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According to recent statistics, women are drinking more than they used to. This doesn’t always mean they are drinking to excess, but it does mean more attention is needed on alcohol and women’s health. One often overlooked issue is how alcohol affects women’s hormones.
The impact of alcohol on women’s health is complex, but one thing is clear—how much you drink makes a big difference. Moderate consumption may increase estrogen levels, which could actually be a positive thing for some women after menopause. Heavy drinking, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on women’s reproductive health, and increase the risks of breast cancer, heart and liver disease, weight gain, and osteoporosis. Remaining aware of how alcohol affects your body can be essential to your long-term health—reproductive or otherwise.
Heavy alcohol use has negative effects on both the female and male reproductive systems. In the case of women, chronic drinking can affect the ovaries, resulting in fertility issues, hormone deficiencies, and a lowered sex drive.
Although the severity of these issues is dependent on how much you drink, if you experience irregular menstrual cycles alcohol could be one of the culprits. In more extreme cases, heavy drinking can cause missed periods, or a failure to ovulate. And it goes without saying that drinking while pregnant is dangerous. Alcohol can increase your chances of miscarriage and cause numerous birth defects—including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
As for alcohol and hormones, drinking appears to increase the amount of estrogen in women’s systems, and may also lower progesterone. This is not a bad thing in all respects, as estrogen has a number of important functions in the body. But there are downsides, and one of them is an increased risk of breast cancer. This is especially true before menopause. Estrogen can also increase the amount of acetaldehyde in your system. This chemical contributes to hangover discomfort, and can also increase cancer risk.
While the data on alcohol use and breast cancer varies, there appears to be a connection. In one study, moderate drinking was found to have little impact, but heavy drinking increased breast cancer risk in women with less body mass. In another study, moderate alcohol use in younger women increased breast cancer risk by 11 to 16 percent. More research is needed, but it appears that drinking before menopause has some impact on your lifetime breast cancer risk. In general, drinking seems to have few positive impacts on younger women’s health, and a number of negative ones.
As you grow older and your body changes, so does the role of alcohol. Older people tend to be more sensitive to alcohol, which means that this is a good time to scale back. However, there are interesting differences between moderate and heavy alcohol consumption for women after menopause.
Because alcohol can increase the amount of estrogen in your system, a small amount of alcohol in your diet may actually have some beneficial impacts once your ovaries are less active. Benefits of increased estrogen in older women include improved cardiovascular health, stronger bone density, and better immune function. Higher estrogen levels may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Of course, as referenced above, high estrogen continues to increase the risk of breast cancer into older age. This means that drinking moderately still has some downsides. However, a few servings of alcohol a week is better for your hormones after menopause than it is before.
Heavy drinking, on the other hand, wreaks havoc on older women’s health. The risk of heart disease and osteoporosis flips, becoming greater the more you drink. Heavy drinking can also make hot flashes and night sweats worse for some women going through menopause. Then there are the broader negative impacts of hard alcohol use, which only get worse with age. In general, it is very important to moderate alcohol consumption post-menopause.
Keeping a Healthy Balance
Overall, the impact of drinking on women’s hormones seems to be mixed. Light drinking can have some health benefits for older women, while for younger women moderate drinking seems to have more negative, or neutral impacts.
No matter how old you are, however, heavy drinking is a bad idea. Younger women should be careful about the impacts of binge drinking in particular on their menstrual cycles and fertility, and be aware that alcohol consumption may affect their breast cancer risk later on. Older women should limit their drinking to a moderate amount to maximize health benefits and avoid negative consequences.
If you are having trouble cutting back on how much you drink, Ria’s program may be able to help. Ria Health offers alcohol reduction therapy using telemedicine, which means you can access all the resources you need from your smartphone. Prescription medications for alcohol cravings, access to coaches and medical consultation, support groups, and digital progress tracking tools are all available. The program is even covered by many insurance providers.