Alcohol is yet another health issue for women. Drinking, even in small amounts, affects women differently than men. And heavy drinking, in some ways, is much more risky for women than it is for men.
With any health issue, accurate information is key. There are times and ways to drink that are safer than others. With this in mind, it’s important to know how alcohol can affect health and safety.
Every woman is different. No amount of drinking is 100 percent safe, 100 percent of the time, for every individual.
Alcohol, Women, and Men
About a third of U.S. women drink alcohol. Of these women who drink, only one out of ten averages two or more drinks a day.
For women, two drinks a day is above what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans call “moderate.” No more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men (see below for more on the Guidelines, and the recommendations for moderate drinking).
Why the difference between women and men? Alcohol passes through the digestive tract and is dispersed in the water in the body. The more water available, the more diluted the alcohol. As a rule, men weigh more than women. In addition, pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men, so a woman’s brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol before it is broken down. These differences play a role in both the short– and long–term effects of alcohol on women.
What is a Drink?
A standard drink is:
- One 12–ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler
- One 5–ounce glass of wine
- 1.5 ounces of 80–proof distilled spirits
Keep in mind that the alcohol content of different types of beer, wine, and distilled spirits can vary quite substantially.
Moderate Drinking: Benefits and Risks
Even moderate drinking can have short– and long–term health effects, both positive and negative:
Heart disease: Heart disease, once thought of as a threat mainly to men, is also the leading killer of women in the U.S. Drinking moderately may lower risk for coronary heart disease, mainly among women over age 55. However, there are other factors that reduce the risk of heart disease, including a healthy diet, exercise, not smoking, and keeping a healthy weight. Moderate drinking provides little, if any, net health benefit for younger people. (Heavy drinking can actually damage the heart.)
Drinking and driving: It does not take much alcohol to impair driving ability. The chances of being killed in a single–vehicle crash are increased at a blood alcohol level that a 140lb. woman would reach after having one drink on an empty stomach.
Medication interactions: More than 150 medications interact harmfully with alcohol. For example, any medication that causes drowsiness or sedation—for example, many cough and cold medications—can increase the sedative effects of alcohol. When taking any medication, read package labels and warnings carefully.
Breast cancer: Research suggests that, in some women, as little as one drink per day can slightly raise the risk of breast cancer. It is not possible to know how alcohol will affect the risk of breast cancer in any one woman. But with so many new cases of breast cancer each year, even a small increase in risk can have an impact on the number of cases.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Drinking by a pregnant woman can harm her unborn baby.
One of the risks of drinking is that a woman may at some point abuse alcohol or become alcoholic (alcohol dependent). Above seven drinks per week, a woman’s chances of abusing alcohol or becoming dependent increase. Also, even women who drink less than seven drinks a week are at increased risk of developing alcohol abuse or dependence if they occasionally have four or more drinks on any given day.
The ability to drink a man or anyone "under the table" is not a plus. It is a red flag. Research has shown that drinkers who are able to handle a lot of alcohol all at once are at higher—not lower—risk of developing problems, such as dependence on alcohol.
An estimated 4 million women in the United States drink in a way that threatens their health, safety, and general well–being. A strong case can be made that heavy drinking is more risky for women than men:
- Heavy drinking increases a woman’s risk of violent and sexual assault.
- Over the long term, women develop alcohol–related disease more quickly and after drinking less alcohol than men.
Information provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/