TEMPE, Ariz. — Stress, by itself, appears to be a bigger trigger of excessive drinking among women than it is for men, a new study reveals. Researchers from Arizona State University find men who start by ordering a soft drink after a stressful day are less likely to end up switching to alcohol in comparison to women.
While men are still more likely to develop a drinking problem, the study authors say women are catching up and are more likely to suffer from alcohol-related health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive drinking leads to more than 95,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
“Some people can intend to have one or two alcoholic beverages and stop drinking, but other people just keep going,” says assistant professor Julie Patock-Peckham in a university release.
“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.”
Stress drives everyone to drink, but men can slow it down
The Arizona State team invited 105 men and 105 women to visit their laboratory, which they designed to look like a bar, with stools, an actual bartender, and lively conversations. Before raising their glasses, researchers split the participants into two groups, with some experiencing a stressful situation and others having an easy-going day.
Half the participants consumed an alcoholic drink equivalent to three cocktails, while others received three non-alcoholic beverages. Next, all the volunteers received unrestricted access to alcoholic drinks from the bar for 90 minutes.
“We know that both genes and the environment play a role in problematic drinking,” Dr. Patock-Peckham explains. “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,” the researcher continues.
Participants then took a breathalyzer test and the researchers tallied up how many drinks each person consumed during the experiment. Overall, exposure to stress led to heavier drinking among all participants, the study shows.
However, men under stress who drank alcohol before the open bar continued to drink more excessively than those starting with a soft drink. On the other hand, women under stress drank more regardless of whether their first drink was alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
“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,” Dr. Patock-Peckham concludes. “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.”
The findings appear in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.