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Stress causes women to consume more alcohol than intended

Currently, models of alcohol use and misuse are mostly derived from research on men,but it seems that these models may not always be applicable to women. New research has found that exposure to stress can lead women to consume more alcohol than intended, while stress alone does not have the same effect on the consumption of alcohol by men.

“Some people can intend to have one or two alcoholic beverages and stop drinking, but other people just keep going. This impaired control over drinking is one of the earliest indicators of alcohol use disorders, and we know stress contributes to both impaired control over drinking and dysregulated drinking. The role of stress in impaired control over drinking is understudied, especially in women,” said study lead author Julie Patock-Peckham, assistant research professor at Arizona State University.

The study took place in a laboratory that was set up to resemble a bar. There was a bar tender, bar stools, a choice of alcoholic beverages and lively bar-room conversation. The participants (105 men and 105 women) were randomly divided into two groups, one that experienced a stressful situation and the other that experienced a non-stressful situation.

Next, half of the participants received an alcoholic drink that was equivalent to three cocktails, and the other half received three non-alcoholic drinks. After that, all participants had unrestricted access to alcoholic drinks from the bar for 90 minutes. 

The researchers monitored alcohol consumption by counting the number of alcoholic beverages consumed, and also by measuring breath blood alcohol content (BAC). Their aim was to determine whether stress, the initial drink or the combination of the two most accurately predicted how much alcohol participants would consume. 

“We know that both genes and the environment play a role in problematic drinking. We can’t do anything about the genes, but we can intervene with the environment. Stress and impaired control over drinking are tightly connected, and because stress is something we can manipulate, we tested whether stressors cause dysregulated drinking,” said Patock-Peckham, who leads the Social Addictions Impulse Lab at ASU.

The results showed that participants exposed to stress engaged in heavier drinking, irrespective of their gender. However, men who experienced stress and then received an initial alcoholic drink consumed more alcohol than men who experienced stress but received a placebo (non-alcoholic drink) to start with. 

In the case of women, whether the first drink was alcoholic or not did not make a difference: experiencing stress led to heavy drinking.

“That women just needed the stress but men needed the push of already having alcohol on board shows how important this type of research is,” said Patock-Peckham. “The outcomes from alcohol use are not the same for men and women, and we cannot keep using models that were developed in men to help women.”

In general, although rates of alcohol misuse are higher in men than in women, women are catching up. Women are also more at risk than men of developing alcohol-related problems.

The results of this study are published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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