The Effects of Alcohol on Women
Alcohol is a commonly misused substance that can have harmful effects on the body. It can sometimes impact women differently than men. Alcohol can potentially influence the brain, liver, heart, reproductive system, pregnancy, and increase the risk of certain cancers.
Women who drink alcohol are also at greater risk for experiencing negative social effects. This article covers how alcohol may uniquely impact women, the potential causes of alcoholism in women, circumstances in which women should completely avoid alcohol, and more.
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Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Women
Alcohol has the potential to affect women’s physical and mental health in a variety of ways. Alcohol abuse in women can lead to the following issues:1,2,3,4
- Brain function abnormalities: Women experience shrinking brain tissue, declining brain function, and brain damage faster than men as a result of alcohol use. Female teenagers who binge drink are more likely to experience memory problems compared to male teens who binge drink or female teens who do not binge drink. Additionally, heavy drinking in female teens affects parts of the brain associated with memory and making decisions.
- Liver disease: Women are at greater risk of developing alcohol-associated liver diseases such as alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis than men.
- Heart problems: Damage to the heart muscle, heart disease, and high blood pressure can occur faster even if women consume less alcohol.
- Infertility: Chronic use of alcohol may lead to irregular menstrual cycles and ovulation patterns and reduce fertility and lead to an earlier onset of menopause.
- Pregnancy complications: Women who drink while pregnant are at risk of having a baby with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which involves birth defects, behavioral issues, and intellectual disabilities. It can also raise the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm delivery, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
- Cancer: Alcohol has been linked to many types of cancer that affects multiple organs including the mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, and liver. Women who drink are also more likely to develop breast cancer, and the risk increases with regular alcohol consumption.
- Increased risk of blackouts: Women black out more easily than men as a result of alcohol.
- Mental health disorders: Women are more likely to develop mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression as a result of alcohol use.
- Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic (it eliminates water from the body), and since women already have less water in their bodies compared to men (on average), alcohol can be more concentrated in female bodies. This can increase dehydration, hangover symptoms such as headaches and muscle cramps, and worsen potential long-term health effects of chronic alcohol use.
Social Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Women
Alcohol abuse also has the potential to create harmful social effects. Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking, has been associated with women being at greater risk for experiencing sexual assault or other types of violence.1,5 Additionally, since alcohol affects coordination, attention, and judgment, it also increases the risk of car crashes or other accidents.5 In the U.S., there are nearly 30 deaths associated with alcohol-related car crashes daily.6 Alcohol abuse can also contribute to job loss and relationship issues.3,5
Signs I Have a Problem with Alcohol
Signs of alcohol abuse do not differ between women and men. If you are concerned that you or another woman you know may have a problem with alcohol, there are some signs to watch for. Some of these include diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Warning signs associated with alcohol misuse include:5,7
- Being unable to fulfill responsibilities because of drinking.
- Experiencing guilt or shame about drinking.
- Going through withdrawals when you don’t drink.
- Having blackouts because of alcohol.
- Having strong cravings for alcohol.
- You or others are having concerns about how much you drink.
- Losing control over how much or how often you drink.
- Needing to drink in the morning to get rid of a hangover or get your day started.
- Not being able to stop drinking, even if it has caused or worsened physical or mental health problems or aggravated relationship problems.
- Regularly using alcohol in dangerous situations, such as while driving.
Why Do Women Drink?
Women may consume alcohol for any number of reasons. Some common unhealthy reasons may include: managing stress, self-medicating a mental health disorder (depression, anxiety) or for social reasons (attending gatherings, celebrations).9
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When Should You Avoid Drinking Entirely?
Women who are pregnant or those taking medications that shouldn’t be combined with alcohol should avoid drinking.2,3 If a woman is breastfeeding, she should consult with her doctor before consuming alcohol.8
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, October 23). Excessive alcohol use is a risk to women’s health.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021, April). Women and alcohol.
- Van Heertum, K., & Rossi, B. (2017). Alcohol and fertility: How much is too much? Fertility research and practice, 3(10).
- National Health Service. (2020, January 6). Hangover cures.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (n.d.) Drunk driving.
- National Health Service. (2018, August 21). Alcohol misuse.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021, February 16). Frequently asked questions.
- The University of Utah. (2014, October 23). Think before you drink: Alcohol affects men & women differently.
- Slade, T., Chapman, C., Swift, W., Keyes, K., Tonks, Z., & Teesson, M. (2016). Birth cohort trends in the global epidemiology of alcohol use and alcohol-related harms in men and women: Systematic review and metaregression. BMJ Open, 6.