Female drinkers better at staying in the zone than men

04 March 2014

Dr Carol Emslie

Dr Carol Emslie

Middle-aged women are more likely than their male counterparts to stop drinking when they feel they have had enough alcohol, according to data from group discussions presented in a new study.

Researchers spoke to 15 groups of friends in Glasgow, aged 30 to 50, about their drinking habits. They found that women in the study were more likely than men to say they stopped drinking when they reach a certain level of intoxication, and more clearly described a range of sensations and feelings in their bodies which indicated they had had enough alcohol.

One participant said:

“I feel like I’ve developed an internal kind of gate, which I know I don’t want to go through. It’s hard to verbalise the feeling. It’s not necessarily that I feel sick or I feel dizzy. I’m just like ‘No, that’s it. That’s enough.”

Participants in the study described themselves as being ‘in the zone’ when they felt they had had enough to drink to feel relaxed and chatty, but not inebriated. They described their enjoyment of the sensation of being ‘in the zone’ with friends who were drinking at a similar rate, and then slowing down or stopping drinking before they felt they had passed a ‘point of no return’ when they realised they had drunk too much, as indicated by slurring, stumbling, feeling sick and becoming too loud.

A participant described being ‘in the zone’ as:

“That perfect level when you’ve managed to untie your tongue enough and your brain seems to be working faster, and everything you say is really fascinating to other people. That point where you think, ‘I’m really enjoying myself.’”

The study ‘Staying ‘in the zone’ but not passing the ‘point of no return’: Embodiment, gender and drinking in mid-life’, has been published in the journal Sociology of Health and Illness, explored how middle-aged men and women experience and understand alcohol consumption.

It produced a range of conclusions which could support alcohol health promotion efforts to reduce excessive drinking.

These included:

  • Middle-aged drinkers often associate drinking alcohol with relaxation, reward and temporary release from work and childcare responsibilities. 
  • Current health promotion usually focuses on the number of units of alcohol consumed. It could usefully focus in addition on the way an individual experiences alcohol to reduce excessive drinking.
  • Many midlife drinkers draw on physical cues from their own bodies to know when to slow down or stop drinking.  Further research should examine how we support people to perceive and act on these cues to minimise harmful levels of alcohol consumption.

Dr Carol Emslie, Leader of the Substance Use and Misuse Research Group, in Glasgow Caledonian University’s Institute for Applied Health Research, co-authored the paper. She said:

“This research was an attempt to learn more about the sensations, feelings and emotions people experience when they consume alcohol in midlife. When we asked participants about how they controlled the amount they drank, they described monitoring changes in their bodies, rather than counting units of alcohol.  

“Health promotion could build on our findings by focusing on ‘sobering moments’ – key points in the evening  when people reassess how they feel and decide to slow down or stop drinking – so helping people to avoid the ‘point of no return’ with the accompanying short term (vomiting, stumbling, blackouts, hangovers) and possible long term damage to health.”

Dr Antonia Lyons, Massey University, New Zealand was the lead author on the paper.  She said:

“The alcohol industry has been very successful in linking alcohol consumption to reward and relaxation for daily coping among both men and women at mid-life. Our findings