While drinking alcohol has become a popular past-time for both men and women, biological differences make it important that women consider the long-term effects of drinking too much. Reaching for a cold one has become commonplace for both genders at sporting events, celebrations, social gatherings, and the increasingly popular post-work happy hour, but, since women process alcohol differently, they need to consider how alcohol will affect their long-term health and how it will affect their short-term decision-making ability.
Drinking to excess has become the social norm among American women, with more than five million women indulging in alcoholic practices that threaten their overall safety. While drinking has increased in recent years for both men and women, females are more likely to suffer from alcohol-related problems. Heavy drinking increases a woman’s risk of becoming the victim of assault, both violent and sexual, and it also increases the likelihood of developing long-term health problems that are associated with both drinking and physical abuse.
Although men are more likely than women to develop problems with alcohol, even small amounts of alcohol are worse for women and can cause detrimental health effects. It’s important that women understand the unique risks they face when drinking alcohol, especially when doing so in excess.
Alcohol and Biology
The physical makeup of the female body makes it more difficult to process and eliminate alcohol compared to men, which is the easiest answer to the question, “do women get intoxicated faster than men?” Simply put: yes. One obvious reason for this is disparity is size. Since women typically have a smaller body mass, they are affected more quickly by drinks that are consumed by men of the same size. A man drinking a regular-size beer will process the beer more quickly and will eliminate it from their system sooner than a woman drinking the same amount.
Another reason for this physical disparity is water makeup. Due to their increased size and body mass, men have more water mass in their bodies than women, even when compared to women of the same height and weight. This leads women to have a higher blood alcohol concentration compared to men who drink the same amount, which typically results in women exhibiting the physical symptoms of alcohol consumption earlier than their male counterparts, even when the amount of consumed alcohol is the same.
Other contributing factors that increase the effects of alcohol in women include:
- Metabolism. Two hormonal enzymes are necessary to break down alcohol in the body: dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. Women have smaller amounts of these hormones than men, which makes them absorb higher amounts of alcohol faster. This is why a woman might feel drunk after one or two beers, while her male friends can drink three or four of the same with no outward side effects.
- Emotional issues. Women are more likely than men to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for their problems, such as stress and depression. This method of self-medicating as an escape can develop into an addiction quickly.
- Hormones. As hormones fluctuate throughout the month, women have natural changes that make it more difficult to process alcohol. Drinking at certain times during the menstrual cycle can make women more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. This causes many women to feel, and exhibit, the effects of alcohol sooner than their male friends.
Women might also drink more often than men due to emotional issues, which increases the emotional drinking risks for women. Some of these problems might include:
- Going through a divorce, breakup or separation
- Conflict with a family member or close friend
- Having a partner who drinks to excess
- Dealing with past abuse
- Handling work or family stress
In addition to the obvious long-term effects of alcohol use, drinking in excess can rob you of daily energy and necessary vitamins. Consider the following problems from over-indulging at happy hour:
- Appetite increase: Drinking alcohol lowers leptin, which is one of the hormones that signals you to tell you when your stomach is full. Without leptin, you’re more likely reach for a late-night snack or to drink a few extra piña coladas, which taste great but have empty calories. If you do this for a few nights in a row, you’ll start to notice an increase in your weight, even as you exercise regularly and watch your calorie intake during non-drinking hours.
- You lose sleep. Too much alcohol can zap your nutrient and vitamin intake — especially B12 — which is a vital but often overlooked nutrient. An important vitamin that helps with your daily mood and energy, a loss of B12 makes you feel tired and lightheaded. It’s also one of the first physical signs that indicates your liver is being damaged from too much alcohol. If you visit your family physician due to a general lack of energy and a low B12 count shows up on blood work, you should immediately cut back on your alcohol intake.
- Your blood pressure increases. Women who drink more than 10 times per week, which translates to one-and-a-half glasses of wine per night, have an increase of at least 12 points of their overall blood pressure. This higher blood pressure puts women at a higher risk of hypertension and, over time, heart attack.
Benefits of Alcohol
Despite all of the negatives that can occur with drinking too much alcohol, there are some surprising health benefits, although these need to be weighed against the potential for both short-term and long-term health problems. Some of the most obvious benefits of regular alcohol intake that have been studied include:
- Reduction in heart disease. One drink per day might help lower your chances of developing heart problems later in life. Drinking more than one drink, however, can increase your risk, so it’s important that you limit your intake to one small glass of wine if you want to keep your risk of heart disease down. Taking a look at your family history can help you determine where you fall for risk of heart disease.
If you have several immediate family members who died of heart disease, it might be a good idea to indulge in a drink or two per day to lower your likelihood of meeting the same fate. But if you have a family history of alcoholism, it’s probably a better idea to skip drinking altogether.
- Alcohol might prevent the common cold. One study found that moderate alcohol intake could reduce the likelihood of getting a cold. People who drank one to two glasses of wine per day were 60 percent less likely to get a cold, which might be an indication of the antioxidant properties found in wine. Conclusive research on other types of alcohol use hasn’t been completed, so if you don’t drink wine, don’t double up on your beer or alcohol consumption in hopes of avoiding a cold.
- Lower rate of diabetes. One to two glasses of wine per day might also decrease your chances of Type 2 Diabetes compared to people who drink any alcohol. If you have a family history of Diabetes, talk to your doctor about the latest research to find out if this is a worthwhile method for you to try to hold off your own likelihood of being diagnosed with Diabetes.
While there are some studies pointing to the benefits of alcohol consumption, it’s also important to note that most of these studies only look at moderate drinking, which is just one to two drinks per day, usually of wine. There is no research to suggest that more than two drinks per day have any health benefits.
What Is a Serving of Alcohol?
It’s easy to keep drinking at a social event when there’s an open bar, but it’s important to consider how much alcohol is in a serving. The type of drink, and the amount of alcohol in each drink, can vary widely. You might order a gin and tonic, not knowing that it’s double shot night. Suddenly, you’re faced with twice the drink you anticipated, but your bartender will be happy to top off your drink with ice water to help water down the drink.
Dietary guidelines, which are developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggest that moderate drinkers only intake one drink, or 14 grams, per day for women. But what exactly is 14 grams of alcohol? Here are some options:
- Beer: One 12-ounce beer with 5 percent alcohol
- Wine: Five ounces
- 80 proof distilled alcohol: 1.5 ounces (about a shot and a half)
When having mixed drinks that are prepared at a bar or restaurant, take a look at the ingredient list to determine what type of alcohol is being used. Although it can seem easy to drink two to three specials, it’s also easy to go over the recommended daily limit and feel the effects of alcohol in a short amount of time.
Health Consequences of Drinking Alcohol
While many people can drink without it leading to serious consequences, heavy drinking (defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as more than seven alcoholic beverages per week for women) is a leading cause of many health problems. In addition to the immediate effects of binge drinking, which includes risky behavior, drunk driving and hangovers, long-term use of alcohol can lead to:
- Liver disease. The liver is the most important organ in your body when it comes to breaking down and getting rid of alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to scarring and inflammation, which, over time, can cause your liver to stop working properly. This breakdown is called cirrhosis. With heavy drinking, women are more likely to develop cirrhosis, along with other liver-related problems, such as hepatitis.
- Cancer. Prolonged alcohol use, especially in women, has been shown to increase the incidence of several cancers, including cancer in the head, neck and digestive system. As little as one additional alcoholic drink per day has also been proven to increase the risk of developing breast cancer, especially in women with a known family history of breast cancer or those who are post-menopausal. Some studies suggest that each glass of wine can increase the likelihood of breast cancer by as much as 10 percent.
- Heart disease. Despite evidence that men drink more than women, heart disease and other cardiac problems are more likely to occur in heavy-drinking women. Since heart disease is now recognized as the number one killer in American women, it’s important to recognize that reducing the likelihood of this health problem can easily be done by reducing alcohol intake.
- Brain damage. Prolonged alcohol use can lead to a general decrease in brain function, such as short-term memory loss. While this can occur in both men and women, it’s more pronounced in women.
Women who drink heavily, especially over long periods of time, are also more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, bone breakage and high blood pressure.
Alcohol Abuse Problems
Drinking alcohol in excess can lead to an increase in both physical and sexual abuse. While the victim is never to blame in these situations, it’s easy to see how getting drunk can decrease one’s ability to make safe decisions. When the ability to make clear decisions is decreased, a woman might find herself in situations where she is unable to defend herself or voice her non-consent to potential predators.
Both women and men who drink to excess are more likely to become victims of sexual and violent abuse. If this abuse occurs early in life, victims are at an increased risk of abusing alcohol and drugs later. Women who have a family background of drugs or alcohol usage are more likely to become addicts themselves. And, since as many as 75 percent of all rapes are alcohol-related, many female victims of sexual violence will turn to alcohol as a way to cope with their stress and depression caused by the event.
Drinking During Pregnancy
Women who are in their child-bearing years need to consider how alcohol might affect a pregnancy, even if they are not planning to become pregnant. Since drinking in excess can lead to a reduced ability to make sound decisions about birth control, women should consider how their drinking might affect the development of an unexpected baby.
Many unplanned pregnancies can be undetected for several months, during which time ongoing drinking can have negative effects on a developing fetus. When a woman is aware that she might be pregnant, it’s imperative that she takes proactive steps to reduce her alcohol intake with the goal of eliminating alcohol altogether.
Women who do drink during their pregnancy expose their unborn baby to the risks of fetal alcohol syndrome, which can have long-term effects on the baby’s development. Problems include:
- Low birth weight
- Behavioral problems
- Sleep disturbances
- Facial abnormalities
- Learning disabilities
Many babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome will require ongoing educational support and physical therapy throughout their lives.
Warning Signs of Alcohol Addiction
It can be difficult to distinguish between going out for drinks with friends and having an alcohol problem that needs to be addressed. If you were raised in a family of heavy drinkers, you might be conditioned to think that four or five drinks per night is normal. But if you’re drinking in excess or if you’re drinking pattern is affecting your daily life, it might be time to talk with a professional who can help you address your struggle. Some of the most obvious signs of a drinking problem include:
- Being too hungover to go to work or school.
- Driving while intoxicated, or getting DUIs from the police.
- Increasing your drinking habits on a regular basis. Where a beer or two was enough, you now need a six-pack or an entire bottle of wine to feel relaxed.
- Hiding your alcohol use from family and friends.
- Drinking alone or finding a new group of friends to drink with.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction
Women who drink alcohol in excess are faced with two problems — not only are they more likely to suffer from addiction problems compared to men, but they’re also less likely to seek help for alcoholism. Women with drinking problems tend to shy away from being labeled as an alcoholic and blame most of their problems on more general mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
Whereas men are more apt to enter a rehabilitation program that is specifically designed for addressing addiction issues, women tend to seek out treatment from therapists and primary care physicians. By doing so, women can avoid the social label of alcoholism, but it can also prevent them from getting the treatment they need to address the underlying cause of addiction.
Recovery from Alcohol Addiction
Both men and women can succeed in their journey to recovery from alcohol abuse. Although early treatment options were male-focused, recent research demonstrates that women are just as likely as men to come out of alcohol addiction treatment successfully. The main difference, however, lies in a woman’s ability to enter treatment and find ongoing support when she re-enters daily life. Barriers to recovery include:
- Economics. Because women tend to have lower-paying jobs than men or work in part-time jobs, it’s more difficult for them to take time off. Thirty days of treatments equates to thirty days without pay, making it financially difficult for women to pay for a full-time treatment program.
- Child care. When a man enters treatment, he can often leave his children in the care of his wife or mother. As the primary caregiver, women have a more difficult time finding adequate care for their children that will enable them to enter a long-term treatment program.
- Women-based programs. Since many women turn to alcohol as a way of dealing with past sexual trauma, they may prefer a treatment program that is women-only. While this type of single-gender program has increased in recent years, it may be difficult to find one that is close to home or that offers support programs in one’s own town.
How to Avoid Alcohol Problems
Although women are less likely than men to develop drinking problems that need to be addressed by formal rehabilitation, they are also less likely to admit the need for help. When a man recognizes that he needs help to deal with a drug or alcohol addiction, he will likely turn to a formal treatment program. Women in similar circumstances, on the other hand, will talk to their primary care physician or a trusted mental health professional.
While seeking help is the first step in addressing any addiction issue, most people need the 24-hour care that is provided by an addiction residency program to help them overcome their addiction.
Hope Through Recovery
There are many opportunities for recovery, including psychotherapy, self-help groups, 12-step programs and medication options. Don’t put off treatment options for alcohol dependence simply because of a lack of treatment in your area.
To speak with one of our qualified therapists to learn more about our addiction programs, contact us today.