No Surprise, Women Are Drinking More Now — When Should We Reel It In?

by Elaine Roth

Early in April 2020, just as I was digesting the news that COVID wasn’t going to be a blip in history books (yes, it took me a long time to stop deluding myself), I got a surprise delivery. A good friend left a few bottles of wine for me in my driveway, with a note: You’re going to need this.

She was joking — kind of — but her joke hit on an issue that was just beginning to emerge due to the pandemic: the rise of alcohol consumption.

A recent study by RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, found that drinking increased at the beginning of the pandemic, and then increased even more as the pandemic raged on.

The group that saw the most startling increase was moms with children under five. In that group, alcohol consumption rose by 323%.

“Women are more likely to use alcohol to cope with stress, depression, and anxiety, and all these are a natural response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Carolina Barbosa, Ph.D., a health economist at RTI. “Alcohol consumption among women has been on the uptick for past two decades, and our study suggests the pandemic may only exacerbate that trend.”

Scary Mommy spoke with Dr. Bankole Johnson, addiction specialist, about the study results and why he was — and wasn’t — surprised at the startling increase.

“I was shocked…going up 300% is shocking but expected because that’s the likely result of high degree of isolation,” Dr. Johnson said, and noted how among the things the pandemic tore away from us was the chance for moms of young kids to get away from their homes for a little while, for any reason, to get time for themselves.

Gray Drinking Has Increased Dramatically

Among the trends Dr. Johnson has noticed is the increase in what he calls “quiet drinking,” more commonly known as gray drinking. Gray drinking is, as the name suggests, a term to describe that gray area between sobriety and alcohol abuse. During the pandemic, gray drinking is happening more and more often in both women and men.

“It’s the typical example of the guy who comes home, has a whiskey while he’s relaxing. That’s a type of gray drinking, but now he’s not going to work and gray drinking all the time. That’s what’s happening to moms as well,” says Dr. Johnson.

In men, gray drinking often evolves from a single whiskey at night to four or five in one sitting. In women, gray drinking looks different. It evolves into drinking steadily throughout the day.

One explanation for the difference is in the way men and women approach alcohol abuse. Women tend to be more secretive about drinking, says Dr. Johnson. As drinking becomes problematic, women tend to spend more time on their own, stay in parts of the house that aren’t frequented, and tend to experience more mood disorders.

Gray drinking can lead to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) which is defined under DSM-5, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. There are 11 symptoms of AUD, but a person only needs to have three of them to be diagnosed with AUD. These symptoms include: craving, increased tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and continued alcohol use despite persistent interpersonal or personal problems caused by alcohol consumption.

When Should A Person Reel It In?

A glass of wine a night turns into two glasses of wine which turns into a few over the weekend. The slope is a slippery one. But there are rough benchmarks you can look to determine whether you’re drinking has become excessive or whether it’s “safe.”

“Safe drinking doesn’t mean it’s safe,” according to Dr. Johnson, “but it means below those levels, you’re unlikely to experience significant adverse health effects.”

For women, safe drinking is seven drinks — or standard units, as in a glass of wine, beer, or shot of liquor — spread out over three to five days. So a glass of wine a night isn’t indicative of a problem, but five drinks in one night could be. More than seven drinks in a week could be, too.

For men, 14 standard units per week is within the bounds of “safe.”

One helpful metric he suggests — look in the weekly recycling and count the empty bottles. If you’re counting more than one or two, then you’re probably drinking too much.

Serious Health Consequences

Alcohol abuse isn’t just a matter of a bad hangover the next morning. Drinking is associated with serious health consequences. Dr. Johnson notes that there are over 100 health problems associated with AUD, including cancer.

“Up to 25% of all cancers are generated by excessive drinking,” says Dr. Johnson.

Other health issues include heart disease, high blood pressure, damage to internal organs, including the liver, kidney, and pancreas, and damage to the central nervous system, including the brain.

Stress is up, and with the way the Delta variant is ravaging our country, no doubt it’s going to stay up. Alcohol consumption is up, too.

“[W]e’re in the second pandemic — the alcohol, drug abuse, and mental health pandemic,” says Dr. Johnson. We won’t know the morbidity and mortality of this second pandemic for at least a decade. Although, as folks return to schools and offices, we may begin to see this pandemic in ways we couldn’t over Zoom.

The good news is, support and treatment are available, and recovery is possible.