Over the past decade research has found that, for many women, the onset of alcohol abuse coincides with changes in hormone levels—changes that many women are unaware of in the early stages. When this is combined with other stresses in their lives such as job changes, health concerns, or children leaving home, women can find themselves abusing alcohol for the first time in their lives.
In our teens, 20s and 30s, our ovaries and adrenal glands produce a form of estrogen called estrodiol. Later, during our mid- to late 40s and early 50s, our ovaries begin producing less estrogen, leaving more of the work to our adrenal glands. As the adrenal glands take over the job, estrogen drops, spikes and drops again—rather erratically. At this point, many women report that they start to get forgetful and experience “foggy thinking” and moodiness. That’s because our brains work better when estrogen levels are steady. These unfamiliar discomforts are the first signs of menopause and, for some women, the beginning of escalating alcohol consumption.
While typical menopause is a gradual process that starts between the ages of 45 and 55, there are a number of things that can lead to the whole process starting earlier than normal. Premature menopause can be a result of lifestyle choices that include the following:
- Heavy drinking (defined as more than one glass of wine, 12 oz. of beer, or 1.5 oz. of liquor daily)
- Heavy smoking
- Poor nutrition
- Chronic stress to the body, including excessive athletic training
Indeed, heavy alcohol consumption alone may hasten the onset of menopause by as much as five years.
As we reach full menopause, our estrogen production will have dropped by 75-90% and we normally start experiencing other menopausal symptoms—hot flashes, tiredness, and difficulty sleeping. Many of us also experience a drop in libido (sexual desire) which can continue well beyond menopause.
Unfortunately, drinking alcohol at this stage of life causes more problems than it solves. For example, alcohol itself can trigger hot flashes and increase sleep disruptions. For those of us in midlife who are already experiencing hot flashes and sleep problems (because of the night sweats that accompany hot flashes), alcohol only compounds the problem.
Additionally, Jasmine Lew, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has found links between the amount of alcohol women consume and a higher risk of cancer. In particular, Lew and her colleagues found that alcohol increased the risk for the most common types of postmenopausal breast cancer. The more we drank, the higher the risk, so while drinking one serving of alcohol resulted in only a 7% increase of risk, drinking three servings of alcohol per day resulted in as high as a 51% increase in risk.
Further problems occur in the area of bone density because alcohol increases the amount of calcium excreted in the urine, causing calcium deficiency and osteoporosis. Of course, heavy drinking also increases our risk of liver disease, falls and injuries, and motor vehicle accidents.
So what are we to do? Peri-menopause, menopause, and post-menopause are clearly times of risk for those of us who find we are drinking too much. With that in mind: if you are over 40, consider hormonal shifts as a contributing factor in any change in your alcohol use. It should also be a consideration if you become concerned about alcohol abuse and seek help. Look for a program that will address all of the possible contributing factors, not one that consigns you to a “disease” model as well an unnecessary and inappropriate “lifelong recovery.”
© Copyright 2008 by Edward Wilson, Ph.D., MAC, therapist in Rolling Hills Estates, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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