By Chinwe Uzoechi
Women in many different cultures enjoy drinking alcohol for a variety of reasons—to celebrate a special occasion, help them feel more sociable, or simply to unwind with family and friends. While many are able to drink responsibly, alcohol use does pose unique risks to all women. While men are more likely to drink alcohol than women, and to develop problems because of their drinking, women are much more vulnerable to alcohol’s harmful effects.
Women tend to develop alcohol-related diseases and other consequences of drinking sooner than men, and after drinking smaller cumulative amounts of alcohol. Women are also more likely to abuse alcohol and other substances in order to self-medicate problems such as depression, anxiety, and stress, or to cope with emotional difficulties.
Women who drink more than light to moderate amounts of alcohol (more than about 7 drinks a week) are at increased risk of car accidents and other traumatic injuries, cancer, hypertension, stroke, and suicide. In addition, drinking at an elevated rate increases the likelihood that a woman will go on to abuse or become dependent on alcohol.
The health consequences of alcohol abuse in women
Women who abuse or are dependent on alcohol are more vulnerable than men to:
Liver disease. Women are more likely to contract alcoholic liver disease, such as hepatitis (an inflammation of the liver), and are more likely to die from liver cirrhosis (a chronic disease that progressively destroys the liver’s ability to aid in digestion and detoxification).
Brain damage. Women are more likely than men to suffer alcohol-induced brain damage, such as loss of mental function and reduced brain size.
Compared with women who doesn’t drink or who drink in moderation, women who drink heavily also have an increased risk of:
Osteoporosis (a thinning of the bones).
Falls and hip fractures.
Infertility and miscarriages.
High blood pressure and heart disease.
Alcohol and breast cancer
Alcohol may also raise a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Each additional 10 grams of alcohol (the amount in about one 4-oz glass of wine) per day raises the relative risk of developing breast cancer over a lifetime by about 10%.
To put this in perspective: A woman’s overall lifetime risk of breast cancer is almost 9 in 100 if she drinks no alcohol. Two drinks per day increases the risk to just over 10 in 100; while six drinks a day ups her risk to about 13 in 100.
It’s easy to cross the line into risky drinking
Remember: alcohol content of different beers, wines, and distilled spirits can vary and a single mixed drink may actually contain nearly two standard drinks.
For women in particular, there is a very fine line between healthful and harmful drinking—one that is easy to cross. While moderate drinking is defined as no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three on any given day, those levels aren’t set in stone.
The amount a woman can safely drink depends on:
Her weight and health.
Personal genetic makeup and family history.
The time since eating.
Some experts believe that women who drink even one alcoholic drink per day may be putting themselves at increased risk for health problems. For pregnant women, no amount of alcohol is deemed safe.
Because women become addicted to alcohol more easily than men, drinking even moderately can be a slippery slope. This is especially true for older women. In fact, about half of all cases of alcoholism in women begin after age 59.
Certainly, no one should feel obliged to start drinking for the health benefits. There are plenty of other ways to safeguard your health, such as regular exercise, a nutritious diet, keeping your weight under control, and not smoking. But for women who enjoy alcoholic beverages, it’s important to know where to draw the line, and to be prepared to redraw it as you get older.
Alcohol affects women in unique ways
A woman’s body processes alcohol more slowly than a man’s. One drink for a woman has about twice the effect of one for a man. Plus, women have a “telescoping,” or accelerated, course of alcohol dependence, meaning that they generally advance from their first drink to their first alcohol-related problem to the need for treatment more quickly than men.
Several biological factors make women more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than men.
Body fat. 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, alcohol remains at higher concentrations for longer periods of time in a woman’s body, exposing her brain and other organs to more alcohol.
Enzymes. Women have lower levels of two enzymes—alcohol dehydrogenise and aldehyde dehydrogenise—that metabolize (break down) alcohol in the stomach and liver. As a result, women absorb more alcohol into their bloodstreams than men.
Hormones. Changes in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle may also affect how a woman metabolizes alcohol.
These biological factors explain why women become intoxicated after drinking less and are more likely to suffer adverse consequences after drinking smaller quantities and for fewer years than men.
Sexual and physical abuse increases risk
Evidence suggests that sexual or physical abuse during childhood may predispose both men and women to alcohol and drug problems in adulthood. Since women are more likely to have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, they are disproportionately affected. Research shows that:
Women who have been physically or sexually abused as children are far more likely to drink, have alcohol-related problems, or become dependent on alcohol.
Physical abuse during adulthood, which is suffered more by women than men, seems to raise a woman’s risk of using and abusing alcohol.
Alcohol is a major factor in violence against women, playing a role in as many as three of every four rapes and nearly the same percentage of domestic violence incidents.
Women with a family history of alcohol abuse are more likely than men with the same background to abuse alcohol.
Drinking less will help you look good.
Tired eyes, bad skin, weight gain. There’s no doubt alcohol can have some unattractive effects.
Alcohol interferes with the normal sleep process so you often wake up feeling – and looking – like you haven’t had much rest. Alcohol dehydrates your body too, including the skin. It’s also thought to deprive the skin of certain vital vitamins and nutrients. So when you look in the mirror the morning after, you may not be so happy with what you see.
With two large glasses of wine hiding the same number of calories as a hamburger, it’s easy to see why regular drinking can make you gain weight. Alcohol reduces the amount of fat your body burns for energy. Because we can’t store alcohol in the body, our systems want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and this process takes priority over absorbing nutrients and burning fat.
Try taking a break from alcohol and see how you look and feel.