Professional women in Britain, are drinking to dangerous levels, according to a recent OECD report, claiming one in five women drinks “hazardously”. Hazardously is described as consuming over twice the safe limit of 14 units of alcohol.
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report, published at the end of the last year, describes this rise as “the dark side equality”. Women are drinking more to fit in at work, to keep up with a traditionally male drinking culture.
‘Women are adopting men’s drinking habits and they are not healthy,’ said Mark Pearson of the OECD. “As women have moved into the labour market they have adapted to the male culture. Jobs where you can earn more are more likely to be jobs that have a lot networking. It’s the dark side of equality.”
While there might be a grain of truth in this, that some industries still have a heavy drinking culture, and women, like men, are trying to fit in, the reasons for the rise in drinking among women are far more complicated.
Plenty of studies seem to show that women’s lives are more stressful. The average working is woman is trying to juggle a job, childcare, household chores, and increasingly, provide some sort of care for elderly parents.
As women hit their forties and fifties, the pressure to look good seems to increase, not diminish. They are bombarded with images of forty plus celebrities, with smooth foreheads and gym-toned bodies. The message is clear – “work hard, look good”. No wonder the biggest rise in problem drinking among forty to fifty year old professional women.
Yet with the popularity of “wine o’clock”, a deceptively light hearted phrase, women are told that wine and copious amounts of other alcohol, is the reward everyone deserves, after a long day. The drinks industry hasn’t been slow to capitalise on the female thirst for alcohol – sweet drinks, sparkling drinks – the alcohol industry has created products and advertising campaigns directly targeting women.
The cruel paradox is that alcohol does very little to relieve the stress and depression many drinkers, female and male, are seeking respite from. It may be the very thing which causes a low mood. Anyone who drinks heavily and regularly is likely to develop some symptoms of depression as regular drinking lowers the levels of serotonin in the brain, the chemical which helps regulate mood.
Anxiety can be made worse by alcohol. As our bodies process the alcohol that we’ve drunk, the sedative effects wear off. If we’re already experiencing issues with anxiety, then the withdrawal symptoms from alcohol increase feelings of anxiety and panic.
Sleep is affected too. While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it contributes to poor quality sleep later. Alcohol is thought to block REM sleep, which is considered the most restorative sort of sleep. With less REM sleep, we wake up groggy and less able to focus.
It’s important to recognise that many of the stressors we are trying to manage by drinking, are in fact made worse. A drink or two may seem to take the edge off anxiety, depression, and stress and sleeplessness, but ultimately it compounds the symptoms.
Exercise, relaxation techniques including yoga and meditation are all ways to cope with anxiety, stress and depression, which have no side effects. In fact exercise and some forms of yoga are found to increase the production of serotonin, and dopamine, the neurotransmitters which are responsible for pleasure and joy and well as regulating irritability, impulse and obsession.
Many drinkers, both women and men, admit that the after work drink, or the “reward for a stressful day” drink, is as much a habit as necessity. Habits are hard to break and at the end of a long day, reaching for our running shoes or yoga mat seems far harder than opening the fridge for a cool bottle. But it’s a habit worth establishing. Designated gym nights, or yoga/ meditation sessions, really help to break the “drinking every evening” cycle.
Most healthcare professionals agree that alcohol free days are crucial for the body’s natural recovery. We should be establishing three or four days, completely free from alcohol, each week. If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is one of the main reasons why it’s important to take regular breaks from drinking.
Tolerance is a physiological response we have to any drug – including alcohol. The more you consume, the more your body gets used to it. Regular drinking induces certain enzymes in your liver that metabolise alcohol. If you drink heavily, over weeks or months, levels of these enzymes will go up and your tolerance builds. If you stop drinking completely, the enzyme levels go back down.
As your tolerance builds up, you need to consume more alcohol to get the same effects. This can mean you end up drinking to levels that are harmful to your short and long-term health, putting you at risk a range of problems from heart disease to cancer. Taking a break from alcohol can have the effect of lowering or “resetting” your tolerance, so that it becomes easier to cut back. As all of our bodies respond slightly differently to alcohol, the amount of time it takes to develop tolerance, or to reset it, varies from person to person.
If you’re having trouble limiting your drinking or achieving alcohol free period, find a specialist addictions therapist, who can help address some of the underlying reasons for alcohol use.