Women and alcohol: To your health?

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2012-06-06

by Ann Dowsett Johnston

It’s the twilight hour at my corner coffee shop, a crowded café on a wintry evening. The locals are lined up by the till, rosy from the outdoors, ordering their version of liquid perfection. My guest is nursing hers, a low-fat latte—and nursing her thoughts as well, waiting for the crowd to pass before she speaks. “How did I know I had a drinking problem?” She pauses. My guest, a former ad executive, chooses her words carefully. “I knew when I had to switch from red wine to white because the red was staining my teeth. I knew when I began strategizing at parties, choosing the wine that fewer people were drinking, so there would be more for me. And I knew when I started waking up, having blacked out the night before. I’d have to check the fridge to see what was gone. Near the end, I had the shakes in the morning. I’d put a shot of vodka in my coffee.”

She says all this without blinking. A perfectly coiffed and manicured woman in her 50s, comfortable with her story—and yet unwilling to share her real name. Let’s call her Jennifer, as she’d like to be known. Daughter of two alcoholics, survivor of an abusive childhood, mother of a grown daughter, she has been sober for more than eight years, thanks, she says, to the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. She spends her free time helping newcomers, women not much older than her daughter, stay sober. Girls who started partying in high school, at university. Young women, who’ve found they could not stop.

“I think women drink for different reasons than men,” says Jennifer. “Women drink because they’re worried, or they’re anxious. They drink to calm, and they drink to fit in, to stay up, or to sleep. Alcohol is a marvellous thing when it works: it will do anything you want it to.” Until when? Until it calls the shots? “There’s a line you cross, and you can’t go back,” says Jennifer. “And the problem is? No one knows where the line is until they’ve gone too far. Then comes the soul sickness.”

Jennifer gets together regularly with friends who still drink: at her book club, casual gatherings at restaurants. Does it bother her when others drink in front of her? “No. But I worry. These women are doctors, lawyers. They arrive tense. Two glasses in, they’re unwound. Many tell me they’re worried, that they’ve started drinking because they can’t sleep. I always think: what happens if they keep this up?”

What does happen if women drink every day? And indeed, how many Canadian women are doing so? This is the question I spent a year investigating, as part of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. I spent dozens of hours in coffee shops across Canada, speaking to countless women with stories to tell, most of whom came to me through the underground railroad of AA. Their stories are gathered in a small pile of red notebooks. Call them the drinking diaries. Jennifer’s story is a typical one: trouble in her past, adult accomplishment, drinking that caught up with her. Then there are the other notebooks, a larger pile. Call them the expert diaries: evidence from scientists and researchers all across North America and beyond. 

What prompted me to do this research?  Many factors. I began noticing how often we were being told that drinking was good for us. I began noticing the pink and pretty products in the liquor store, wines with names like French Rabbit and Girls’ Night Out. And I began noticing the news reports of girls in Britain, being diagnosed with liver cirrhosis in their 20s.

Walk into most social gatherings, and the first thing you’re asked is: “Red or white?” In fact, we live in a culture where knowing a lot about wine is a mark of sophistication. And thanks to media reports of the past several years, we have happily absorbed the news that drinking has its health benefits. For many, red wine ranks up there with Vitamin D, Omega 3s and dark chocolate. If one glass is good for you, a double dose can’t do much harm, can it? Actually, a double dose has its drawbacks. The largest health benefit comes from one drink every two days.

Which begs a simple question: why are we aware of the dangers related to trans fats and tanning beds, and blissfully unaware of the more serious side effects associated with our favourite drug? It’s a headscratcher, to say the least.

In January, a study in the respected journal Addiction challenged the broadly accepted assumption that a daily glass of red wine offers protection against heart disease. Says Jürgen Rehm, director of social and epidemiological research at by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and co-author of the paper: “While a cardioprotective association between alcohol use and ischaemic heart disease exists, it cannot be assumed for all drinkers, even at low levels of intake. The protective association varies by gender: differential risk curves were found by sex, with higher risk for morbidity and mortality in women.”

Risky drinking

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