Women and Alcohol: Anything you could do, I could do better… except drink alcohol.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health (fancy, right?), alcohol affects women differently than men. What?!?! I didn’t like it either (FYI, I identify as a lady). I had a knee-jerk reaction stemming from my devotion to feminism and deeply held belief in the equality of all genders. [Note: There is an unfortunate lack of information on the physiological effects of alcohol on people who identify as intersex, trans, or gender queer. Come on, science!] So I was skeptical, picturing ol’ boys’ club researchers bent on proving that there really are innate differences that render women the fairer (read: weaker!) sex. But the fact is that there’s a lot of quality, well-executed (meaning well-funded!) research to back this up. Women process alcohol differently than men. Not better or worse, just differently. And this is an important difference that can’t be ignored.

When women drink alcohol, their blood alcohol concentrations (or BAC, which is the amount of alcohol in your blood, friends) are generally higher, and they can become drunker than men after drinking equal amounts of alcohol. Say Sally Sue (130lbs) has 6 beers and Jimmy Joe (180lbs) has 6 beers. It makes sense that Sally Sue could be drunker and more affected by those same 6 beers (duh, she’s 50lbs smaller!). But, even if Sally Sue and Jimmy Joe weighed exactly the same (both 150lbs) and drank 6 beers each, Sally Sue could still be drunker. Why? Research indicates that women are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol because they have a lower proportion of body water relative to fat than men. They also have lower concentrations of a metabolizing enzyme called dehydrogenase which helps to break alcohol down. Now that’s a party foul. Also, since hormone levels change during phases of a women’s menstrual cycle, Sally Sue may get more drunk and stay drunk longer at certain times of the month.

Some ladies pride themselves on their ability to out-drink the boys. The ability to drink a man – or anyone – under the table is not something to be proud of: it’s a huge waving red flag that’s going up in flames! Being able to drink more means your tolerance has increased, which means your risk of developing alcohol-related problems, like dependence, also increases. Not only that, but research indicates that heavy drinking is much more risky for women than it is for men. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the same folks who do the food pyramid) define moderate drinking as no more than one standard drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. Binge drinking, which is 5 or more drinks per occasion, is most common among women ages 18 to 25. That’s college age, ya’ll.

Remember, a standard drink is:

One 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler

One 5-ounce glass of wine

1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor

So, why are lower levels of drinking recommended for women than for men? Cause they don’t want us to have fun? Nope! Because women are at greater risk than men for developing alcohol-related problems. Alcohol goes through the digestive tract and spreads out in water in the body. The more water that is available, the more diluted the alcohol. Generally, men weigh more than women, and, pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men. Therefore, a woman’s brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic byproducts that result when the body processes and eliminates alcohol. Let’s break that down: ladies, we’ve got less water in us, so the alcohol we drink doesn’t get as watered down, so we get drunker. And did you hear about those toxic byproducts? Yikes!

Among women who drink, 13% have more than seven drinks per week. Drinking more than one drink per day for women can increase the risk for lots of terrible stuff, like:

  • car crashes,
  • injuries,
  • high blood pressure,
  • stroke,
  • violence,
  • suicide,
  • and certain types of cancer (breast, liver, etc.)

Let’s get one thing straight – I’m not the abstinence fairy here to wave my magical wand of judgment at ya’ll for having a few adult beverages. All I’m saying is women have awesome bodies with awesome capabilities. In many arenas we far surpass dudes with our various mad skills, BUT we can’t process alcohol like they do. So let’s respect our bodies and find ways to have fun that don’t put our health at risk.

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