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The Truth about Women and Alcohol

Angie Royal RN, BScN

One of my roles as a nurse at the Porcupine Health Unit is to educate people about safety and risks related to drinking alcohol. A question that I have been asked many times is why Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend lower numbers for women than they do for men. I know a few ladies that can handle their drink just as well if not better than the next guy. Were the creators of these guidelines biased or behind the times? No. What it comes down to is how alcohol is processed in the body and experiences that are unique to women.

Women process alcohol differently than men. One reason is that women have lower levels of the enzyme in their stomach that breaks down alcohol. This causes women to absorb more alcohol into their bloodstream. Another reason is that a woman’s body contains less water and more fatty tissue than a man’s. Alcohol will stay at a higher strength for a longer period of time in a woman’s body because fat holds onto alcohol longer and water dilutes it. Changing hormone levels in a women’s body can also affect how alcohol is processed. What this all means is that if a woman and a man drink the same amount her blood-alcohol levels will be higher and probably stay higher for a longer period of time.

Alcohol also puts woman at greater risk of certain serious health problems compared to men. Even moderate amounts of alcohol increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer and other cancers. Other health risks include osteoporosis, liver damage, heart disease, stroke, decreased fertility and brain damage.

There are social risks that increase when drinking as well. Drinking can affect everyone’s judgement and ability to notice dangers. When women drink heavily they are at an increased risk of violence and sexual assault.

Another important consideration for women is alcohol and pregnancy. It is safest to avoid alcohol if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Drinking during pregnancy carries various risks including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). If you are breastfeeding there are things you need to think about as well to prevent alcohol from harming your baby.

Cutting back or cutting out alcohol is not just important when it comes to avoiding risks, it can also have some positive outcomes for women (and men). Less empty calories, a better, more restful night sleep, more energy during the day, and more money in the bank account to name a few.

As a woman remember that you don’t need to keep up to the guys when it comes to alcohol. Women process alcohol differently and are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of it. Consider Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines – they are limits not targets and for some no amount of alcohol is safe. Make your health a priority today.