According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 8% of women will meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives. Women’s bodies react differently to alcohol for these primary reasons:
- Women typically weigh less than men.
- Pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men do, and alcohol dissolves in water. So when a man and woman of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol level will be higher and the immediate effects occur more quickly and last longer.
- Put another way, differences in a woman’s chemistry means that women absorb more alcohol and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies (i.e., they take longer to metabolize alcohol).
Women’s Health Issues Related to Alcohol
These differences also make women more vulnerable to alcohol’s long-term effects on their health. Women typically start to have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than men and develop long-term complications of alcohol dependence more rapidly than men.
Health concerns include:
- Excessive drinking can disrupt women’s menstrual cycles and increases the risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery
- Women who binge drink are more likely to have unprotected sex and multiple sexual partners. These types of high risk behaviors increase the risk of unintended pregnancy, sexual assault and sexually transmitted diseases
- Women who drink alcohol while pregnant increase the risk of having a baby with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome which causes mental retardation and birth defects.
- Studies have shown that about 1 of 20 pregnant women drank excessively before finding out they were pregnant. For women who drink during pregnancy, stopping as soon as possible may lower the risk of having a child with physical, mental or emotional problems
- Liver Disease. The risk of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher for women than for men.
- Impact on the Brain. Excessive drinking may result in memory loss and shrinkage of the brain. Research shows that women are more vulnerable than men to the brain damaging effects of excessive alcohol use.
- Impact on the Heart. Studies have shown that women who drink excessively are at increased risk for damage to the heart muscle than men even for women drinking at lower levels.
- Breast Cancer. Women who have about one drink per day also have an increased chance of developing breast cancer compared to women who do not drink at all.
In drug and alcohol treatment we see far more men than women overall. This is due to a variety of reasons including under or misdiagnosis, stigma and the health issues described above. As April is Alcohol Awareness Month it seemed a good time to discuss these differences in the hopes that more women will seek out an alcohol rehab or counselor and find the help they need.