Alcohol use is a growing health concern among women. While men have historically consumed more alcohol and shown higher rates of alcohol-related disease, it turns out that women are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of drinking—and the gap in alcohol use is narrowing.
Every year, excessive drinking is linked to 27,000 deaths among women1, and rates of alcohol abuse among women continue to rise. COVID-19 has caused a particularly big shift: A 2020 study found that women increased their heavy drinking days by 41 percent during the pandemic2.
- Why Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently?
- Women and Alcohol: How Drinking Can Affect Your Health
- Alcohol and Cancer in Women
- Alcohol and Liver Disease in Women
- Alcohol and Heart Disease in Women
- Alcohol and Women’s Reproductive Health
- Alcohol and Women Over 50
- Alcohol and Women’s Mental Health
- Summary of Alcohol and Women’s Health
With such a big shift taking place, it’s more important than ever to know how alcohol can impact you, or the women in your life. Below, we’ll cover the reasons alcohol can affect women differently, some of the key risks around alcohol and women’s health, and how to find help for problem drinking if you need it.
Why Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently?
Men are more likely to drink alcohol than women, and are also more likely to become alcohol dependent. However, women are more vulnerable to many of the negative consequences of heavy drinking. Research shows that women are more susceptible to organ damage, legal issues, relationship difficulties, and trauma stemming from alcohol use3.
Typically, women have a lower body water percentage than men, and also have less of certain enzymes that help break down alcohol4. This means alcohol is less diluted in women’s bodies, and can also build up more quickly.
As a result, women can achieve a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC) than men when drinking an equivalent amount of alcohol5. They are more likely to black out and experience hangovers, and they tend to develop liver damage and other alcohol-related health problems at a faster rate.
Women and Alcohol: How Drinking Can Affect Your Health
Alcohol dependence can have a devastating long-term effect on the body for both men and women. Excessive alcohol use can lead to cancer and cause damage to many vital organs, including the brain, heart, pancreas, and liver. For women, however, many of these health impacts can occur more quickly, at lower levels of alcohol consumption.
Here are a few of the ways in which alcohol has an especially large impact on women’s health.
Alcohol and Cancer in Women
Alcohol is considered a carcinogen—or a substance that causes cancer. Research shows a clear link between alcohol and cancer risk in women and men alike. This includes cancer of the head, neck, esophagus, liver, breast, colon, and rectum.
Women have a much higher risk of developing breast cancer than men, regardless of alcohol consumption. But drinking may increase risk even further. Alcohol is shown to increase estrogen levels, which are linked to higher breast cancer risk in genetically susceptible women7.
Read More: Alcohol and Breast Cancer
Alcohol and Liver Disease in Women
Since the liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol, heavy drinking can place particular stress on this organ. Common alcohol-related liver issues include alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver, and cirrhosis.
Women are more likely to experience alcohol-related liver damage than men, developing liver disease over a shorter time period and after drinking less alcohol8. They are also at greater risk of suffering from alcoholic hepatitis and dying from cirrhosis. This is also partially linked to estrogen, which makes the liver’s Kupffer cells more sensitive to endotoxin, and increases the chances of liver inflammation.
Read More: Liver Disease in Women
Alcohol and Heart Disease in Women
Both men and women who abuse alcohol are at risk of heart disease. Evidence shows that excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, arrythmias, and stroke9. However, women may experience damage to the heart muscle after fewer years of consumption, at lower levels of drinking than men10.
Alcohol and Women’s Reproductive Health
Alcohol and women’s fertility have a negative relationship. Chronic drinking can disrupt one’s menstrual cycle, sex drive, and hormone levels. Even moderate alcohol consumption may result in increased estrogen levels and lower levels of progesterone11. In girls, alcohol use can affect puberty, growth, and bone health12.
It’s also well-known that drinking while pregnant is extremely dangerous. Alcohol use during pregnancy means higher risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, fetal alcohol syndrome, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)13.
Read More: Alcohol and Women’s Hormones
Alcohol and Women Over 50
Increased vulnerability to the impacts of alcohol can be even more significant among older women. Heavy drinking after menopause can magnify the risks of heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and many other health problems faced by older adults.
Postmenopausal women also experience depression at higher rates, which generally grows worse with heavy drinking14. Some women also report that alcohol worsens hot flashes, but more research is needed on this.
Read More: Alcohol and Menopause
Alcohol and Women’s Mental Health
Statistically, women are more likely than men to drink alcohol to cope with stress and negative emotions15. In recent years, rates of anxiety and depression have risen in girls and young women16, which could be a driving force in the overall increase in women’s alcohol use.
Unfortunately, alcohol can worsen the symptoms of depression. These worsening symptoms may in turn lead to heavier consumption of alcohol, creating a vicious cycle. Alcohol use disorder and anxiety follow a similar pattern, appearing to reinforce one another17.
For women, it can be especially important to treat both alcohol use and any underlying mental health disorder. Since mental health issues are a common motivator for women to drink, dealing with both problems is essential to lasting recovery.
Read More: Alcohol and Mental Health
The Bottom Line on Alcohol and Women’s Health
Ultimately, women absorb alcohol faster than men and metabolize it more slowly. This is why women may appear to get intoxicated faster, black out more often, and experience worse hangovers. Women are also more vulnerable to the long-term health impacts of alcohol—including increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and cirrhosis of the liver. Even women with less severe dependency than men can develop alcohol-related illnesses more rapidly.
If you or a woman in your life struggles with alcohol, there are new forms of support available. Ria Health’s online program offers anti-craving medication, weekly recovery coaching, and regular support groups—all through a convenient smartphone app. Our personalized, evidence-based approach supports you in cutting back or quitting drinking, and fits itself to your busy schedule.