How Alcohol Affects Women

How Alcohol Affects Women

Men really can throw back more booze than women, but do you know why?

Men are drinking less and women are drinking more—closing up the gender-drinking gap, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Moderate drinking may have some benefits like reduced heart disease risk, but women are also at higher risk for alcohol-related health issues because they process alcohol differently than men.

A woman’s body chemistry causes them to absorb higher concentrations of alcohol in the bloodstream, so they become impaired more quickly. Why? Women tend to weigh less and have less water in their bodies than most men. 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 12 percent of adult women binge drink—­drinking 4 or more alcoholic beverages within about 2 hours—3 times a month. The NIAAA recommends women, especially those 65 and older, limit themselves to one drink per day. Here’s how one drink breaks down:

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

One drink per day sounds reasonable, but normal pours of wine, beer and even cocktails often exceed these amounts, especially at restaurants and bars. Here’s how your drinking habits could lead to health risks down the road. 

6 risks of excessive alcohol use in women
When you drink more than the recommended amount, you’re increasing 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 your digestion and your 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 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) 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 a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and 2 to 5 drinks may increase their risk even more. The risks are higher for those with a family history of breast cancer and for postmenopausal women.

Brain damage: Brain tests indicate that women increase their risk for alcohol-induced brain shrinkage if they are alcohol dependent. And while experts are still trying to prove that these effects are worse in women, they are confident that both men and women have learning and memory problems when they are heavy drinkers, too. 

Pregnancy complications: 10 percent of pregnant women drink, which can cause problems for both mom and baby. When a pregnant women 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 don’t recommend any amount of alcohol at any time during pregnancy.

Heart disease: Moderate drinking, which is about one drink a day for women, two for men, may actually lower your risk of heart disease, but heavy drinking may increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. Women are most susceptible to these cardio effects in a shorter amount of time than men.

Addiction: Women who drink four or more drinks a day, or eight or more in a week, increase their chances of developing alcohol dependence.

If you’re trying to limit yourself to one drink a day like the NIAAA recommends, try these tips:

  • Measure out your serving size if you’re at home
  • Pay attention to how much your drinking when you’re out—the bigger the glass, the more wine you’re likely to get
  • After your cocktail, enjoy a mocktail by swapping liquor for club soda

How to get help if you have a drinking problem
Women are also less likely to admit they have an alcohol problem, so they don’t get the help and treatments they need. Here are some signs that you’re 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 your kids 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 your primary care doctor first so they can steer you down the right treatment path. Common treatments for alcohol addiction 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.

Medically reviewed in January 2018.

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