People drink alcohol for a variety of reasons, ranging from a glass of wine with dinner or an occasional social drink with friends to heavy consumption because of addiction or dependence. At one end of the scale, alcohol can be pleasant and innocuous; at the other end, it can be deadly.
Alcohol affects women differently than it does men. First off, its effects are stronger for women than men, and women who drink too much are more likely to suffer from significant alcohol problems. In addition, women with alcohol problems have higher death rates from suicide, accidents and other health related issues.
A woman who chooses to consume alcohol should do so with an eye to limiting the potential risk. Low risk drinking means consuming no more than three drinks in a day and 10 or less in a week. It means being alcohol free at least one or two days a week.
Heavy drinking, although contentious to define, can be seriously detrimental to a woman's health. Indeed, alcohol abuse and alcoholism are more likely to damage a woman's health, even if she has been drinking less or for a shorter period than a man.
Women are more likely to develop liver disease and to die from cirrhosis. They are more likely to experience alcohol-induced brain damage. Women who drink to excess also face an increased risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. Osteoporosis is also more likely among this group.
In addition to these health concerns, women can more rapidly become dependent or addicted to alcohol than men, and with less consumption. The health effects are also made worse when consuming alcohol in combination with smoking or other substances, even prescription drugs. Heavy drinking also increases a woman's risk of becoming a victim of violence and sexual assault.
Even low-risk drinking affects women differently from men, including at lower levels of consumption. Because women have less water in their bloodstream, alcohol is less diluted, and because they have more adipose (fatty) tissue, absorption is slowed. Women also have lower levels of enzymes needed to metabolize alcohol. All this leads to increasing the effects of alcohol.
Pregnancy might be the most significant deterrent to consuming alcohol for women - at least it should be. If likely to become pregnant, a woman should consume very carefully, and certainly to follow the low-risk guidelines.
If pregnant, no level of alcohol is safe. Alcohol can lead to a baby with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), miscarriage or stillbirth, low birth weight or premature birth. When breastfeeding, it is best not to drink as alcohol in the breast milk can affect the baby.
Women are not the same as men, and their bodies do not handle alcohol in the same way, either. If you are going to consume alcohol, consider these differences and their implications.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for the Sea to Sky.