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?

The BBC explains that differences in male and female bodies mean women are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. In particular, women produce smaller quantities of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which is released in the liver and breaks down alcohol in the body.

Also, fat retains alcohol while water helps disperse it. So, because they have naturally higher levels of body fat and lower levels of body water, women experience a stronger physiological response to alcohol.

Is there a good and bad alcohol limit for a woman?

There is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption. The degree of risk varies for each individual. Lifestyle, medical history and family medical history can all make a difference. However, UK government guidelines in 2016 advise: 

Meanwhile, a worldwide study published in the Lancet medical journal in 2018  has lowered that weekly level even further - to 12.5 units a week (i.e. roughly five 175ml glasses of wine or five pints a week). 

It’s important not to binge drink, but to spread your intake across a number of days. In addition ‘drink free’ days are now recommended. It is suggested that we all have at least 2 alcohol free days a week

What are the health risks for women who drink alcohol? 

  • Cancer Research UK advises that the more alcohol women drink the greater their risk of breast cancer - and the greater the risk of other types of cancer.
  • The Chief Medical Officers in the UK state that women should not drink, while pregnant, to prevent harming their unborn baby. Drinking alcohol can cause foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), risk of miscarriage and birth defects.

  • Women are also advised not drink more than 1 to 2 units of alcohol, once or twice a week, while breastfeeding. Everything you eat or drink ends up in the milk and can affect a baby’s development
  • Compared with men, women develop alcohol-induced liver disease over a shorter period of time and after consuming less alcohol. 
  • Reports suggest that women who drink heavily are more susceptible to psychiatric problems than men; these include depression, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies

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 - although this is the only instance where a proterctive effect was found.
  • 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).  
  • A long term study reported in 2014 suggests a modest association between long term moderate drinking and reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

Conclusions 

  • The way women's bodies process alcohol compared with men 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.
  • Drinking in moderation (up to 12.5 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. 

Reviewed and updated by Emma Juhasz March 2019, Next review date February 2023. 

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