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Nearly as many women as men use alcohol regularly, with 57% of females aged 18 to 25 drinking regularly. Binge drinking and heavy drinking are highest among 18 to 25 year-olds (from the 2010 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health). This presents challenges and risks for women.

Facts

  • Women feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and stay intoxicated longer than do men, due to physiological differences.
  • Women are more likely to get drunk faster when they are premenstrual due to hormone level changes during the menstrual cycle. Due to these physiological differences, the definition of binge drinking for women is four or more drinks (rather than five or more for men) in one sitting in the past two weeks.
  • 75% of men and at least 55% of women involved in a sexual assault had been drinking or taking drugs before the attack.
  • Women who drink during pregnancy may give birth to babies with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effects, a pattern of irreversible abnormalities that include mental retardation, prenatal and postnatal growth deficiencies, and joint defects. These abnormalities can occur with as little as two drinks per day.
  • 60% of college women who acquired a sexually transmitted disease, including AIDS, had been drinking at the time of infection.
  • Two-thirds of all legal drug prescriptions in the United States are written for women. An estimated two million women have taken drugs daily for a year or more.
  • 90% of alcoholic women were physically or sexually abused as children.
  • Among college women, there is a strong link between dieting and eating disorders and problem eating.

Important Questions

Why does it seem that women are affected more quickly than men by alcohol, even if they are the same size?

Women have been found to absorb alcohol significantly faster than do men. Women have 25% less ADH (an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase) in their stomachs. Having less of this enzyme means that they metabolize less alcohol than do men, and more alcohol gets into their bloodstream. The more alcohol in one’s bloodstream, the higher one’s BAC (blood alcohol content), and the greater the impact of the alcohol on one’s thinking and behavior. Alcohol gets into the tissues of the body by traveling through water. Men are composed of 55-65% water, while women are composed of only 45-55% water. In this way, alcohol is more diluted in men and more concentrated in women, again resulting in increased BACs in women.

Are there certain times of the menstrual cycle when women are affected more quickly by alcohol?

Even after drinking identical amounts of alcohol, a women’s BAC may vary on different days in her menstrual cycle. In fact, one study found that when a woman drank the same amount of alcohol every day for a month, her peak BACs varied each day from .04 to .10 percent. The highest BACs were reached during the premenstrual time and ovulation. This variation in BAC is thought to be caused by hormonal fluctuations, especially in regard to estrogen. Elevated estrogen levels have been found to lead to slower alcohol metabolism, and therefore increased BACs.

Does being on the birth control pill influence how alcohol will affect me?

Women taking the Pill have been found to metabolize alcohol more slowly, remain intoxicated longer, and have a decreased desire to drink, as compared with women not taking oral contraceptives. All of these effects result from the increased estrogen levels produced by taking the Pill.

Is there a correlation between drinking and depression in women?

60% of women with severe drinking problems have been found to suffer from depression before the onset of their drinking problem. Also, in contrast to what is observed in the general population, women with severe drinking problems outnumber men with similar problems in terms of attempted and completed suicide. Alcohol is thought to inhibit an enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MAO), which is correlated with depressive symptoms. Thus, women may find that drinking helps them to feel better, and inadvertently “self-medicate” themselves by drinking alcohol to lower MAO levels and decrease their depression.

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