Women on the Verge of a Drinking Problem

You look forward to that glass of wine after a tough day, but what happens when you pour that second glass -- and then a third? The sobering truth about what moderation really means.
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We're at my mom's for dinner and she shoots me a look as my brother refills my wineglass. I'm busy stirring the gravy and haven't noticed how much he's been pouring. "I figure you've had about three drinks," Mom says before dinner. "You know, Sarah, it's not cool to be a three-drink girl. You don't want to cross that line." I roll my eyes. I remind her that drinking in moderation is actually good for my health. I love reading reports about the ever-expanding list of benefits: fewer heart attacks and strokes and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, dementia, and some cancers. Experts say alcohol of any type (not just that media darling red wine) can prevent blood clots and also raise my HDL -- the good cholesterol that protects us from heart trouble. In fact, alcohol is thought to be so effective in helping people live longer and stay mentally sharp that some experts have suggested that aging teetotalers start a daily habit. Hey, maybe I should drink more. But sometimes I wonder if I'm taking a good thing too far, considering I usually have a couple of glasses a night and often a third on weekends. I never drink enough to throw up or have a terrible hangover, but I can't say I feel that great after drinking, either. While alcohol helps me fall asleep almost too easily, I often wake up at 3 a.m. and then toss and turn until my alarm screeches. I spend mornings with a fuzzy head; my skin feels dry and sometimes my stomach churns. And I suspect that my beloved pinot grigio also helps sabotage my efforts to lose the five pounds required to zip up my favorite skinny jeans. So, should I worry?

I mean, most of the national attention on women's drinking habits focuses on the alarming rise of binge drinking (defined by the CDC as four or more drinks in about a two-hour period). Nearly 30 percent of women who drink admitted to consuming that much at least once in the past year, and about 15 percent did so at least a dozen times, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Except for the occasional open bar at a wedding or bar mitzvah, I rarely qualify for the blotto-binge category.

But it turns out there may be reason for me to be concerned. According to experts, many women who think they're drinking in moderation may be unknowingly going well beyond what's recommended. There's a fine line between alcohol's healthful and harmful effects, says David J. Hanson, PhD, an alcohol researcher and professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Potsdam, and women cross it way before they reach binge-level consumption. "People who drink in moderation are 40 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who don't drink at all," he says. "But when they increase their consumption, the harm goes up. For people who drink more, their life expectancy drops quite a bit." Their quality of life may drop, too. One study found that downing three or more drinks in one night disrupts your sleep. That amount can also lead to alcohol-related weight gain in women, says Eric Rimm, ScD., associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

And then, of course, there's the risk of becoming addicted. I've always told myself that I drink because I enjoy it, not because I need it. But I'm a little worried about whether I can cut back. I rarely skip a glass of wine two nights in a row and once questioned my doctor's instructions to give up booze for five days while taking a course of antibiotics. On more than one occasion I've suggested to my boyfriend that we grab a drink on the way to meet his business colleagues for dinner because I worry they'll want to share a bottle among the four of us and it won't be enough. Am I on the verge of a drinking problem? If so, will I fall into the category of alcoholics who have to give up drinking completely?

Continued on page 2:  One and Done

 

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