Sober curious? Thinking about cutting back a little? You’ve probably heard that moderate drinking is good for your heart. But you’ve probably also heard that it’s correlated to breast cancer and can trigger hot flashes. Sip or skip? What’s a girl to do? Alcohol has numerous challenges and health implications, especially for women. In our latest Let’s Chat: Sip or Skip, Dr. Bitner and Dr. Egan cover binge drinking and tips to help women move toward a healthier relationship with alcohol.
What is an Alcoholic Drink?
One alcoholic drink varies and depends on the type of alcohol. Our chart below shows the standard drink size for wine, beer, malt liquor, and distilled spirits. It is important to consider what types of drinks you will have before going out!
What is Considered Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is anything greater than three drinks in one hour. It is important to note that consuming more than three drinks per week increases the risk of health-related issues and diseases like breast cancer.
How Does Alcohol Affect Women Differently Than Men?
Alcohol affects women differently than men in several ways. Women have more body fat than men, which causes alcohol to stay in the body for extended periods of time. By volume, the same glass of wine or beer, for example, will remain in a woman’s bloodstream longer than a man’s. Of growing concern, overall emergency visits, hospital stays, and alcohol-related deaths have increased for women in recent years. Women are also at a higher risk of developing dementia, cirrhosis, and breast cancer due to over consumption.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
Even though some studies have shown that moderate drinking has some benefits, alcohol consumption has negative impacts on the body.
Alcoholic beverages affect the brain in multiple ways. It increases the risk of dementia, targets the area of your brain that controls speech and balance, increases the likelihood of falls, and, for menopausal women, increases the likelihood of experiencing hot flashes.
Heart muscle tissue and blood vessel walls do not respond well to alcohol consumption. Alcohol causes the heart not to function correctly. It also puts individuals at an increased risk for high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attack and strokes.
Alcohol can affect the immune system’s functionality and the body’s natural ability to protect the airway, increasing the risk of lung infections.
Alcohol increases the likelihood of experiencing gastritis, an upset stomach, and changes in GI flora. It is also a primary cause of belly fat. Why? The liver processes alcohol first. So, if you consume a sugary cocktail, the liver starts working through the alcohol, saving sugar processing for later. This type of processing puts the body in a weight-gaining state. Even low-sugar drinks (i.e., vodka soda or skinny margarita) can be problematic. Drinking also can lead to cravings and poor food choices, which cause weight gain.
The liver is essential for processing, creating hormones, and providing biofeedback to other organs. Over time, alcohol consumption can damage liver tissues. As the immune system repairs liver cells, scar tissue is left behind. Cirrhosis, the loss of liver function, occurs when the liver becomes permanently scarred and damaged. The risk of cirrhosis is higher in women than in men.
Intestines and Digestive System
Alcoholic beverages increase the risk of numerous intestinal GI cancers, including esophageal cancer, colon cancer, mouth and throat cancer, and stomach cancer.
The pancreas secretes digestive juices into the small intestine to digest food. Large volumes of alcohol consumption can trigger pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), and chronic inflammation causes the pancreas to stop functioning over time.
Alcoholic beverages can inhibit libido and sexual function. Chronic use can increase the risk of poor arousal and inability to orgasm and, over time, can decrease your testosterone levels.
In a moment of anxiety, having an alcoholic beverage can seem like a good idea. Having a drink to “calm the nerves” is even a common trope in movies, books, and our society. Alcohol, however, doesn’t help you regain mental equilibrium. It masks some of the anxiety “noise” (i.e., anxious thoughts) and causes the body to go further into fight or flight mode, ultimately making you feel worse in the long run.
Drinking During Menopause
According to some recent research, binge drinking for women in midlife is on the rise. While additional studies are needed, researchers found that the menopausal transition was a time of change in alcohol use among women. Generally, women who were NOT excessive drinkers before this stage of life were more likely to transition to excessive drinking in the early peri- and postmenopausal stages. Researchers think women might be turning to alcohol due to struggles with some of the symptoms of menopause – like depression and mood changes, brain fog, and hot flashes. The trouble with this is alcohol causes dilation of blood vessels and might trigger hot flashes!
- Know what makes up a “standard drink.”
- Alcohol affects women differently than men. Alcohol stays in the bloodstream longer for women, and alcohol consumption leads to a higher risk of dementia, cirrhosis, and breast cancer in women.
- Know your risks for alcohol-related disease.
- What is your Picture of Self? Take time to think of what you feel like on your best day – do you feel motivated? Energetic? Healthy? Have zero cravings? Are anxiety-free? Also, consider what you don’t want to be: I don’t want diabetes. I don’t want dementia. Then, take what you don’t want and flip it to the positive. “I don’t want diabetes” means I want to be medication-free, I want fewer doctor’s visits, and I want fewer sugar crashes and cravings. Use these statements to inform how you approach your wellness and drinking goals.
- Know when to take a break. It is important to note there is no shame in taking a permanent break from alcohol. Check out Dr. Egan’s favorite alcohol-free mocktail, Recess!
Five Questions You Can Ask Your Healthcare Provider
- Am I drinking too much alcohol?
- What is my risk for alcohol-related diseases?
- What are my resources for emotional health support? Check out the app Reframe to start building healthier drinking habits.
- Can we have a bias-free discussion about alcohol?
- Can you tell me how alcohol is affecting me? What do you see?
You deserve to know all the facts about alcohol and its effect on the body. At true., we equip each patient with the knowledge they need to make the best-informed decisions about their health.