Women and alcohol
Does alcohol affect women’s bodies differently from men’s? What are the health implications?
Alcohol affects both men and women - but there are some differences in the way it affects women’s bodies compared to men's. This means they are potentially more exposed to some health risks and benefits. So, if women weigh up the odds, is it worth them having a drink once in a while, or is it best avoided?
How does alcohol affect a woman’s body?
Women get drunk faster than men and their bodies take longer to break down and remove alcohol, as they have different body composition and chemistry. The immediate effect of drinking alcohol occurs more quickly and lasts longer for women. This leaves them more vulnerable to life-threatening illnesses that are linked to alcohol.
How do the sexes process alcohol?
- Men have more muscle mass than women, who naturally have more body fat. Women also have less water (52%) in their body than men (62%), so a man’s body dilutes more alcohol than a woman’s.
- More alcohol stays in a woman’s body leading to a higher concentration in the blood stream and higher blood alcohol content (BAC) – even in men and women of the same height and weight.
- The enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) that breaks down alcohol in the stomach is found in a lesser concentration in women’s stomachs – increasing a woman’s BAC.
Is there a good and bad alcohol limit for a woman?
There is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption. The degree of risk will vary according to the individual. Lifestyle, medical history and family medical history can all make a difference. However, UK government guidelines in 2016 advise:
- To keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level, women should not regularly drink more than 14 units per week (equivalent to a bottle and a half of wine per week or five pints of export style lager).
- It’s important not to binge drink, but to spread your intake across a number of days.
What are the health risks for women who drink alcohol?
- As little as 1 drink per day can raise the risk of breast cancer in some women, especially post-menopausal and those with a family history of the disease. That’s according to two US studies reported in the BMJ in 2015.
- Recent UK Government guidelines reveal that women who drink more than 2 units a day on a regular basis have a 16% chance of developing cancer. If you regularly drink over 5 units a day you have a 40% chance of developing breast cancer.
- The new UK Government guidelines also state that there is no safe drink limit while pregnant. Pregnant women who drink alcohol run the risk of miscarriages, stillbirths and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders – which cause mental retardation and birth defects.
- Compared with men, women develop alcohol-induced liver disease over a shorter period of time and after consuming less alcohol.
On a more positive note:
- Moderate drinking has been shown to protect women over the age of 55 from heart disease, according to the review of evidence for the 2016 UK government Alcohol guidelines.
- Women are less likely than men to suffer accident or injury after heavy drinking, as men appear more likely to take risks in such situations, according to the same evidence review (although heavy drinking by young women sometimes increases the risk of sexual victimisation).
- There is evidence, from a 2012 study, that post-menopausal women who drink moderately increase their bone density mass, which may potentially help to protect them against osteoporosis.
- A long term study reported in 2014 suggests a modest association between long term moderate drinking and reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
- The way women process alcohol compared with men allows it to stay in the body for longer, which increases the chance of damage and developing illnesses.
- Women who drink alcohol are more susceptible to illnesses such as breast cancer, liver disease and (if pregnant) Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
- However moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the risk of heart disease in post menopausal women and possibly the risk of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Drinking in moderation (up to 14 units a week) limits the risk of developing an alcohol related illness.
- Binge drinking and excessive alcohol intake, however, significantly increases the risks of developing life-threatening illnesses.
Judith Barnes Published July 2012, Reviewed and updated by Emma Juhasz February 2016, Next review date January 2019.