Why do so many young women binge-drink to oblivion?

55 per cent of women in the UK are thought to have an alcohol problem. Photo / Getty Images
55 per cent of women in the UK are thought to have an alcohol problem. Photo / Getty Images

At first glance, she is the sort of daughter every parent would dream of. An accomplished musician, with a degree in contemporary arts, Emily Carter-Lucas is naturally bright.

Indeed, her teaching assistant mother and civil servant father were overjoyed when she achieved a string of As and A*s in her GCSEs and A-levels. She positively thrived in her grammar school - and looked set to go onto great things.

So why then, before the clock has even struck 10pm on a Saturday night, has Emily lost count of how many drinks she's had?

Her second bottle of cheap rosé has already been polished off, and she has made a start on the tequila.

Despite being just 5ft tall, the attractive brunette will knock back at least ten shots of this 40 per cent strength spirit.

Often, in a state of obnoxious inebriation, she will then get into a furious altercation with a stranger over some perceived slight.

After staggering home, she'll have a 'nightcap' of Baileys or two before throwing up and falling into bed.

The next day, the intelligent and animated 22-year-old, who loves literature and music, will have one hell of a hangover. And the detail of what has happened to her will be all but a blur.

And sadly, it is, she admits, all too usual for her to binge 'to the point where I forget'.
Indeed, Emily, who lives in Hereford, has a night like this at least once every week. It's a vast amount of alcohol for anyone, let alone a young woman, to consume.

But Emily is far from alone in her relentless quest to get blind drunk. Tens of thousands of other bright young women also regularly drink frightening amounts of alcohol.

The statistics revealing the depths of young British women's abuse of alcohol are deeply concerning. Guidelines recommend you should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week - around six medium-sized glasses of wine.

Yet research has shown one in five British women exceed this and, according to the World Health Organisation, there are more women in the UK with an alcohol problem than those without - some 55 per cent.

More than this, over the past 20 years, the number of alcohol-related deaths every year among women has increased by 80 per cent - from 1,334 in 1994 to 2,838 today.

And of these, one of the biggest increases was in women supposedly in the prime of their lives, those aged 20 to 34, with a rise of 130 per cent.

Why? The reasons are diverse and complex. Young middle-class women are more likely to go to university than ever before where, as one psychiatrist told the Mail, "there is an institutional acceptance of binge drinking."

Bad habits then become engrained as aspirational women pursue careers, delay children, become stressed and overworked - and self-medicate with alcohol.

As well as all this, for each of the young women I interviewed, a common theme was how booze-fuelled excess is the ultimate marker of a good night.

The dangers of binge drinking are well documented. In addition to liver failure it can damage fertility, while increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer, with around six per cent of breast cancer cases in the UK linked to alcohol.

For women, the toxic effects of booze show up much more quickly than men, who have lower body fat and higher levels of water, which dilutes alcohol.

Women's livers also produce less of the substance that the body uses to break alcohol down (an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase). This means women not only get drunk quicker, but the effects last longer.

In addition to health risks, drinking to oblivion also leaves women more susceptible to injury and sexual assault.

There is no doubt that intelligent and educated young women are drinking in a way their mothers and certainly grandmothers would never have dreamed of. What's more, it has become socially acceptable for them to do so.

"There's a popular misconception that those who are abusing alcohol, the drunken women we see across the country staggering out of clubs, are uneducated and working class," explains consultant psychiatrist and alcohol abuse specialist Dr Chris Kelly.

"But alcohol abuse is across the social spectrum. There are as many, if not more, professional females who drink too much. I've treated lawyers, teachers and doctors.

"Many universities have more women than men now. A lot of these women will end up becoming alcohol dependent.

"In the past it would've been unheard of for women to get so drunk and so openly.

"Intelligent women tend to have babies later in life, so they're not tied down when they're younger. They also have more choices and, with this, more stresses and responsibility. In a sociological sense, they have more things to juggle than perhaps at any other time.

"I am seeing many women who have become dangerously tolerant to alcohol. As well as ultimately putting themselves in harm's way, regular binge drinking causes mental health problems and feeds on buried feelings of depression."

The number of women in their 20s with alcohol-related liver damage is also on the increase. In Norfolk, hospital consultant Dr Martin Phillips warned four years ago he had seen a 65 per cent increase since 2008.

He said at the time: "It's a common misconception that women can "handle" their alcohol intake just as well as men. However, it's simply not true."

Another contributing factor in the boom in alcohol abuse among middle-class women is the seductive marketing employed by the drinks industry to attract female consumers, including the advent of sweet drinks such as WKD and Smirnoff Ice.

"Ultimately," Dr Kelly says, "people drink because it feels good. It is a nervous system suppressant. It depresses the higher sensors of the brain, the part that makes you feel stressed or anxious.

- Daily Mail

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