Why Alcohol Affects Women More Than Men

The evidence is mounting about women and alcohol. Even when we take differences in weight into consideration, it's a fact:  women get drunk faster, with less alcohol than men.  There's no way around it: drink for drink, women can't hold their liquor like men. 

The Dilution Factor

You've read articles about how many drinks are "recommended" for men and women.  The guys always get to drink more. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains, "That's 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. [Usually], men weigh more than women and . . .women have less water in their bodies than men. Therefore, a woman's brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and . . .toxic byproducts that result when the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol."

Break It Down

Women aren't as efficient at metabolizing alcohol either. We used to think alcohol was broken down primarily in the liver.  We now know, that alcohol metabolism starts in the stomach and once again, men have an advantage. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (1990) found that women have only about half the levels of gastric alcohol dehydrogenase, a compound that breaks down alcohol, as men. It also found that the amount of alcohol metabolized after its first passage through a woman's liver and stomach is 23 percent of what it is in men.

More Than A Hangover

What's worse is that organ damage and trauma related to alcohol consumption lasts long after the hangover is gone.  Female alcoholics have death rates 50 to 100 percent higher than male alcoholics, from suicides, alcohol-related accidents, heart disease, stroke, and liver cirrhosis. They experience more damage when involved in car crashes and violence too - both of which occur more frequently with alcohol involvement. Alcohol consumption increases risks for cancers throughout the entire body for men and women but put women at greater risk for developing breast cancer.  Women and alcohol don't mix when it comes to longterm health.

While some health benefits have been identified with moderate alcohol use, these benefits must be weighed against the risks.  The USDA's nutrition guidelines say moderate use is no more than one drink per day for women - that's (1) 12-oz beer or (1) 5-oz glass of wine. 

When social situations call for a drink, consider strategies for keeping alcohol consumption safe and moderate

  • Fill your glass with soda, water, ice or other non-alcoholic mixer and add only a "splash" of alcohol.
  • Drink sparkling water
  • Drink soda from a wine glass for a "special occasion" feel without the kick.
  • Be the designated driver

If you do drink too much, top off with plenty of plain water to avoid dehydration.  If this happens more than on rare occasions, think about what alcohol means and is doing to you.  And never drink and drive.