With the added stress, grief, and, at times, boredom that has come from the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol and drug use has spiked. We’re starting to see the dangerous effects of increased alcohol use, particularly in women, as more and more young women are being diagnosed with alcoholic liver disease.
While liver disease still affects more men than women, younger women seem to be driving the spike in deaths that has occurred since the start of the pandemic. The disease that used to almost exclusively affect middle-aged individuals is now seen in those in their late 20s and early 30s.
So why are women now at such a high risk for liver disease? There are a number of factors that may be contributing to this several-year trend.
Coping with Past Trauma
Coping with unresolved trauma is one reason why many individuals drink excessively. Women are more likely than men to experience certain traumas that might lead to an increased risk for alcoholism.
For example, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the leading cause of PTSD in substance-using women is physical and sexual trauma. Physical and sexual trauma is more common in women than men, putting them at an increased risk for developing mental health concerns and co-occurring substance use disorders that can lead to liver disease.
To effectively treat alcohol use disorder in women and avoid negative consequences like liver disease, treatment should address past trauma as well.
Pressure During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased alcohol use across many populations. However, those under the most pressure during the pandemic might be essential workers.
One in 3 jobs held by women fall under the essential category, while 28% of jobs held by men are deemed essential. Women make up more than 75% of workers in essential jobs like social work and healthcare. Two-thirds of workers at grocery store checkouts and fast-food counters are also women.
Many of these essential workers are underpaid and underappreciated. When going to your job means putting your life and your family’s lives at risk, immense stress is to be expected. One way many are dealing with the stress is by drinking.
Increased Risk for Eating Disorders
Many of those who develop a substance use disorder suffer from another mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder.
When it comes to eating disorders, women make up virtually 90% of cases. One study that followed the rates of eating disorders among women who were struggling with alcohol use disorder found that 30% had a history of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
Like alcohol use, eating disorders have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic. This can be attributed to factors like excess stress, isolation, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, changes in activity levels, and an increase in screen time.
Eating disorder symptoms can affect women at any age but appear to be the most severe in their teens and early 20s. This is the same age range when many women begin drinking and are at a higher risk for developing a substance use disorder.
How Alcohol Affects Women
Alcohol affects women differently than men because women typically have a lower body weight, less body water, and higher body fat. Because women metabolize alcohol more slowly, the effects last longer.
Women have shown to develop alcohol use disorder at lower levels of consumption when compared with men. Therefore, experts recommend that women have three or fewer drinks per day and no more than seven drinks per week to maintain low-risk consumption. However, low risk does not mean no risk, and the less alcohol consumed, the better.
Alcoholic liver disease can go unnoticed for years. The following are symptoms of alcohol use disorder:
- Hiding or lying about alcohol use
- Relying on alcohol to feel happy or deal with stress
- Using alcohol to wake up or fall asleep
- Trying and failing to stop or reduce alcohol use
- Feeling anxious if you can’t drink alcohol
If you are struggling with a substance use disorder or co-occurring mental health concern, help is available.