Women and alcohol – what’s the problem?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 21 June 2017.
Tagged: alcohol, health, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, nutrition, women's health

Women and alcohol – what’s the problem?

Traditionally men were the big drinkers and they suffered all the social and health consequences associated with regular, over-indulgence. Now, as more women are more economically independent; in high flyer and management roles; and it’s more acceptable for women to go out drinking with their mates – when it was only acceptable for men years ago – women are suffering the health consequences too. But it’s worse for women than men, thanks to their different physiology.

Not a topic we talk about

I’ve already covered this topic in a newsletter back in February but I realise it’s something no one really wants to talk about. It’s one people like to sweep under the carpet, dispute the findings or just put their heads in the sand.

However, I want to help busy, working women be the healthiest they can be. So, I’ve got my broom out and I’ve lifted the carpet and I’m sweeping it back into the room!

Here I’m going to rehash some of what I said before. I’ll tell you not only how to drink responsibly and healthily but I’ll also lift the lid on just how much damage alcohol can cause if you don’t stick to the guidelines – things I bet you didn’t even expect like breast cancer and mouth cancer.

Women’s bodies vs men’s bodies

Did you know that:

  • A woman's body has more body fat than that of a man of the same weight? This means that it contains less water and therefore when she drinks it results in a higher alcohol concentration.
  • The concentration of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol, appears to be lower and less active in women than in men? Again resulting in higher blood alcohol concentrations.
  • In addition to the two reasons above, weight differentials between women and men exacerbate the problem?
  • As women are more likely to be eating less the speed of alcohol absorption is increased?

All this adds up to the fact that it takes  smaller amounts of alcohol to do damage to women’s bodies than to men’s.

It takes smaller amounts of alcohol to do damage to women’s bodies than to men’s.


What are the cancer risks to women from alcohol?

In the UK a study was performed which looked at the incidence of cancer in women - the Million Women Study. These women were followed for more than 7 years. Here’s what they found.

  • 25% said they didn’t drink at all
  • 98% of those who did drink consumed fewer than 21 drinks per week and consumed an average of 10g of alcohol (1 drink) per day.
  • During a follow-up period, 68,775 invasive cancers occurred.
  • Increasing alcohol consumption was associated with increased risks of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, oesophagus, larynx, rectum, liver, breast and total cancer.
  • There was no difference between those who drank wine and those who drank other forms of alcohol.
  • For smokers the problem is worse as for cancers of the upper aero-digestive tract, the alcohol-associated risk was confined to current smokers.

The researchers concluded that “Low to moderate alcohol consumption in women increases the risk of certain cancers. For every additional drink regularly consumed per day, the increase in incidence up to age 75 years per 1000 for women in developed countries is estimated to be about 11 for breast cancer, 1 for cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, 1 for cancer of the rectum, and 0.7 each for cancers of the oesophagus, larynx and liver, giving a total excess of about 15 cancers per 1000 women up to age 75.

7 other health problems caused by excess alcohol consumption

1. Fertility

We all know you shouldn’t drink while you’re pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, but did you know that excessive drinking can upset your menstrual cycle and increase your risk of infertility?

2. Sexually transmitted diseases

There seems to be a trend towards binge drinking. Apart from its physiological dangers it removes inhibitions with binge drinkers more likely to have unprotected sex with multiple partners thus increasing the risks of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.

3. Liver Disease

Women have a higher risk than men of cirrhosis of the liver as well as other alcohol-related liver diseases.

4. Brain damage

Women who drink to excess increase their likelihood of memory loss and brain shrinkage.

5. Cardiovascular problems

Studies have shown that excessive drinking puts women at increased risk of to heart muscle damage.

6. Sexual Assault

Binge drinking has been shown to be a risk factor for sexual assault. This is especially true for younger women.

7. Overweight

Alcohol is a big contributor to obesity. Pure alcohol is a concentrated source of kilojoules, having almost twice that of carbohydrate or protein. It also seems to encourage fat storage rather than fat burning. What’s more it loosens your inhibitions so you tend to eat more of the wrong sorts of foods – think chips, burgers, fried chicken, and kebabs.

The bottom line

Yes, there is good news! You can still enjoy a drink but to reduce your lifetime risk of alcohol-induced disease aim to consume no more than two standard drinks on any day. Each standard drink contains 10g of pure alcohol. This translates to:

  • 1 glass 100mL of wine
  • 1 glass 100mL sparkling or champagne
  • 1 can 375ml mid-strength beer
  • 1 nip 30mL of brandy, whiskey, gin, vodka or other spirit
  • 1 small 60mL glass of sherry or fortified wine
  • 1 bottle 285mL Breezer, Cruiser or similar alcopops

See more at my older post on standard drinks.

Give yourself a break...

Why not give yourself, your liver and the rest of your body, a break and join in this year's Dry July? You can sign up here on Facebook .

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.