Amid the fanfare over the debut of the “female Viagra,” hardly anyone seems to be talking about how its chief contraindication – alcohol consumption – is at odds with our society’s seemingly insatiable drive to get women drunk.
Flibanserin, the first FDA-approved drug for treating female sexual dysfunction, became available in the U.S earlier this month. The media have been quick to report that the pink pill – a fitting mate to Viagra’s blue tablet – may increase sexual desire in some women who take it. But there has been far less coverage of its risky potential side effects.
To start, flibanserin acts quite differently than its male counterpart. Viagra boosts blood flow in the body while flibanserin, which is being marketed under the name Addyi, is a neurotransmitter drug that affects the central nervous system much like common anti-depression medications. Scientists aren’t completely sure why it can increase sexual desire.
Another key difference: its dosage and associated hurdles. To be prescribed flibanserin, a woman must first find a doctor who has received specific training on the drug. She then must locate a pharmacist who has been specially trained to dispense it. Unlike Viagra, flibanserin has to be taken every day, and it can take at least four weeks before a woman notices any change in her level of desire – and another four weeks for the drug to deliver its full effect.
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The uncertainties related to taking such a drug might be of real value to women who are diagnosed as having a distressing lack of sexual desire. But several women’s health advocates have also been trying to get the word out that the oft-cited statistic that 40 percent of women in America suffer from sexual dysfunction is not accurate. This statistic came from a study with dubious methodology that was financed by Pfizer, the maker of Viagra. Health advocates say that other factors are more often at issue.
Women’s lack of lust may be most often attributed to any number of factors, including stress, fatigue, recent childbirth, drug or alcohol use, relationship satisfaction, boredom in the bedroom and emotional or psychological disorders.
“Every woman really needs a thorough assessment,” Lori Brotto, an expert on hypoactive sexual-desire disorder, told NPR’s “On the Media” back in August when Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Addyi, got FDA approval. “By and large, most of the studies (about female sexual dysfunction) have pointed to psychosocial, interpersonal, individual factors. … Women with low desire have three times the rate of depression compared to women with healthy levels of sexual desire.”
But the big issue that doesn’t get enough attention is Addyi’s serious effects when combined with alcohol – in particular, severe low blood pressure that could lead to loss of consciousness.
Jen Gunter, a San Francisco-based obstetrician-gynecologist, took the “training” to be able to prescribe Addyi. She recounted on her blog that it consisted of reading 12 PowerPoint slides that boiled down to: “Don’t mix Addyi with alcohol. Your patient must promise to not drink alcohol ever on Addyi. You know this medication is dangerous if mixed with alcohol? It is your responsibility to make sure your patient doesn’t mix this medication with alcohol.”
It’s been widely reported that the testing for the safety of flibanserin with alcohol was conducted on 23 men and two women – this for a drug designed only for women. The study took place in the early morning, and researchers found that some of the women couldn’t handle drinking the equivalent of a half- to a full bottle of alcohol on an empty stomach within 10 minutes of waking.
Yet alcohol beverage sales are a $174 billion business in the United States. And the pushing of wine, high-octane fruity mixed drinks and low-cal beer on women is a big growth market for beverage distributors as well as for restaurants and bars.
Some 5.8 million women in the U.S. are estimated to have an alcohol-use disorder, and alcohol-related deaths are the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., taking the lives of approximately 26,000 women annually.
Junk science says that drinking one glass of red wine has the equivalent benefit to your well-being as an hour at the gym, and social media glorify this factoid along with seemingly endless memes about women’s obsession with wine at the end of the day, with friends or during a romantic date.
But be forewarned: Our society’s ease with turning life’s travails over to pretty little pills and a drink will not end happily.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.