Women and Alcohol…Things worth knowing...


Lately, there has been much attention regarding equality for women.  In many professions, women are equal to men in knowledge and ability to perform certain tasks.  However, consumption of alcohol is not one of them.

Alcohol is classified as a depressant because it slows down the central nervous system.  This causes a decrease in motor coordination, reaction time and intellectual performance.  At high doses, the respiratory system slows down drastically and this can cause coma or death.  Mixing alcohol with other depressants such as Rohypnol (date rape drug), tranquilizers, or sleeping pills multiplies the effect of the drugs and can lead to memory loss, coma or death.

There is increasing evidence that women are more susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects because of several physiologic reasons:

1)    Women have less body water (52% for average female versus 61% for average male), so their body dilutes alcohol less than a man’s even if they weigh the same.

2)    Women produce less of the liver enzyme dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol.

3)    Estrogen slows down the rate at which the body eliminates alcohol, thus women may become intoxicated faster. This is especially evident during the few days before their periods.  Women who regularly take estrogen-added medication, i.e. birth control pills, often experience extended effects of intoxication.  This does NOT mean women should stop taking the pill before partying! Alcohol also increases estrogen levels in men.  Chronic alcoholism in males has been associated with loss of body hair, muscle mass, development of swollen breasts, decrease in testicular size and impotence.

4)    Body fat is directly related to the rate of absorption and metabolizing alcohol. Since fat does not absorb alcohol, the entire alcohol content remains in a highly concentrated form in the bloodstream.  Women have a higher concentration than males and therefore experience alcohol-induced intoxication faster.  Having food in your stomach will dilute alcohol and slow stomach contents from emptying into the small intestine where alcohol is rapidly absorbed.

5)    Women who are heavy drinkers, defined as 3 or more drinks per day, have 41% increased risk for high blood pressure. This increases to 90% increased risk with 3.5 or more drinks per day.  After a few years of heavy drinking, women experience nerve damage and weakening of the heart muscle.

6)    Women also have a greater risk of liver disease and damage to the pancreas.  Proportionately, more alcoholic women die from cirrhosis than alcoholic men.

Because of these factors, it is important to know what risks alcohol consumption poses to women and to make informed, healthy decisions.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises the following as safe alcohol guidelines for women:

  • No more than one drink per day for daily drinkers
  • No more than two drinks per day for occasional drinkers

How much is one drink?  One drink is defined as follows:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces hard liquor (40% alcohol or 80 proof)

The U.S. department of Health and Human Services defines alcohol abuse in women as:

  • Heavy drinking: 3 or more drinks per day
  • Binge drinking: excessive or out-of-control drinking with periods of abstinence between. 3 or more drinks on one occasion
  • Alcohol dependent: psychological or physiological dependence on alcohol characterized by preoccupation with drinking, craving for alcohol, tolerance to the effects, and/or withdrawal symptoms.

Although women face more dangers from alcohol abuse then men, there is still one fact that extends hope – women are far likelier to turn for help and maintain abstinence if they are treated in a good de-addiction facility.

By: Kris Miller, NP

Billings OB-GYN Associates