Alcohol affects men and women differently from a biological perspective. What are some health concerns for women when it comes to alcohol intake?

It’s widely understood that women have a lower overall tolerance for alcohol than men do. Men often need to drink more than women in order to achieve the same result. Some may think that it is simply a sexist assumption. However, research has revealed biological differences between the sexes that show men’s and women’s bodies process alcohol differently.

Studies have shown that drinking alcohol affects women’s health more severely than it does men. What causes the differences between men and women in the way their bodies process alcohol? How does alcohol impact women’s bodies in comparison to their male counterparts?

Standard Drink Sizes and Drinking Levels for Women and Men

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one standard drink is either:

  • 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (about 5 percent Alcohol by Volume)
  • 8-9 fluid ounces of malt liquor (about 7 percent Alcohol by Volume)
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine (about 12 percent Alcohol by Volume)
  • 1.5 fluid ounce shot of hard liquor (about 40 percent Alcohol by Volume)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In the Dietary Guidelines, the departments outline suggested drinking levels for both men and women. They define moderate drinking as:

  • One drink per day for women
  • Two drinks per day for men

Binge drinkers and heavy alcohol users are at a higher risk for health complications due to alcohol use. The Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) established limits on the number of drinks for binge drinking heavy alcohol use. These guidelines help determine whether or not someone has a problem with their alcohol use.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is any drinking that brings the Blood Alcohol Concentration level (BAC) to a .08, the legal limit for a Driving Under the Influence charge. This usually occurs when, within two hours, someone drinks:

  • Four drinks for women
  • Five drinks for men

Heavy Alcohol Use

SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as anyone who has five or more occasions of binge drinking within the past month.

Statistics on Women Who Drink

60 percent of women in the United States report having at least one drink per year. Of those women, 13 percent consume more than seven drinks per week, above the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In the United States alone, 26,000 women died of an alcohol-related cause. Worldwide, 4 percent of women passed away due to an alcohol-related incident.

Alcohol Use Disorders in Women

An Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic patter of problem drinking. People with an AUD often drink compulsively, lose control over the amount they drink, and feel poorly when they are not able to drink. Of the 60 percent of women who drink in the United States, 5.3 million qualify as having an AUD.

Alcohol use disorders are dangerous for anyone. People with an AUD often find themselves in dangerous situations due to their drinking, such as driving while under the influence. Additionally, heavy alcohol use negatively impacts both physical and mental health. However, this holds even more true for women who have an alcohol use disorder.

Effects of Alcohol on Women’s Health

So why is it recommended that women drink less than men do? Simply put, women often face a higher risk of developing alcohol-related health problems. When the body processes alcohol, it spreads through the water throughout the body.

Since women are often smaller and weigh less than men, there is less water for the alcohol to distribute into. Because of this, alcohol reaches women’s brains and organs faster than it does men. When a woman drinks heavily for a long period of time, her body experiences a more significant negative impact.

More specifically, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women who have more than one drink per day have an increased risk of:

  • Motor vehicle crashes
  • Other injuries
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Violence
  • Suicide
  • Specific types of cancer

It is true that studies have shown that alcohol in small quantities can have some positive effects on health. However, the effects of regular, heavy alcohol use are only harmful. Whether it’s physically or mentally, excessive alcohol use is never a safe route to follow.

Mixing Alcohol and Medications

119 million Americans take some type of prescription drug, meaning nearly half of all people over the age of 12 are on a medication. Whenever you receive a medication, you’ve most likely seen a “Do Not Mix With Alcohol” label on the bottle. This is not merely a suggestion: many medications have harmful or dangerous reactions when mixed with alcohol.

Women who do not pay attention to the warning labels on their medications have an additional increase in health risks. The liver can only process so much at one time; when you force it to process alcohol in addition to your medication, complications often occur. Health risks posed by alcohol are multiplied when combined with many medications and can lead to more serious issues.

Health Risks Associated with Drinking

Studies have shown that even one drink per day has the chance of increasing a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Women with a family history of breast cancer or those who have passed the phase of menopause are at an even greater risk. Women who drink alcohol heavily also have a risk of developing other types of cancer, specifically in the digestive track, head, and neck.

Due to their smaller size, women also have an increased chance of developing liver disease over men. They have a higher chance of developing liver inflammation and eventually cirrhosis (irreversible scarring of the liver), which usually leads to an early and painful death.

Heavy alcohol use also impacts the brain, leading to potential loss of mental capabilities, reduced brain size, or changes in the ability of functioning brain cells. Again, women are at a higher risk of developing brain diseases than men are because of their differences in physical size.

Women and Drinking During Pregnancy

There is another significant difference between men and women: women have the ability to become pregnant. Not only does their drinking negatively impact their own health, but pregnant women also put their unborn child at risk when they drink. Women who drink during pregnancy put their baby at risk of developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

Women who do not stop drinking during their pregnancy put their child at risk of a number of mental difficulties, including problems with:

  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Problem solving

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a condition that affects children born to women who drink alcohol during their pregnancy. Alcohol interacts with the fetus during its most important developmental stages as the brain and body form. FAS can cause premature birth, under-average birth size, changes in facial features, and mental impairment. These conditions often last through childhood and can result in lifelong challenges for these individuals.

Helping Women Quit Drinking

The list of health complications and problems due to heavy drinking should be alarming to women. However, those who have drank for a long time may find it difficult or nearly impossible to quit drinking. There are ways to quit drinking, though. Programs offered at alcoholism treatment centers provide a place for women to separate from the drink in a safe and secure environment.

If you or a woman you know and love is struggling with a drinking problem, reach out to learn more about the options available to you.