Alcohol abuse or addiction hurts all those who use alcohol excessively, but women are especially vulnerable because of differences in their body size and structure and their body chemistry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that these differences cause women both to absorb more of the alcohol they drink and to take longer to metabolize it (break it down and rid it from their bodies). This is why the immediate effects of alcohol happen more quickly and last longer compared to men. These same differences also explain why women suffer greater long-term health effects from excessive drinking.
Defining Alcohol Abuse by Women
Alcohol abuse or excessive drinking by women can take two forms: heavy drinking on a regular basis and/or binge drinking. These are defined as:
- Heavy drinking by women is consuming more than an average of one (1) drink a day.
- Binge drinking by women is consuming four (4) or more drinks on a single occasion or in roughly a two-hour period.
Both forms of alcohol abuse are dangerous but most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent like alcoholics are.
A standard drink is defined as any one of the following (which all contain about 0.6 ounce of pure alcohol):
- 5 ounces of wine
- 12 ounces of beer (or 8-ounces of malt liquor)
- 1.5 ounces (shot) of distilled spirits such as vodka, gin, rum or whiskey
Reproductive Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse by Women
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report a number of adverse effects of alcohol abuse for women of child-bearing age (18-44) including disruption of the menstrual cycle and higher risks of:
- Premature delivery
- Having a baby that has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FADS) with the possibility of mental retardation and birth defects
Women of this age group who have drinking binges are more likely to engage in unprotected sex and have multiple partners, increasing the risks both for unplanned pregnancies and for getting sexually transmitted diseases.
No amount of alcohol is safe for a woman to drink while she is pregnant. Women who drink and discover that they are pregnant may, by immediately stopping their drinking, lower their risks of having a child who suffers from physical, emotional or mental problems.
Binge drinking also increases a woman’s risk of sexual assault, especially for young women in college. Rape or sexual assault is more likely when both the attacker and the victim have been drinking.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse by Women
Excessive drinking over time can have devastating health effects on women. The CDC cites several, including:
- Alcoholic Liver Disease (ALD) – risks for cirrhosis and other alcohol-induced liver diseases are higher for women.
- Brain Damage – excessive drinking can result in memory loss as well as shrinkage of the brain; women are more vulnerable and can be affected sooner than men by alcohol damage to the brain.
- Heart Damage – women who drink excessively have higher risks of damage to the heart than do men.
- Several Cancers – women who drink have higher risks of cancer of the throat, mouth, esophagus, colon, liver, and breast. Breast cancer risk increases directly with the amount of alcohol consumed.
Women can ruin their health by being unaware of the consequences of alcohol abuse or addiction. A better understanding of the specific harms cited above might provide many women with incentives to limit their drinking.
Avoid Alcohol Abuse or Abstain from Drinking
The safest course for women of child bearing age is to not drink at all. If abstinence from alcohol is not possible for some then care should be taken to avoid both heavy drinking and binge drinking which are serious threats to a woman’s health. Although a smaller percentage of women develop alcohol addictions, those who become dependent on it are more seriously and more quickly harmed over time than are men who consume the same amount. In addition, women of any age can be harmed in more ways than men can, vulnerable as they sometimes are to sexual assault and violence when under the influence of alcohol, and when pregnant.