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Why are women more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than men?

Dr. Paul  Hokemeyer, PhD
Marriage & Family Therapy Specialist

There are three key physical factors that make women more susceptible to alcohol related problems then men. The first deals with an enzyme in our body that breaks down alcohol in our systems. Women have less of this enzyme then men. As a result, alcohol stays in a women’s body longer and is absorbed into the blood stream faster and more intensely. In addition, compared to men, women have less water and more fat in their bodies. This combination results in their bodies holding a higher concentration of alcohol in their organs for a longer period of time then men.

Dr. Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine Specialist

Women are more sensitive than men to the effects of alcohol for two main reasons. First, women tend to weigh less than men and—pound for pound—a woman's body contains less water and more fatty tissue than a man's. Because fat retains alcohol while water dilutes it, a woman's brain and other organs are exposed to alcohol for longer time periods.

Second, women have lower levels of two enzymes—alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase—that break alcohol down in the stomach and liver. As a result, women absorb more alcohol into the bloodstream, which is why one drink for a woman has about twice the effect of one for a man. Together, these two factors explain why women become intoxicated after drinking less and are more likely to suffer adverse consequences after drinking less and for fewer years than men.

Women are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than men are and develop serious alcohol problems more rapidly than men, and at lower doses, a process called "telescoping." This is partially because women's bodies absorb alcohol faster than men's because of a difference in the way a key enzyme works. The enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), breaks down alcohol before it enters the bloodstream. But this enzyme is less active in women than in men. Also, women have a smaller ratio of water to fat than men. That means there's less water to dilute the alcohol and more fat to capture it. One positive difference: Women seem to eliminate alcohol from their bodies faster than men.

Hormonal fluctuations in women may affect how alcohol is metabolized. Some women report feeling the effects of alcohol more quickly or strongly when they drink at certain times during their menstrual cycle.

This content originally appeared on HealthyWomen.org.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.