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Encephale. 2002 Nov-Dec;28(6 Pt 1):503-9.

[Clinical and biological specificities of female alcoholism].

[Article in French]

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Service de Psychiatrie du Professeur Rouillon, Hôpital Albert Chenevier, 40, rue de Mesly, 94000 Créteil.


Even though the number of alcohol-dependent women is only about 1/3 of the number of alcoholic men, the alcoholism in women, by its clinical features and its course, is the source of therapeutic and economic stakes, particularly in young women among whom an increase of alcohol consumption related problems is reported. Another specificity of the female alcoholism is the lack of care seeking, whereas women have tendency globally to solicit more often care structures than men. Women represent only 1/4 of the overall treated alcoholic patients. The main explanation for this phenomenon is the pejorative social and moral connotation of the female alcoholism, with frequent feelings of shame and deep guilt, that also account for the frequency of hidden and lonely alcohol intakes. The female alcoholism is essentially characterized by an increased vulnerability to the toxic effects of the alcohol, whereas the pathological consumption starts later and with smaller daily amounts. Most studies have revealed a higher vulnerability in women to somatic complications directly attributable to the alcohol organs toxicity, such as hepatic cirrhosis and cardiovascular complications (high blood pressure, non obstructive cardiomyopathy). The reported brain morphological abnormalities could also occur more precociously in alcoholic women than in men. A decreased corpus callosum size among alcoholic women, but not in alcoholic men, was thus found in a recent study, compared with healthy controls. Among the different hypothesis proposed to explain this increased alcohol toxicity, the most incriminated is higher alcohol blood rates for the same ingested amount, mainly of the fact of a lower size with a weaker proportion of the bodily total water, but also of weaker concentrations of gastro-intestinal tract ADH, or of a longer metabolism during some menstrual phases. Indeed, some experimental studies on animal showed that the alcohol toxic effects may occur only from a threshold of alcohol blood rate. More recent studies suggest that the explanation to keep is more related to the lower gastric metabolism in women (lower ADH activity), than the difference of gastric volume or alcohol hepatic oxidation. Regarding to comorbidity, in the Epidemiologic Catchment Area survey, 65% of women, versus 44% of men, with abuse and/or dependence to alcohol had at least one another life-time psychiatric disorder (mainly depression and anxiety disorders), compared to 36% of the overall women of the studied sample. On the other hand, the alcohol dependence is, more often than in men, secondary to other psychiatric disorders, essentially depressive episodes, but less associated to antisocial behaviours. Among the different etiopathogenic factors involved in the alcohol dependence occurrence, genetic factors seem to have a determinant impact. According to the previous family, separation/adoption and twins studies performed, genetic factors could explain 50 to 60% of the alcoholism vulnerability in both men and women. In this context, and whereas we assist to the development of etiopathogenic models with new therapeutic perspectives in alcohol dependence, it seems necessary not to neglect female alcoholism specificities.

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