Alcohol and Women

There are important differences in the way women’s bodies react to alcohol compared with men. Being aware of what those differences are could literally save your life.

Read what every woman needs to know about alcohol.


Why the fuss about women’s drinking?

There’s been a lot of public attention recently about women’s drinking habits. This is not just the result of negative attitudes some members of society may have about women having fun on their own terms. There are serious reasons for this concern …


Women are drinking more than ever

In 2002, women’s average weekly consumption was 45% higher than in 1992.

We cannot just blame teenagers or unemployment. Other research has shown that women working full-time in professional or management posts are most likely to develop a problem with their drinking.

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Three reasons women cannot drink like men

  • First, women are smaller on average than men, so there is less all round to absorb the alcohol.
  • Second, women have on average 10% more fat than men (hence the feminine curves). This means there’s less body fluid to dilute alcohol, so it travels around women’s bodies in more concentrated form.
  • Lastly, women’s livers produce less of the substance the body uses to break alcohol down (an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase). This means women not only get drunk quicker but the effects last longer.

This is why there are different sensible limits for women and men’s drinking.

Drinking too much alcohol has specific health implications for women …


Alcohol poses greater risk of liver disease for women

As well as being smaller and producing less of the chemical that neutralises alcohol, women’s livers cannot repair themselves as quickly as men’s when damaged. This means that it takes women longer to recover from the damage caused by a heavy session.

Unfortunately, women’s drinks come in the same measures as those men order, so, if we try to keep up with the lads, we are looking at more health trouble in the future than they will encounter.


Alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer

As many as 500 new cases of breast cancer each year could be directly caused by drink. According to the world’s largest study of women’s drinking behaviour, the risk of breast cancer increases by 6% for every alcoholic drink over the sensible limit you drink every day. Why this is we do not yet know, but scientists are clear that a link between breast cancer and alcohol does exist.


Alcohol, hormones and the pill

For 2 or 3 days before your period and during ovulation, you will feel the effects of alcohol more quickly. The pill has the opposite effect, delaying the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and delaying the time it takes to leave your body. If you are on the pill, you will not be as aware of the effects of alcohol and may drink more than you realise.


More than a glass of wine per day may reduce your chances of getting pregnant

Studies have shown that women who drink above sensible limits are less likely to achieve pregnancy. A recent study reported by the British Medical Journal suggested that as few as five drinks each week would decrease a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant.

The general advice is: if you want to conceive, avoid alcohol completely.


Drinking while pregnant can harm the unborn child

Any alcohol in mum’s blood will cross the placenta and get into the foetus’ bloodstream too. A baby’s liver doesn’t mature until the second half of pregnancy, so your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can.

Pregnant women, or women trying to conceive, should avoid drinking alcohol completely. If they do choose to drink, to minimise the risk to the baby they should not drink more than 1 to 2 units of alcohol once or twice per and should not get drunk.

Drinking any more means you could be putting your baby’s health at serious risk from a variety of problems. It is not yet known at what exact level of alcohol intake the risk of miscarriage or damage to your baby starts to increase but the more you drink the more of a risk you are taking.

  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth-weight have all been associated with mothers’ binge-drinking. Binge-drinking in women is defined as drinking more than six units on one occasion.
  • Other effects of drinking heavily in pregnancy include Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Around 6,000 children are born with FASD each year. Symptoms of FASD include:
    • Learning difficulties; problems with emotional development and behaviour; memory and attention deficits; hyperactivity; difficulty in organising and planning; and problems with language.
    • Facial deformities.
    • Being small, at birth and throughout life.
    • Poor muscle-tone.
    • As a result of their difficulties with learning, judgement, planning and memory, people with FASD may experience additional problems. These include psychiatric problems, disrupted education, trouble with the law, alcohol and drug problems, and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Children with FASD can have one or several of these symptoms. Children who display all of the symptoms are defined as having Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

How a baby will be affected depends on how much its mother drinks and at what point in her pregnancy. For example, damage to the organs through heavy drinking is most likely to happen in the first three months.

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Alcohol, weight-gain and nutrition

There are almost 200 ’empty’ calories in a large glass of red wine.

At 7 calories per gram, alcohol is stuffed with more calories than many foods. That is just the alcohol content, mind you: any sugar in your drinks comes on top of that.

Added to this, alcohol stimulates our appetite but reduces our self-control, making it easy to eat too much, so drinking could be a much greater cause of weight-gain than you suspect.

Someone who drinks heavily may be over-weight and yet malnourished, as a result of replacing food with alcohol. What’s more, once alcohol has damaged the liver, the body cannot process the food we eat properly, which means less essential nutrients for our bodies to use


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