As the holidays approach, with family gatherings and office parties planned for the upcoming weeks, it is even more important to understand the effects of alcohol consumption. Binge drinking is of particular concern to professionals in the medical, legal, and aviation fields. Recent research has found that there are gender differences in binge drinking as well as in the effects of drinking overall.
The CDC defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08g/dl or more. Men will typically reach this BAC level after drinking five or more drinks while women will reach it after four or more drinks in a two-hour period. The organization states that binge drinking is the most common and costly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the US, in addition to being the deadliest.
About one in six adults in the US will engage in binge drinking about four times a month, consuming seven drinks each time. In total, adults will consume 17 billion binge drinks annually, or 467 per individual. Men are more likely to binge drink than women and there may be gender differences in binge drinking that are explained biologically.
Studies on the Brain Circuit
A study led by scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine found that there appears to be a brain circuit in females that works as a “brake” on binge drinking. Senior author Dr. Kristen Pleil, assistant professor of pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medicine, stated that the study “highlights that there are sex differences in the brain biology that controls alcohol drinking behaviors.”
Although women tend to consume less alcohol than men, that may be primarily due to cultural factors. The gender gap has actually narrowed significantly in the past few decades, especially among younger women. However, women have a greater vulnerability to alcohol use disorders and that may also be rooted in their biology.
The scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine discovered that a cluster of neurons wired into a brain region called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) act as a brake on the brain’s activity. This brake has a stronger influence on women than on men. The cluster of neurons acts to curb excessive alcohol consumption through this circuit brake.
Consequences of Alcohol Use
While the brake may offer protection for females against engaging in binge drinking, a woman may also be more vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol consumption when that brake is disrupted. The effects can be devastating, as approximately 10% of deaths each year in the US are attributable to alcohol use. Research-based evidence shows that there is no level of alcohol use that is considered safe for an individual’s health.
Engaging in binge drinking is associated with harmful results, such as cancer, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and injury. Beyond the gender differences in binge drinking, there are also differences in the severity of medical consequences. Women have a higher risk than men for liver, heart, and brain damage as a direct result of excessive alcohol use.
Women are more likely to become addicted to alcohol as well as to nicotine and other drugs and to develop the substance-related diseases when consuming lower levels of the substance and in a shorter period of time than men. Women achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood and become more impaired after drinking an equivalent amount of alcohol as men.
The effects of alcohol on a woman’s biology are significantly different than those on a man’s system. The gender differences in binge drinking, though, may be narrowing. The increase of alcohol consumption and binge drinking have been increasing since 2010, with increases almost exclusively found in mid-life women, especially those with higher levels of education and family income.
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