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Alcoholism Treatment For Women

Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

According to the National Institute on alcohol abuse and alcoholism, Women’s bodies react differently to alcohol than men’s bodies. That means women face particular health risks from alcohol.

Women face higher risks than men because:

  • Women typically start to have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than men
  • Women typically weigh less than men
  • Pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men do, and alcohol resides predominantly in body water

These health risks can include:

  • Liver Damage – Women who drink are more likely to develop liver inflammation than men.
  • Heart Disease – Women are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease than men.
  • Breast Cancer – Women who have about one drink per day also have an increased chance of developing breast cancer compared to women who do not drink at all.
  • Pregnancy – Any drinking during pregnancy is risky. Heavy drinking can put a fetus at increased risk for learning, behavioral, and other problems.

Why Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently?

The effects of alcohol are stronger in women than in men, and women who drink too much alcohol are more likely to suffer from significant alcohol problems than men, studies show. In addition, women who have alcohol problems have higher death rates due to suicide, accidents, and other health related issues — more than twice the rate of men.

The blood alcohol level in a woman who just drank the same amount of alcohol as a man will be higher because women are usually smaller, have less water in their bodies, and metabolize alcohol more slowly than men.

This means that the brain and liver of a woman who drinks are exposed to more alcohol pound for pound than a man’s brain and liver. Women who have alcohol problems may drink less than men but still experience the same level of impairment. They can also develop liver damage and other alcohol-related health problems more quickly than men, even though they may be drinking less.

If the effects of alcohol are causing problems for you or for others, you may have an alcohol problem. The risk of developing an alcohol problem is greater if you have a family history of alcoholism. Some warning signs of alcohol problems are:

  • Missing work or school because of drinking
  • Driving while impaired by alcohol
  • Having a strong urge to drink
  • Needing more alcohol than you previously did to get a pleasurable response
  • Finding that people who care about you are concerned about your drinking
  • Having more than seven drinks per week
  • Finding yourself drinking alone or early in the day

If you think you might have an alcohol problem, it’s important to get help. Experts believe that the hardest part of getting better is admitting you have a problem.

Alcohol Abuse Treatment for Women

Barriers to treatment confront women from the outset, and it’s no surprise that most women with alcoholism are never treated for it.

Women are less likely than men to know how and where to get treatment. Typically, they refer themselves, sometimes prompted by family or friends, or are referred by the criminal justice system or social service agencies. Men usually are referred by employers, doctors, or the legal system—sources generally considered more knowledgeable about treatment options.

Per Susan M. Gordon, PhD, in addition to misperceptions about programs, internal barriers include low motivation for treatment, denial of problems, psychological problems, internalization of negative social attitudes toward women with alcoholism, self-definition, and independent attitudes about help-seeking and self-reliance. Dr. Gordon is director of research at a leading Treatment Center Pennsylvania.

Depression and anxiety may lead women to delay or do without treatment. Studies suggest that high levels of estrogen can enhance the stress response in subcortical regions of the brain, contributing to the higher prevalence of depression and anxiety in women.

Socioeconomic barriers mean women are less likely than men to have insurance or full-time jobs, and public funding often means a long wait. Getting to a program is another issue; many women don’t have a car or driver’s license, or even money for public transportation.

Therapies and relationships. Men tend to enter treatment with an aggrandized sense of self, per addictions and trauma expert Claudia Black, PhD, while women are more likely to have a diminished view of themselves, because of their primary role as caregiver.

Women entering treatment have different needs than men. A strong positive correlation exists between troubled relationships, family violence, sexual abuse and poor self-esteem as integral factors in substance abuse among women. These factors don’t apply to men, and lack of gender-specific services in treatment programs is a definite barrier for women.

Check Out The Best Women’s Rehabs in the U.S.

Overcoming Barriers

Programs can do little to overcome barriers generated by the patient and by society, but the opportunities are many once you reach treatment.

Women need substance abuse treatment that is multimodal and addresses social services such as vocational rehabilitation.  Comprehensive services can mean the difference between treatment failure and success.

Factors encouraging treatment retention include supportive therapy, a collaborative therapeutic alliance, and onsite child care and children’s services. For women who have lost child custody, comprehensive services can be a powerful motivational tool to stay in therapy. Pregnant women especially need comprehensive services. It’s estimated that as few as four percent of women are pregnant when entering treatment, and the services they sorely need are difficult to come by.

Successful treatment often means walking a fine line. Some women believe they are expected to maintain relationships, even abusive ones, and dependency or economic factors may motivate you to do so. If your alcohol use has involved a relationship with a spouse or significant other, alcohol treatment may threaten that relationship.

The importance of a woman’s building support and relationships with female peers is not to be underestimated. The insight of other women in treatment can help you work through a troublesome relationship, and, if necessary, break it off.

Per Dr. Gordon of the Caron Foundation, programs that increase the chances women will complete treatment comprise mixed-gender programs, services for women, and integrated treatment for co-occurring psychological and physical conditions.

Internal and social barriers present more daunting obstacles than treatment program barriers, Aand a change in public attitudes is needed if women are to reduce their own feelings of shame and sense of denial.

These are not impossible goals. Public education campaigns have eliminated the stigma from cancer, and have increased dramatically the numbers of people who are screened, diagnosed and successfully treated for this disease. We can achieve the same results for addiction in women.

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