Razing the Bar

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Story BY Elizabeth Heubeck      PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mary C. Gardella

November/December 2017

It’s dinner time and you find yourself in the kitchen, chopping and sautéing—and, perhaps, pouring a much anticipated glass of wine. Whether you’ve been corralling kids all day or sitting through a series of intense meetings at the office, the resultant pent-up stress seems to ease with that first sip. By the end of some evenings, the recently uncorked bottle gets tossed into the recycle bin.

Sound familiar?

For countless women, the answer is “yes,” though few will readily admit it. There’s nothing wrong with a couple of glasses of wine after a long day. But the serious health threats associated with regularly consuming alcohol are fairly alarming. For instance, just one drink a day—that’s 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or a shot of liquor— raises women’s likelihood of developing breast cancer, say experts.

In spite of long-term medical risks associated with alcohol consumption (not to mention the immediate negative impact of the morning after), changing or even confronting alcohol consumption behaviors doesn’t come easy. For women, consuming alcohol is not only culturally acceptable, but often expected.

Summer Cullen, who works for an arts nonprofit in Baltimore City, says that women face unique challenges when it comes to juggling. “Many of us are in care¬giver roles; are expected to excel at work; be a model parent and care for our own parents; look fantastic; eat nothing but organic bean sprouts; complete “The New York Times” Sunday crossword; never miss yoga; and do it all without breaking,” says the 30-something who has given up drinking. Cullen had her first beer at age 12 and immediately liked how alcohol made her feel. As she approached 30, however, she thought she might soon be dead because of it.

As Cullen suggests, even highly successful women may turn to alcohol as a de-stressor. When asked by a reporter for “New York” magazine how she coped after her loss in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton responded: “Long walks in the woods. Organizing my closets. I won’t lie, chardonnay helped a little, too.”

As a baby boomer, Clinton falls into an age group whose alcohol use is on the rise. A recently released study by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that, among women 60 and older, heavy drinking is increasing. Researchers tracked the drinking patterns of more than 65,000 respondents between 1997 and 2016 and found that, while men’s binge drinking habits remained the same over this period, women’s increased an average of nearly 4 percent every year. The study was published in the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.”

Older women aren’t the only ones ramping up their drinking. In a national survey of thousands of women ages 35 to 54, 71 percent of white women described them¬selves as drinkers, compared to 47 percent of black women, 41 percent of Hispanic women and 37 percent of Asian women. Furthermore, the rate of alcohol-related deaths among white women in 2015—which account for 8 percent of all fatalities among this demographic—represents a 130 percent increase since 1999, according to statistics from the National Health Interview Survey.

Even so, recent studies suggest that consuming one alcoholic beverage, specifically a glass of red wine, per day, may reduce the risk of a heart attack and increase levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol. It has also been linked to a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes.

Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition who has been researching the effects of alcohol and chronic disease for decades at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has found that ethanol increases HDL, improves insulin sensitivity and slows down the ability of blood to clot. It also helps to decrease inflammation inside of the arteries, according to Rimm.

Despite these seemingly conflicting health messages, most medical professionals agree that indulging in more than one alcoholic beverage per day is detrimental.

Wine tends to be the drink of choice among adult women. In fact, women drink nearly 60 percent of all wine consumed in the U.S., according to the Beverage Information Group. Almost half of wine drinkers are college graduates and are more likely to drink daily, according to a 2008 Gallup Poll. Further, almost 35 percent of female wine drinkers hold graduate degrees, reports Stonebridge Research, which tracks the wine industry.

Many of these educated female drinkers learn to drink in college.

Patti Sapp, a Howard County-based hypnotist, has a fair number of female clients who struggle with alcohol dependency issues. Some tell her they started drinking in college for fun. Years later, some of those women say alcohol helps them to calm down. Evelyn Frank, a 39-year-old Howard County resident, can relate.

“I so enjoyed that one fat glass of really yummy wine. It made me feel relaxed,” says Frank, who has cut back on her drink¬ing in her late 30s for health reasons. Along with limiting gluten in her diet, she sought to curtail the feeling of melancholy she says would descend on her after drinking several days in a row.

Frank says she drank heavily in college. But many women are starting at ever younger ages. David Jernigan, Ph.D., who has spent much of his career studying youth and alcohol, says that sometime around 2001, the drink of choice for 12th grade girls switched from beer to distilled spirits. “The group that is arguably the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol is drinking the strongest products,” says Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Jernigan says this shift is at least partly due to product lines and advertising that appeal expressly to young girls. One of these is “alcopops,” alcoholic beverages flavored with fruit juice and other sweet flavors. Jernigan refers to these as entry level alcoholic beverages intended expressly for inexperienced drinkers who don’t like the taste of beer or straight alcohol.

Then there are the ads intended to attract sophisticated female buyers by pushing products like natural beer and vodka, that might indicate physical or environmental health, explains Jernigan. Then there’s the “mom-specific” alcohol push, which includes products like Mad Housewife, a popular, easy-to-drink chardonnay, and an entire line of products called Mommy Juice Wines.

In addition to alcohol products themselves, plenty of ancillary items promote women’s desire to drink. A quick stroll through an airport gift shop and you’ll find items for sale that include wine tumblers in bright colors with the word Swig on them; kitchen towels with the message: Caffeine, carpool, cocktails; and greeting cards that read, “You look like I need a drink.”

To some, like now-sober Cullen, these messages are not funny or enticing. Years ago, she recalls, “I saw a young woman with a travel coffee mug that said, ‘This is probably wine.’ However, it made me desperately sad at the time, because my crappy, nondescript travel coffee mug happened to actually be holding 20 ounces of even crappier wine, as I walked my shaking self to work for the day at 7 a.m.,” she says. “What I was feeling was not a sentiment that anyone would actually want to write on a cutesy coffee mug. The irony was palpable.”

For women like Cullen, who are doing their best to stay sober, our alcohol-centric society poses a challenge. Whether the event is a baby shower, a bachelorette party or a book club meeting, alcohol will prob¬ably be part of the festivities.

“Given how ubiquitous alcohol is in our society, it takes a lot of motivation to try and stay sober, and a community of like-minded individuals to provide the support,” says 34-year-old Nadia Williams, a Baltimore resident and psychotherapist who has worked with addicts in recovery.

Williams, who considers herself a social drinker, has an active group of friends who get together about once a week. Alcohol is usually involved in these social outings, although she and her friends get together to work out, too, and, increasingly, to travel as a group. So while alcohol is often a part of her social fabric, it’s not central to it. Williams says she knows when it’s time to stop. It doesn’t much bother her when others don’t.

“Because it’s legal, people don’t see alcohol as such a problem. But it can be equally devastating when someone dies from alcohol [as from opioids],” says Sapp. The Howard County-based hypnotist points out that while opioid-related deaths have captured widespread attention recently, alcohol abuse and its potentially tragic consequences tend to fly under the radar.

Although men are more than three times as likely as women to die from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), some experts believe that women’s dangerous drinking habits are catching up.
That’s certainly the case among younger drinkers.

“It’s clear in surveys of younger women that they’re pretty well tied with younger men in rates of drinking and binge drinking,” says Mary McCaul, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “And they’re creeping up in terms of the development of alcohol use disorder.”

But females, who metabolize alcohol differently than men, aren’t built to drink like their male counterparts. “Drink for drink, women get more exposure to alcohol (than men),” McCaul says.

It doesn’t take much alcohol exposure to be harmful. Anything beyond moderate drinking—defined by the NIAAA as more than one drink per day for women—places women at increased risk for liver damage, heart disease and breast cancer. In addition, overconsumption of alcohol increases the risk for accidents, unplanned pregnancies, legal trouble, damage to relationships and a host of other social ills.

For countless women, it all starts with what seems like an innocent pour of wine at the end of the day. But, as McCaul reminds us, “That goblet probably goes up to 10 ounces. You do that every night, and you’re entering into an unsafe level of drinking.”*

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