Women and the Consequences of Alcohol Use

Posted on March 11th, 2013
Posted in Substance Abuse

Men suffer from alcoholism at much higher rates than women, by a ratio of more than two to one. However, women are more likely than men to experience negative physiological consequences from alcoholism or high levels of alcohol consumption without addiction. At least some of this higher degree of risk is due to differences in the way that men and women metabolize alcohol, and it may also be partially attributable to different ways that alcohol affects the brain chemistry of the two sexes.

One of the most basic differences between men and women when it comes to alcohol is the fact that women will experience a higher concentration of alcohol in the blood than men from the same amount of alcohol consumption-even when they are approximately the same height and weight.

If a man and a women of comparable size consume the same amount of alcohol, the woman will absorb approximately 30 percent more of the alcohol into her bloodstream. This is primarily due to the stomach enzyme dyhydrogenase, which women have in smaller quantities than men. Dyhydrogenase breaks down ingested alcohol, and smaller concentrations of the enzyme results in higher levels of alcohol making it to the bloodstream.

Research is still incomplete when it comes to determining whether or not moderate to minimal consumption of certain kinds of alcohol can have beneficial health effects. However, the negative consequences that may result from long term heavy drinking are well established. The majority of these risks are greater for women who drink heavily than for men who drink heavily.

Liver Damage and Liver Disease

Liver damage is a characteristic symptom of heavy alcohol consumption, and women, on average, develop liver corrosion or liver disease more quickly than men, and after consuming less alcohol. Alcohol can also cause alcoholic hepatitis, which can lead to a chronic disease called liver cirrhosis that can eventually be fatal.

Risk of Breast Cancer

Moderate to heavy drinking has been shown in numerous studies to increase women’s chances of developing breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women, rivaled only by lung cancer. It affects approximately one in eight women, and results in nearly 40,000 female deaths per year in the United States.

In contrast, at least one study has shown that women who drink up to a single drink per day on average do not have any greater risk of breast cancer than women who do not drink at all.

Evening the Heart Disease Odds

In the larger population, men are far more likely than women to suffer from heart disease. However, studies have shown that among men and women who are alcoholics or heavy drinkers, the number of heart disease cases is nearly equal between the sexes. It appears that the effects of heavy drinking in women can be significant enough to overcome the large physiological advantage that women have when it comes to this very serious illness.

In spite of this, heart disease is one area in which research seems to support the benefits of drinking in moderation. Particularly among the older population, moderate drinking appears to slightly lower the risk of coronary heart disease.

Fatal Driving Accidents

Men are more likely to get behind the wheel and drive when they are above the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit. As a result, they are more likely than women to be involved in fatal traffic accidents in which alcohol is a factor. However, women with similar BAC levels to men are at a higher risk of driver fatality when they are involved in alcohol related crashes. Some research suggests that there may be some differences in the way that similar BAC levels affect the ability of men and women to drive safely.

Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage

There are many serious health-risks associated with heavy alcohol consumption, but one of the scariest is the risk of alcohol-induced brain damage. Alcohol seems to have the greatest effect on the area of the brain that is responsible for coordinating simultaneous functions. MRI scans have found that this region of the brain tends to be smaller in alcoholic women than it is in non-alcoholic women. In addition, this region of the brain is smaller in alcoholic women than it is in alcoholic men.

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