If you drink alcohol, you probably know the recommended guideline: no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two for men. The guideline is more stringent for women than for men because, as you might guess, women are more prone to alcohol-related problems. But why is that? How are women impacted by alcohol so differently than men? The answers may surprise you.
Here are five facts that have some women rethinking drinking:
#1. It’s all about water.
Specifically, it’s about the amount of water in the female body. When alcohol is consumed, it is dispersed throughout the water in the body. The more water in a person’s body, the more the alcohol is diluted. Women are at greater risk for alcohol-related problems simply because we are smaller than men and have less water in our bodies. Thus, alcohol is more “full strength” when it reaches the female brain and organs. This also, unfortunately, means that women are exposed to more of the toxic by-products that are produced as the body breaks down alcohol.
#2. Alcohol increases breast cancer risk.
If you or anyone in your family has had breast cancer, you should know that the link between breast cancer and alcohol is solid. Alcohol blocks the absorption of folate, a nutrient that is protective against breast cancer. On its website, the American Cancer Society states, “Drinking alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.”1 The text goes on to explain that women who adhere to the “one drink per day” guideline have only a very small increase in risk. For those who drink more, risk increases as the daily amount consumed increases. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 30% of alcohol-related breast cancers occur in women drinking less than 1.5 servings a day.
#3. Alcohol harms the unborn.
If you are planning a pregnancy, stop drinking now. Alcohol is a teratogen, a substance known to harm a developing baby. It is not safe to drink any amount of alcohol at any time during pregnancy. Drinking can increase the chances of premature birth, low birth weight, and miscarriage. Babies born to women who drink during pregnancy can have problems with hearing, vision, thinking, remembering, and behavior. More rarely, facial deformities, heart conditions, and mental retardation can result. (If you are pregnant and cannot stop drinking, seek help immediately. See resources below.)
#4. Alcohol weakens the immune system.
Drinking makes the body more vulnerable to disease. Women who drink a significant amount of alcohol are more likely to get diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. However, just one bout of drinking to the point of intoxication can increase the risk for illness. One study found that the body is less able to fight off infection for up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
#5. Alcohol is a carcinogen.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO), and the National Toxicology Program list alcoholic beverages as human carcinogens. A carcinogen is a substance that can lead to cancer. Because women absorb alcohol more slowly, it stays in our bodies longer, exposing us to carcinogens for a longer time. In addition to breast cancer, noted above, alcohol is linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus, especially in smokers. Alcohol is also linked to colon cancer. Experts speculate that bacteria in the colon may convert alcohol to acetaldehyde, a chemical that damages the genetic material in cells.
On its website, the American Cancer Society reminds us, “…the amount of alcohol someone drinks over time…seems to be the most important factor in raising cancer risk.” This underscores the importance of the “one drink a day” rule for women.
Alcohol Q and A
- How is “one drink” defined?
- A drink is 14 grams of alcohol: a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
- Is alcohol abuse the same as alcoholism?
- No. Alcohol abuse is a drinking-related pattern that is harmful to the drinker and/or others, such as repeatedly missing work. Alcoholism means that long-term drinking has actually changed the brain’s response to alcohol, giving the drinker a compulsive craving for alcohol that is similar to hunger for food. This dependency on alcohol is medically diagnosed as alcohol use disorder or AUD. In the US, 5.3 million women have AUD.
- Where can I get help to stop drinking?
- You can contact the Winston-Salem Area Alcoholics Anonymous group via their website (w-saa.org) or by phone (336-725-6031). You can learn more on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website (niaaa.nih.gov) and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence website (ncadd.org).
- “Lifestyle-related Breast Cancer Risk Factors,” cancer.org.