How Alcohol Affects Women's Health

Here's why less is more when it comes to alcohol consumption.

A woman drinking alcohol from a martini glass.

Updated on November 27, 2023.

Men are drinking less and women are drinking alcohol more, according to an October 2020 report published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Experts are concerned about this trend because people assigned female at birth (AFAB) are at higher risk for alcohol-related health issues, in part because their bodies process alcohol differently than those of people assigned male at birth (AMAB). 

For starters, the body chemistry of a person AFAB causes them to absorb higher concentrations of alcohol in the bloodstream, which means they become impaired more quickly. Why? People AFAB tend to weigh less and have less water in their bodies than most people AMAB. Once alcohol passes through the digestive tract, it finds its way to water in the body. The more water there is, the more diluted the alcohol becomes. 

And yet about 13 percent of adult women in the United States binge drink, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Binge drinking is defined as drinking four or more alcoholic beverages (or five or more drinks for men) within about 2 hours on at least one occasion in the previous month. The NIAAA recommends that women, especially those 65 and older, limit themselves to one drink per day. Here’s how one drink breaks down: 

  • 12 ounces of beer containing 5 percent alcohol 
  • 5 ounces of wine containing 12 percent alcohol 
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor containing 40 percent alcohol 

It's worth noting that normal pours of wine, beer, and even cocktails often exceed these amounts, especially at restaurants and bars.

The risks of drinking aren't limited to temporary impairment. Here’s how drinking alcohol could lead to health risks down the road.  

6 risks of excessive alcohol use 

Drinking alcohol can increase increase your odds of certain health conditions, including: 

Liver damage and inflammation

Women are more likely to get alcohol-induced liver disease, an infection that may affect digestion and the body’s ability to get rid of toxins, even after consuming less alcohol than men. In more extreme cases, liver disease may trigger the formation of scar tissue, or cirrhosis. Your risk of having these liver problems goes up dramatically if you drink 32 to 48 ounces of beer (2 ½ to 4 beers), 4 to 8 ounces of liquor (2 ½ to 4 shots), or 16 to 32 ounces of wine (3 to 6 servings) every day for 10 to 15 years. 

Breast cancer

Even just one drink per day may increase the risk of developing breast cancer. The risks are higher for those with a family history of breast cancer and for postmenopausal women. 

Brain damage

Research suggests that women increase their risk for alcohol-induced brain shrinkage the more they drink. Both men and women have learning and memory problems when they are heavy drinkers, too.  

Pregnancy complications

Ten percent of pregnant women drink alcohol, according to the NIAAA, which can cause problems for both mother and baby. When a pregnant person drinks alcohol it passes to the baby through the umbilical cord. Drinking any amount while pregnant can contribute to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome. Experts advise that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. 

Heart disease

There's some evidence that moderate drinking—defined as roughly one drink of alcohol a day for women or two for men—may have some positive effect on the chances of developing heart disease. But drinking more than that may actually increase risk of heart disease. Women are susceptible to these cardiovascular effects in a shorter amount of time than men. 


Women who drink four or more drinks a day, or eight or more in a week, increase their chances of developing alcohol use disorder (also known as alcohol dependence, abuse, addiction, or alcoholism). 

If you’re trying to limit yourself to one drink a day or less, try these tips: 

  • Measure out your serving size if you’re at home. 
  • Pay attention to how much you are drinking when you’re outside the home. Remember, the bigger the glass, the more wine you’re likely to get. 
  • Sip water between sips of alcohol. Instead of reaching for a second cocktail, enjoy a glass of seltzer water with a squeeze of fresh fruit juice. 

How to get help if you have a drinking problem 

Some research suggests that women are less likely than men to seek help and treatment for alcohol use disorder. Here are some signs that you may be dependent on alcohol: 

  • You’ve tried to stop drinking but couldn’t. 
  • You have alcohol cravings. 
  • Alcohol consumption interferes with daily activities like work, caring for family members, or going to school. 
  • You’re skipping hobbies and events to drink instead. 
  • Your bouts with drinking lead to memory blackouts. 
  • You have to drink more to feel the effects. 
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms like trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, sweating, or seizures. 

If any of the symptoms sound familiar, see a healthcare provider so they can steer you down the right treatment path. Common treatments for alcohol use disorder include alcohol counseling to focus on behavior and medications such as naltrexone and disulfiram to help with alcohol dependence. 

Mutual-support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Women for Sobriety can also help you connect with other people going through similar issues.

Article sources open article sources

White, Aaron M. Gender Differences in the Epidemiology of Alcohol Use and Related Harms in the United States. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health. Volume 40, Issue 229. October 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excessive Alcohol Use is a Risk to Women’s Health. Last Reviewed: October 17, 2022. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Binge Drinking. Last Reviewed: November 14, 2022. 
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking Levels Defined. Updated: 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Updated: August 2023.
Goh, C.M.J., Asharani, P.V., Abdin, E. et al. Gender Differences in Alcohol Use: a Nationwide Study in a Multiethnic Population. Int J Ment Health Addiction (2022). 
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. Updated: April 2023. 


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