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Women Are Drinking Up in Quarantine and the Proof is in the Liver

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It hasn’t been a good year for women’s health, and the proof is starting to show much sooner than expected. Between the stress of the pandemic, school closings, childcare, and months of social isolation, many women don’t have the lives they used to.

The pandemic shuttered many female-dominated industries including education, hospitality, and food service. According to the Center for American Progress, women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs during the last ten months – nearly 1 million more job losses than men.

Looking at the country’s unemployment numbers in December, non-farm payroll job losses for the month were entirely borne by women. Black, Hispanic, and Asian women accounted for the majority of women’s job losses that month. And studies show around 154,000 black women have dropped out of the labor market entirely. These losses are being dubbed the “she-recession” as millions of women try to make ends meet during this difficult time.

So, how is all this affecting women’s health? A shocking rise in alcoholic liver disease.

The Booze Remedy

Drinking has been on the rise throughout the pandemic. For many people, downing a bottle of booze has become their preferred coping method. But even just a short period of heavy drinking can lead to lasting consequences.

Dr. Jessica Mellinger, a liver specialist at the University of Michigan, says cases of alcoholic liver disease, including fatty liver, cirrhosis, and alcoholic hepatitis, are up 30% compared to last year.

Mellinger says she has seen her patients go from just a couple of glasses of wine at the end of the day to a bottle of wine, or 5 to 6 drinks a day, which dramatically increases the risk of alcoholic liver disease.

The CDC has yet to unveil the full scope of the problem, but health experts like Dr. Mellinger say the problem is worse than they expected.

“In my conversations with my colleagues at other institutions, everybody is saying the same thing: ‘Yep, it’s astronomical. It’s just gone off the charts,’” Dr. Mellinger said. “We’re seeing kids in their late 20s and early 30s with a disease that we previously thought was kind of exclusive to middle age.”

The problem is that there’s not really a viable treatment or cure for this disease. The best remedy is simply to stop drinking and maintain a healthy lifestyle, which is easier said than done during a global pandemic. Many patients with alcoholic liver disease either won’t qualify for a liver transplant or run the risk of spending the rest of their lives on a waitlist.

Dr. Haripriya Maddur, a hepatologist at Northwestern University, says, “Unfortunately, transplantation is finite. There aren’t enough organs to go around. What it unfortunately means is that many of these young people may not survive and die very young — in their 20s and 30s. It’s horrific.”

With survival rates for cirrhosis and alcoholic liver disease hovering at just 10%, many young people will likely die from the disease over the next few years, especially if they can’t get their drinking under control.

Why Women?

Experts say women have more trouble recovering from the disease because their bodies process alcohol differently than men. Add that on top of all the stress women have been under, and you have a major health crisis on your hands. Health professionals say excess drinking and social isolation can also be a trigger for many other issues as well, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, eating disorders, and other emotional stressors.

Dr. Scott Winder, a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan who treats patients with alcoholic liver disease, says he wants to change the way providers care for and treat patients with alcoholic liver disease, so they have access to mental health resources once they are discharged from the hospital, instead of waiting weeks or months to see a psychologist, something he calls a “tragic gap” in care.

“The cultures of hepatology and the cultures of psychology and psychiatry are very disparate; we see patients very differently,” he said, so physicians aren’t coordinating care as much as they should be.

The personal shame that can come with drinking too much can make matters worse. Some women may be afraid to seek help or talk openly about their relationship with alcohol. The pandemic has also cut many people off from their loved ones who can help them through this difficult time.

Jessica Duenas wants to change that. She was diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis at the age of 34, shortly after being named the “Teacher of the Year” at her school. But stress would usually lead her to drink a liter of alcohol a night. As the pandemic hit, she started talking openly about her journey. 

She wrote an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal: “I’m Jessica, I’m the 2019 Kentucky State Teacher of the Year, I’m an alcoholic and I’ve been suffering in silence for years.”

She heard back from hundreds of women that were struggling with the same issues, including the pressures of family, work, and the pandemic.

“What I’ve noticed is quite a few of the women, typically, they were either educators, they were moms or they happened to be nurses or attorneys,” Duenas says. “Imagine being a teacher who gets evaluated on how your students do, given the situation today. I mean, that makes me want to drink for them, you know — like that’s a terrible pressure to be under.”

Since then, she’s started sharing her and other women’s stories online at www.bottomlesstosober.com.

If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol, you’re not alone. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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