Women with children under age five increased their alcohol consumption by 323% during much of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to a recent survey of how the pandemic affected alcohol consumption by a nonprofit research institute. Women disproportionally drank more than the recommended drinking guidelines compared to men from February to November of 2020. Over time, excessive alcohol use can put women at risk for heart disease – which is the leading cause of death of women. Increases in alcohol consumption are often linked to large-scale natural disasters or events – and the pandemic certainly has added stress and anxiety to people’s lives on that scale. Since women often are the primary caregivers in their households, the task of helping children manage pandemic-inflicted school closures and switches to virtual learning put women at risk of shouldering more stress – and in turn, using alcohol to cope with the resulting anxiety and depression.
Impact of Excessive Drinking
Abusing alcohol as a coping mechanism during times of stress or sadness can lead to excessive drinking, which includes the following patterns: Binge drinking:
- For women, consuming four or more drinks at one time
- For men, consuming five or more drinks at one time
- For women, consuming eight or more drinks per week
- For men, consuming 15 or more drinks per week
It’s important to note that while excessive drinking is a dangerous pattern, it doesn’t mean someone is alcohol dependent or is an alcoholic. Excessive drinking has effects on the body that can increase the risk of harm to an individual’s health and wellbeing, both in the short-term and long-term, and is responsible for 95,000 deaths each year in the U.S.
- Short-term risks: Injuries due to car crashes, falls or burns; violence; alcohol poisoning; risky sexual behaviors or risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or affects to the fetus in pregnant individuals
- Long-term risks: High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems, certain cancers, weakened immune system, dementia, mental health problems, social problems and/or alcohol dependence
Impact on Heart Health
Excessive alcohol use can damage an individual’s heart, as it can contribute to cardiomyopathy. Over time, the toxicity of alcohol can damage and weaken the heart muscle. This makes it difficult for the heart to pump out blood – and then the heart begins to expand to hold the extra blood that it can’t pump out. This causes the heart muscle to become thin, enlarged and at risk of not functioning properly.
A Healthier Relationship with Alcohol
Using alcohol as a coping mechanism can lead to negative impacts on an individual’s health over time. Improving one’s relationship with alcohol is good for the body and mind. Eliminating alcohol altogether is the best way to reduce the risk of short-term and long-term health risks but may not be the most desirable. Drinking in moderation is key for those who choose to indulge. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the following:
- For women, consuming one drink a day or less
- For men, consuming two drinks a day or less
For individuals who find themselves turning to alcohol to help cope with stress, this may be a signal that it’s time to take a step back and evaluate what’s causing these feelings and how they are being managed. Understandably, unexpected events during the pandemic can cause us all to feel more stress in our lives. Finding a healthy way to manage stress is critical – exercise, movement, journaling and meditation can help. Connect with a primary care doctor or mental health professional for more tips on how to manage stress in a healthy way without abusing alcohol. Gina Lynem-Walker, M. D., is an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. More from MIBluesPerspectives:
- ‘Explosion in Eating Disorders’ During Pandemic: What to Watch For
- The Staying Power of Telehealth for Behavioral Health Treatment
- Living with Headaches from Long COVID
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