Rise in Alcoholic Liver Disease in Young Women

rise in alcoholic liver disease in young women

As common as alcohol use is in everyday American life, awareness about its dangers continues to grow—and alarm. 

It has recently been reported that the rate of alcoholic liver disease is up overall in the U.S., but a notable rise has been observed in younger women. Dr. Jessica Mellinger, a liver specialist based in Michigan, told National Public Radio (NPR) that alcoholic liver disease cases have increased 30 percent over a one-year period at the University of Michigan’s health system, and the age range in those cases involve young people. 

 “We’re seeing kids in their late 20s and early 30s with a disease that we previously thought was kind of exclusive to middle age,” Mellinger told the news organization.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 44,000 people died from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, the scarring of the liver in 2019. Data also show that 4.5 million people are diagnosed with liver disease that same year.

What Is Alcoholic Liver Disease?

Alcoholic liver disease happens when excessive alcohol use harms the liver and leads to scarring, fat buildup, and inflammation, as Medical News Today explains. According to the health site, the condition is the main cause of chronic liver disease in Western nations.

Damage to the liver can take some time to realize as it is an organ that can heal itself. Medical News Today highlights that by the time liver damage is discovered, the damage done is usually permanent. A person who has a damaged liver due to excessive drinking must stop drinking to have a chance of recovering from the condition.

Early signs of the condition include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

These signs could be mistaken for a temporary ailment or a general feeling of unwellness, but if a person experiences them and continues to drink alcohol, liver disease could be the case. Medical News Today says that recognizing the signs of liver disease is easier once the condition has progressed. Those signs include:

  • Yellowing of the whites of one’s eyes (jaundice)
  • Swelling of the lower limbs (edema)
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen area (known as ascites)
  • Fever, itchy skin, and shivering
  • Curved fingernails (clubbing)
  • Overall weakness
  • Wasting muscles and weight loss
  • Blood in vomit and stools
  • Bleeding, bruising easily
  • Increased sensitivity to alcohol and drugs

Immediate medical treatment is the next step to start recovering from alcoholic liver disease, so seeing a doctor is important should a person notice these signs. 

Alcohol and Liver Health

When people engage in drinking more than they should, the liver’s ability to process excessive amounts of alcohol is likely the least of their concerns. But understanding liver health is important, and knowing about it can save lives.

alcoholic liver disease in women

Excessive drinking is dangerous for many reasons, but its effects on the body should be noted. Abusing alcohol means abusing your liver, and no one can live without a liver. The organ is responsible for filtering out the toxins of substances that enter the body. Using harmful substances to excess will hurt the liver’s ability to do its job. Having too much alcohol to process can overtax the liver, which can handle only 1 ounce of alcohol an hour, as Medical News Today explains.

Whatever the liver can’t get to backs up into the drinker’s bloodstream, raising their risks of experiencing alcohol poisoning. Drinking too much alcohol in a short time and not giving the body enough time to process the alcohol is risky.

Not everyone will get a warning about alcohol poisoning. A person who has drunk too much can pass out and never wake up as the body continues to release alcohol, fatally poisoning them.

Why Excessive Alcohol Use Is Dangerous for Women 

High-risk drinking habits can adversely affect women’s health and have a significant impact on their lives. Several studies suggest that women’s makeup makes them more susceptible to alcohol-related illnesses that can have detrimental outcomes for them.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), women’s biology and gender significantly affect how they experience alcohol and substance use overall. In short, women have more at stake when they misuse or abuse alcohol.

Drinking and using drugs can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle and hormones, making her more sensitive to alcohol and drug cravings. Excessive alcohol use can also affect a woman’s ability to have children, including her chances of having a healthy pregnancy and her ability to breastfeed. Alcohol use can also affect later-life changes, such as menopause. Because substance use affects women in these ways, how they are treated for substance dependence and addiction must differ from how men are treated.

NIDA also notes that substance use has other effects on women. It can:

  • Increase women’s drug and alcohol cravings putting them at risk of having a relapse
  • Change how their brains function, which can differ from brain changes in men who use substances
  • Affect their hearts and blood vessels

Women’s physical makeup also means it does not take much for them to feel the adverse effects of high-risk drinking, which includes binge drinking, when a person has four or more alcoholic beverages in two hours. Women are also at higher risk of developing cancer, including breast cancer, from excessive alcohol use.

Women Drinking More to Deal with Life’s Pressures

Multiple studies over the years have looked at women’s alcohol use and their relationship with the substance. Data within the past 10 years seem to suggest that the gap between men’s and women’s drinking is narrowing. 

 A study published in JAMA Psychiatry study looked at high-risk drinking practices among women drinkers and noticed an increase over a 12-month period between 2012 and 2013. The study’s researchers found “notable increases were found among women” who drank in that period. According to the analysis,  alcohol use went up almost 60 percent.

Traditionally, men drink more alcohol than women, but that is changing. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA) reports that drinking trends between men and women are looking more similar in recent years. 

Some researchers say drinking has increased among women because of evolving social norms, which have made it more acceptable for them to drink. Having more education and job opportunities has also lowered barriers, making it easier for women to consume alcohol. 

The Emergence of Mommy Wine Culture: Is It Part of the Problem?

Alcohol has become a go-to for women who are trying to manage the pressures of having a career, being married, running a household, and raising children—all at the same time.

Mommy wine culture is an example of how normalized it has become for women to reach for a glass or a bottle of wine to help them balance the stress they feel in their everyday lives. Alcohol’s sedative effects happen as alcohol, a central nervous system (CNS) depressant,  that slows down activity in the brain. It affects gamma-Aminobutyric acid, the brain chemical mainly responsible for relaxation and sleep. Alcohol also affects that part of the brain that is responsible for motor functions, decision-making, and judgment. Heavy drinking can affect these areas of the brain, putting people at risk of encountering harm.

Some see the support for mom’s “wine time” as harmless fun, and some wine moms say drinking wine allows them to have something for themselves as they care for their families.

Others, however, see it as an invitation to problematic alcohol use and addiction and caution against using it to self-medicate for issues that might require professional mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Alcohol Sales, Drinking Rates Increased During Pandemic

While excessive drinking can cause alcoholic liver disease, that fact has not stopped many people from reaching for alcoholic drinks more often to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Alcohol sales increased during the early phases of the pandemic, according to a Forbes report,  suggesting that more people drank to deal with anxiety, stress, fear, and major life changes. Quarantine and lockdown periods also fueled an increase in alcohol and drug use.

A 2020 McKinsey & Company report  revealed that:

  • 25% of people reported binge drinking at least once in the past week;
  • 20% of people reported taking prescription medications for nonmedical reasons; and
  • 1 in 7 reported using illegal drugs

Some people who were working from home also drank more, according to a workers survey, which found:

  • 33% of Americans were more likely to drink alcohol during work hours while in lockdown.
  • More than a third of survey respondents said they believe they will drink more alcohol than usual while in self-isolation.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, told U.S. News and World Report that events with the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic can increase drug consumption across the board. “Our alcohol drinking goes up, smoking goes up, and people relapse,” she said, adding, “We do know that drug-taking is one of the ways that people try to cope, and unfortunately, this can have very adverse effects.”

NPR’s report also addresses concerns that pandemic-related drinking has upped drinking rates across the board, for men and women, and particularly for young women and men.

Cutting Back on Alcohol Use

If you notice that you are drinking more to deal with the coronavirus pandemic or any other issues, there are things you can do to cut back. As this NPR article suggests, you can remain mindful and track how much you drink. You can also join a support group, even if it is a virtual one, or get an accountability partner who can help you remain responsible for your drinking. 

If you have tried things like this and still find it hard to stop drinking, find an accredited facility that helps people address their alcohol addiction. Professional treatment has saved many people from losing their lives to addiction. Sobriety can be yours. Take the first step and make the call. Help is available, and people are standing by waiting to help you in whatever way they can.

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