Exercise, diet, hormones, and stress: keeping up with all the health issues facing women is a challenge. Alcohol presents yet another health challenge for women. Even in small amounts, alcohol affects women differently than men. In some ways, heavy drinking is much more risky for women than it is for men.
With any health issue, accurate information is key. There are times and ways to drink that are safer than others. Every woman is different. No amount of drinking is 100 percent safe, 100 percent of the time, for every woman. With this in mind, it’s important to know how alcohol can affect a woman’s health and safety. Drinking more than one drink per day for women can increase the risk for motor vehicle crashes, other injuries, high blood pressure, stroke, violence, suicide, and certain types of cancer.
Lower level of drinking is advised to women because women are at greater risk than men for developing alcohol-related problems. Alcohol passes through the digestive tract and is dispersed in the water in the body. The more water available, the more diluted the alcohol. As a rule, men weigh more than women, and, pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men. Therefore, a woman’s brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic byproducts that result when the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol.
Another risk of drinking is that a woman may at some point abuse alcohol or become alcoholic (alcohol dependent). Drinking four or more drinks on any given day OR drinking eight or more drinks in a typical week increases a woman’s risk of developing alcohol abuse or dependence.
The pressures to drink more than what is safe—and the consequences—change as the roles that mark a woman’s life span change. Knowing the signs that drinking may be a problem instead of a pleasure can help women who choose to drink do so without harm to themselves or others.
Despite the fact that drinking is illegal for anyone under the age of 21, the reality is that many adolescent girls drink. Research shows that about 37 percent of 9th grade girls—usually about 14 years old—report drinking in the past month. Even more alarming is the fact that about 17 percent of these same young girls report having had five or more drinks on a single occasion during the previous month.
Consequences of Unsafe Drinking
- Drinking under age 21 is illegal.
- Drunk driving is one of the leading causes of teen death.
- Drinking makes young women more vulnerable to sexual assault and unsafe and unplanned sex.
On college campuses, assaults, unwanted sexual advances, and unplanned and unsafe sex are all more likely among students who drink heavily on occasion—for men, five drinks in a row, for women, four. In general, when a woman drinks to excess she is more likely to be a target of violence or sexual assault.
Young people who begin drinking before age 15 have a 40-percent higher risk of developing alcohol abuse or alcoholism some time in their lives than those who wait until age 21 to begin drinking. This increased risk is the same for young girls as it is for boys.
Alcohol’s Appeal for Teens. Among the reasons teens give most often for drinking are to have a good time, to experiment, and to relax or relieve tension. Peer pressure can encourage drinking. Teens who grow up with parents who support, watch over, and talk with them are less likely to drink than their peers.
Women in Young and Middle Adulthood
Young women in their twenties and early thirties are more likely to drink than older women. No one factor predicts whether a woman will have problems with alcohol, or at what age she is most at risk. However, there are some life experiences that seem to make it more likely that women will have drinking problems.
However, drinking problems are more common in middle age than youth. A woman’s ethnic origins—and the extent to which she adopts the attitudes of mainstream vs. her native culture—influence how and when she will drink. Hispanic women who are more “mainstream” are more likely to drink and to drink heavily (that is, to drink at least once a week and to have five or more drinks at one time).
Research suggests that women who have trouble with their closest relationships tend to drink more than other women. Heavy drinking is more common among women who have never married, are living unmarried with a partner, or are divorced or separated. (The effect of divorce on a woman’s later drinking may depend on whether she is already drinking heavily in her marriage.) A woman whose husband drinks heavily is more likely than other women to drink too much.
Depression is closely linked to heavy drinking in women, and women who drink at home alone are more likely than others to have later drinking problems.