How Does Alcohol Use Affect Women?

How Does Alcohol Use Affect Women?

Alcohol use is on the rise among US women, and the statistics are, shall we say, sobering. Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, has increased by an astonishing 84% over the past decade, and women are also drinking at earlier ages than men, with 32% of female high school students consuming alcohol compared to 26% of their male counterparts. Excessive drinking can have serious and/or permanent health consequences, some of which are specific to women or are more prevalent or potentially more damaging to women compared to men.

Recognizing the signs of alcohol abuse

Alcohol use disorder exists on a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe. To be diagnosed with AUD, you need to show at least 2 out of 11 recognized symptoms related to drinking habits. These include: occasionally drinking more than you’d intended, craving alcohol, becoming physically ill from drinking, giving up other activities that you enjoy in favor of drinking, incurring injuries during bouts of drinking, continuing to drink in spite of its negative effects on your relationships, and others. The presence of 2 or 3 of the criteria is categorized as mild, 4 or 5 as moderate, and 6 or more as severe alcohol use disorder.

Health effects of excessive alcohol consumption

Over time, even mild overconsumption of alcohol can have lasting or permanent health effects, particularly in women.  The reason for the increased risk in women has to do with differences in the way alcohol is processed in women and men. Being generally smaller than men and with a lower proportional amount of total water content and a lower total blood volume, a woman’s blood alcohol level will rise faster and higher than a man’s after drinking the same amount of alcohol. This means women become inebriated faster and, therefore, are more susceptible to experiencing hangovers and blackouts and the complications that go along with those, such as missed days of work and loss of memory of events that occurred during the bout of drinking. Serious health consequences can ensue, affecting:

  • Liver function – The more rapid elevation of blood alcohol takes an increased toll on liver function, as well, making women at greater risk for alcohol-related hepatitis and cirrhosis. A 2019 study found an increased risk of cirrhosis in women who consumed one drink per day compared to women who abstained or drank occasionally.

  • Brain and cognitive function – Long-term alcohol overconsumption causes certain areas of the brain to shrink, including the frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher thought processes as well as memory and physical coordination areas. Imaging studies show that women’s brains lose more white matter, the fatty stuff that insulates nerve fibers. On a positive note, some studies show that women’s brains may also recover and repair white matter faster once sobriety is maintained.

  • Heart health – While low to moderate alcohol consumption has been found to be heart-protective, by lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels, heavy drinking poses increased risk for cardiovascular disease, accounting for nearly a fifth of all alcohol-related deaths globally, behind cancer and liver disease. Alcohol overconsumption leads to elevated blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Women are more susceptible to heart muscle damage (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) than men.

  • Cancer risk – Alcohol consumption is a major contributor to increased risk for certain types of cancer. Oral, throat, larynx, and cancer of the esophagus are thought to increase due to the effect of alcohol in making cells more permeable to toxins and impairing their ability to repair themselves. Liver cancer risk increases due to inflammation and the scarring damage of alcohol on the liver. Colon and rectal cancer risk increases due to the formation of acetaldehyde, a toxic breakdown product of alcohol in the intestine. Alcohol also raises estrogen levels, which increases risk for breast cancer.

  • Intimate partner violence – Drinking lowers inhibitions and increases violent behavior in those who are prone. A woman’s risk for experiencing sexual violence increases significantly when alcohol, particularly binge drinking, is involved.

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome – Alcohol consumption during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome, as well as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a range of growth and neural development problems, the most severe form of which, fetal alcohol syndrome, results in profound intellectual disabilities and birth defects.

Getting help from alcohol abuse is available

If you recognize any of the symptoms described above in yourself or someone you love, there are multiple channels of help available, including medications that reduce alcohol cravings, behavioral therapy to identify drinking triggers and modify them, and peer support groups to help with motivation and accountability. Depending on your or your loved one’s particular drinking habits, one or usually a combination of these will be needed, and the sooner you act, the better for both short- and long-term health and wellbeing.

Education and awareness are important first steps toward reversing this concerning trend.

This article is meant for information purposes only and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. Please consult your healthcare provider if you or someone you love requires support or assistance in conquering the over consumption of alcohol. 

About the author
FemmePharma started as a pharmaceutical research and development company more than 20 years ago. We’ve been reinventing women’s healthcare ever since. Please consult your healthcare practitioner to decide which product best meets your needs.

Filed under: Your Body

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