Women and Alcohol: A Riskier Combination

Growing up in the early ‘70s, I’d admire the fancy drinks my parents prepared at their parties. With names like Pink Squirrels, Gin Fizz and Manhattan, these alcoholic concoctions seemed innocent, playful and sophisticated. I also recall how these drinks impacted women differently then men. While the men appeared to drink with little or no effect, the women became sleepy, silly or overly emotional.  

 

Decades later, I observe more serious differences in my clinical practice. Although men drink more alcohol more frequently than women, women suffer graver consequences as a result of their alcohol use. They “hit bottom” faster, suffer from more acute physical symptoms and lose those the love and respect of their family and friends seemingly overnight.

 

My clinical observations are supported by solid academic research. A Harvard Medical School Special Health Report titled Alcohol Use and Abuse found that women suffer from alcohol-related consequences in rates that are nearly double those of men. The study pointed out a number of factors why this is so – the most compelling of which is the physical difference that exist between women and men.

 

The reason alcohol impacts women differently from men is based on two key physical differences between them:

  1. Women have less of an enzyme in their stomach walls called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). Since ADH serves to metabolize and break down the alcohol that is consumed, less ADH means more alcohol hits a women’s blood stream. Because of this, one alcoholic drink has twice the impact on a woman then it does on a man.
  2. Women’s bodies have less water and more fat than men. Because water breaks down alcohol, less water means alcohol hits women harder. The additional fat means alcohol remains in a women’s body longer. 

While it’s comforting to know my childhood and clinical observations are supported by science, it’s disturbing to see women so negatively impacted by their alcohol use. Women who abuse alcohol are at much great risk of damaging their brains, and developing hepatitis and liver cirrhosis then men. They experience more shame, and stigma then men drinkers and lose the love and respect of those whose love and respect is vitally important.  

 

Drinking alcohol is an option that women should consider mindfully and with knowledge of the scientific facts. If they choose to drink, they should be aware of the dangers inherent in their consumption. Alcohol impacts women differently then men. It’s not processed as quickly in their body and impacts them in more destructive ways. For women, drinking alcohol can progress from innocent, playful and sophisticated to shameful, destructive and humiliating in at a rapid pace. It’s a progression that I hope this knowledge can help them avoid.

 

Added to Women's Health on Thu 05/24/2012