Alcohol More Dangerous for Women?
Recent studies show that alcohol use and abuse are on the rise among women. 1–2
While alcohol abuse, in general, is a serious public health concern, women who drink have a significantly higher risk of explicit alcohol-related medical issues compared to men.3
Making Informed Decisions
Women need to be conscious of these health risks and dietary guidelines, which recommend no more than one drink per day for women, as they make their decisions about consuming alcohol.4
Why are Women at a Higher Risk?
Research shows that women will start to develop alcohol-related complications sooner while drinking less than men and for various reasons.3 Other biological differences may contribute to higher risks, but women have a lower body weight than men on average. While alcohol resides predominantly in body water, and pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men. That means that when a man and a woman of equal weight drink the same quantity of alcohol, the woman’s BAC, or blood alcohol concentration, tends to be higher, putting her at superior risk.
What Are the Long-Term Health Risks for Women?
Alcohol Use Disorder or AUD is a chronic worsening brain condition characterized by a reduced ability to halt or control alcohol use, despite adverse social or health consequences. AUD ranges from mild to severe, but recovery is possible notwithstanding the severity.
Enduring alcohol misuse is a leading cause of heart disease in women, who are more vulnerable to alcohol-related heart disease than men, even while they may consume less alcohol over time than men.3
Other academic research submits that alcohol misuse causes brain damage more quickly in women than in men.6 A growing body of evidence demonstrates that alcohol can disrupt normal brain development during the adolescent years. Similarly, there may be differences in the impact of alcohol on the brains of teen girls and boys who drink.7
In one study, teen girls who regularly go on a drinking spree, compared to teen boys who do the same, showed less brain activity and worse performance on a memory test than peers who drank lightly or abstained from drinking altogether.8
Likewise, teen girls who drank heavily showed a greater reduction in the size of important brain areas involved in decision-making and memory than teen boys who engaged in heavy drinking.9
Women also may be more susceptible to alcohol-related blackouts than men. Blackouts are gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while intoxicated. These gaps happen when a person drinks sufficient alcohol to temporarily block the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage. This phenomenon is known as memory consolidation in a part of the brain named the hippocampus.10
There is a strong link between drinking alcohol and developing breast cancer. Studies demonstrate that women who consume about 1 drink per day have a 5 to 9 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink.11–13 That risk increases for every additional drink a woman has per day.
Alcohol and Pregnancy
During pregnancy, any drinking can be harmful. Alcohol can cause physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems in children (Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASD). Drinking while pregnant also holds an augmented risk of preterm labor.
Women Who Should Avoid Alcohol Entirely:
- Those who are pregnant or trying to conceive
- Those younger than the age of 21
- Those who take medications that can interact negatively with alcohol, such as sedative drugs, sleeping pills, pain relievers, and anti-anxiety medications
To determine if your alcohol use puts you at risk for AUD, please visit Rethinking Drinking.
- White, A.; Castle, I.J.; Chen, C.; et al. Converging patterns of alcohol use and related outcomes among females and males in the United States, 2002 to 2012. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 39:1712–1726, 2015. PMID: 26331879
- Slade, T.; Chapman, C.; Swift, W.; et al. Birth cohort trends in the global epidemiology of alcohol use and alcohol-related harms in men and women: Systematic review and metaregression. BMJ Open 6(10):e011827, 2016. PMID: 27797998
- Erol, A.; and Karpyak, V. Sex and gender-related differences in alcohol use and its consequences: Contemporary knowledge and future research considerations. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 156:1–13, 2015. PMID: 26371405
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Appendix 9: Alcohol. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Eighth Edition. December 2015.
- Guy, J.; and Peters, M. Liver disease in women: The influence of gender on epidemiology, natural history, and patient outcomes. Gastroenterology & Hepatology 9(10):633–639, 2013. PMID: 24764777
- Hommer, D.W. Male and female sensitivity to alcohol-induced brain damage. Alcohol Research & Health 27(2):181–185, 2003. PMID: 15303629
- Jones, S.A.; Lueras, J.M.; and Nagel, B.J. Effects of binge drinking on the developing brain: Studies in humans. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews 39(1): 87–96, 2018.
- Squeglia, L.M.; Schweinsburg, A.L.; Pulido, C.; et al. Adolescent binge drinking linked to abnormal spatial working memory brain activation: Differential gender effects. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 35(10):1831–1841, 2011. PMID: 21762178
- Seo, S.; Beck, A.; Matthis, C.; et al. Risk profiles for heavy drinking in adolescence: Differential effects of gender. Addiction Biology. In press.
- Hingson, R.; Zha, W.; Simons-Morton, B.; and White, A. Alcohol-induced blackouts as predictors of other drinking-related harms among emerging young adults. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 40(4):776–784, 2016. PMID: 27012148
- Shield, K.D.; Soerjomataram, I.; and Rehm, J. Alcohol use and breast cancer: A critical review. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 40(6):1166–1181, 2016. PMID: 27130687
- Li, C.I.; Chlebowski, R.T.; Freiberg, M.; et al. Alcohol consumption and risk of postmenopausal breast cancer by subtype: The Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 102(18):1422–1431, 2010. PMID: 20733117
- Allen, N.E.; Beral, V.; Casabonne, D.; et al. Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 101(5):296–305, 2009. PMID: 19244173