Skip to main content

Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Girls, Women and Alcohol

Nancy Poole, Amy Salmon and Lorraine Greaves

Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2 (9), p. 11-12

Alcohol touches the lives of many women and girls. Alcohol is the most common substance used by girls and women, and a significant number of girls and women drink at risky levels. However, until recently, little attention has been paid to the impact of alcohol on female health. Recent evidence about patterns and consequences of alcohol use in women and girls sheds some light on how drinking can affect women and on the types of supports that are useful when women have problems with alcohol and other drugs.

How much do women drink in Canada

A recent Canadian addictions survey found that approximately 77% of Canadian women drink and 14% regularly drink at risk levels for short- and/ or long-term harm.1 While drinking rates for men have historically been higher than women’s rates, that may no longer hold true. A recent survey of Canadian university students found that 87.1% of female and 84.0% of male students used alcohol in the past 12 months.

In addition, there are changes in drinking patterns towards more risky types of use among women, which are also of concern. More than a third (34%) of female students in the Canadian university student study reported consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion at least twice during the past month; around 11% reported consuming eight or more drinks.2 These levels of alcohol use by girls and women are especially troubling, since drinking guidelines for women recommend no more than two drinks per day. In the Canadian Addiction Survey, over 85% of the alcohol consumption by women ages 15 to 24 exceeded Canadian guidelines.


What influences this use of alcohol?

Girls and women use alcohol for a wide variety of reasons, including desires to improve mood, increase confidence, reduce tension, lose inhibitions or enhance sex. Alcohol is relentlessly promoted to women through advertising, movies and television shows, which imply that drinking will bring them health, happiness, success, sophistication and freedom. Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies and Alcohol, a video by Jean Kilbourne uncovers the deception in this advertising and shows how it can influence young women’s decision-making about drinking.

Girls and women also use alcohol (as well as a variety of other drugs) to cope with difficult life circumstances or with feelings that are overwhelming. For example, experiences of sexual abuse and physical abuse (which are more common among girls and women than among boys and men) are strongly related to the problem use of alcohol and other drugs. Girls who have been sexually abused are more likely than others to use substances, and to use them earlier, more often and in greater quantities.4 Drinking to cope with issues like this can be part of a destructive cycle, where answers are sought in substances, rather than through more adaptive supports or making other kinds of changes.

What does alcohol do to girls and women

There are well-known sex differences in the ability to process alcohol. For example: women’s bodies have less water than men’s bodies, so alcohol is less diluted in a woman’s body.5 Because women’s bodies process alcohol differently than men, women can become intoxicated after drinking half as much as men.6 Alcohol can diminish motor coordination, judgement, emotional control and reasoning power—increasing risk of accidents, injuries and vulnerability to violence—so women need to be aware of these differences and not try to keep pace with men when they drink

Heavy alcohol use can have devastating effects on women’s health. Women have a higher risk of dying from alcohol-related accidents than do men.6 Women develop health problems from heavy drinking, such as liver disease, earlier than men.5,7 Other alcohol-related health risks that are higher for women include high blood pressure, osteoporosis, breast cancer, gastric ulcers and alcoholic hepatitis.7,8 Drinking can also increase the risk of mouth and liver cancer, major depression, epilepsy, hemorrhagic stroke and cirrhosis of the liver. These risks can increase when alcohol and other drugs, such as tobacco or medications like benzodiazepines, are used at the same time.

What are the barriers to getting help?

For women who have problems with alcohol, many barriers can get in the way of finding and getting support and treatment. One of the biggest barriers women can face is not having people in their lives who support their desire to get well. Pregnant women or mothers often fear losing custody of infants or children if they seek help. Women with mental health problems, including depression, can also find it hard to access treatment for alcohol and other drug problems. Often women aren’t aware of what treatment or other supports are available. However, women can and do overcome these barriers. Supportive relationships with professionals, family and friends are the key to women getting help

Treatment can take many forms and no single method works for everyone. Programs that provide help with all aspects of women’s lives—physical, emotional, spiritual, vocational—and that also support healing from past trauma, can be particularly useful. There is a range of mutual aid groups for women available in British Columbia, including Alcoholics Anonymous and 16 Steps for Discovery and Empowerment. Other selfhelp groups on related topics, such as self-esteem and recovery from trauma, can also be helpful in combination with these recovery-oriented groups. Withdrawal management, outpatient counselling, day treatment groups, supportive living programs and residential treatment programs are also available across BC to varying degrees.

A key resource for women in BC is the Aurora Centre, a provincial women’s treatment centre based at BC Women’s Hospital.

About the Authors

The authors are researchers at the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health

  1. Stockwell, T., Sturge, J. & Macdonald, S. (2005). Patterns of risky alcohol use in British Columbia—Results of the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey (Bulletin 1). Victoria, BC: Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

  2. Adalf, E.M., Demers, A., & Gliksman, L. (2005). Canadian Campus Survey 2004. Toronto, ON: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

  3. Bondy, S.J., Rehm, J., Ashley, M.A. et al. (1999). Low-risk drinking guidelines: The scientific evidence. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 90(4), 264-270.

  4. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. (2003). The formative years: Pathways to substance abuse among girls and young women ages 8-22. New York: Author

  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004, July). Alcohol—An important women’s health issue (Alcohol Alert, 62). Retrieved from pubs. aa62/aa62.pdf.

  6. Greenfield, S.F. (2002). Women and alcohol use disorders. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 10(2), 76-85.

  7. Rehm, J., Room, R., Graham, K. et al. (2003). The relationship of average volume of alcohol consumption and patterns of drinking to burden of disease: An overview. Addiction, 98(9), 1209-1228.

  8. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2002). Women and alcohol: An update [Special issue]. Alcohol Research & Health, 26(4).

  9. Poole, N. & Isaac, B. (2001). Apprehensions: Barriers to treatment for substance-using mothers. Vancouver, BC: BC Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.