol use, such as binge drinking, increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

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The Physical Social Dangers & Risks of Binge Drinking for Women

Many of the physical social dangers and risks that stem from binge drinking are of particular concern to women and girls, and can include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Sexual assault: For female students aged 18-24, researchers estimate that each year around 97,000 students report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and
  • Unintended/unwanted pregnancy

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How SpringBoard Recovery Can Help with Your Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is often seen among certain adults as an acceptable form of alcohol abuse, in a social setting, surrounded by others also engaging in binge drinking, it is widely seen as normal and acceptable. For the young, it’s not often even a consideration – in some college circles, it’s just expected. Regardless, it is still alcohol abuse, and, without reining in this behavior, it can become something far, far worse than a Sunday lunchtime hangover.

Whether you are male or female, an addiction to alcohol can take any shape, and look like many things. At SpringBoard Recovery, located in Scottsdale, AZ., alcohol addiction (AUD) is never something to be ashamed of. If you or someone you know is battling alcoholism and would like help, please don’t be afraid to reach out – just simply give us a call or reach out to us online.

We understand your situation perfectly, and offer a variety of alcohol addiction recovery options, including outpatient programs, a sober living environment, and treatment for more than one addiction, if necessary. We work specifically with you, as an individual, to find a program that caters to your specific needs. Please remember, it is never too late to start on a path to a sober life and a far healthier and happier existence.

Sources:

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresultsPDFWHTML2013/Web/NSDUHresults2013.pdf
  2. JAMA Psychiatry: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2647079
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html
  5. Google Books DSM-5: https://books.google.com.co/books?id=-JivBAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=diagnostic+and+statistical+manual+of+mental+disorders+fifth+edition&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiEsKiqnYztAhVDmeAKHURNBLYQ6wEwAHoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=diagnostic%20and%20statistical%20manual%20of%20mental%20disorders%20fifth%20edition&f=false
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresultsPDFWHTML2013/Web/NSDUHresults2013.pdf
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm
  8. WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/women/news/20191127/women-lead-upswing-in-us-binge-drinking
  9. Wiley Online Library: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/acer.13303
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/index.html

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WRITTEN BY ROBERT CASTAN
NOVEMBER 19, 2020

Robert Castan is a member of the Executive Leadership Team at SpringBoard Recovery. Robert started his professional career as a house manager and has become an industry leader and trusted voice in the treatment world. He brings extensive knowledge of organizational growth, industry-leading outcomes, and comprehensive marketing to SpringBoard Recovery. Robert has been walking his own path of recovery for over 10 years. This path has truly driven his ambition to help make treatment available to others who are struggling with addiction. Robert finds great joy in traveling and keeping physically active, with an emphasis on biking. Robert resides in Arizona with his husband and two four-legged children.   The U.S. Alcohol Crisis, Still Deadlier Than the Opioid Epidemic   Zombies and Other Future Threats to the Health of American Youth Dire Mental Health: A Catalyst for Post-Pandemic Drug Addiction The Benefits of Rehab Center Staff Working Their Own Recovery Opinion: The Opioid Crisis + COVID-19 = The Perfect Storm Robert Castan on Successful Addiction Treatment and Entrepreneurship Castan: The road less traveled of addiction & recovery in Scottsdale Opioids & COVID Driving Phoenix’s Rising Fatal Drug Overdoses Opinion: The Opioid Crisis + COVID-19 = The Perfect Storm Successful Addiction Treatment Programs & Entrepreneurship

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