For women, the answer can be complicated
By Andi Diehn
I'll admit it. My nightly glass of wine with dinner is a very relaxing part of my day. So when earlier this year a study suggested women who drink moderately tend to gain less weight than women who don't drink at all, I had nothing but smiles.
But, not so fast. Late last year, another study found that drinking even just one glass of wine on a daily basis increased a woman's risk of cancer. Suddenly my merlot tastes like vinegar. And I'm left confused – is alcohol a good thing, or a bad thing? And, as a woman, do I need to be extra careful about drinking even when I'm not pregnant?
Most of us are aware of the more overt effects of alcohol consumption. We know drinking alcohol while pregnant could cause major issues for our babies. We also know getting behind the wheel of a car after even one drink on an empty stomach is a bad idea. For a women, that is. A man may not experience the affects of alcohol until he's had two drinks. (Which isn't to say he should be the one to drive – best to call a cab after having a drink or two with dinner.)
“Since typically, female tolerance level is lower, the effects on cognitive function (such as memory, attention, judgment, concentration) is more significant,” Mark McGovern, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, said. “This is obviously a relevant consideration for driving, parenting, working, or even engaging in social exchanges.”
But why do women and men get drunk at different rates? “Because of specific physiological factors related to body size, percent of body fat composition, hormones and metabolism,” McGovern said. Basically, men are usually bigger, and therefore equal amounts of alcohol have a stronger impact on the woman's smaller body.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports on its Web site that, “When a woman drinks, the alcohol in her bloodstream typically reaches a higher level than a man's even if both are drinking the same amount. This is because women's bodies generally have less water than men's bodies. Because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol is less diluted in a woman's body than in a man's.”
Michael Edwards, licensed alcohol and drug counselor at Northern Human Services in Conway, offers another reason women are more susceptible to alcohol than men.
“Women have one-third less of the enzyme in their stomachs associated with the breakdown and metabolism of alcohol.”
Plus, women who drink have more to worry about than the cost of taxis or making an alcohol-induced faux pas at the office cocktail party. A British study known as the Million Women Study followed 1,280,296 middle-aged women over the course of seven years and discovered statistically significant increases in the risk of certain types of cancer – breast, rectal, head and throat – for women who drank even as little as four ounces a day. Add smoking tobacco to that one drink and your chances for contracting cancer are even greater.
That's enough to give anyone pause before sipping.
“The ratio of men to women with alcohol use disorders was 3 to 1 historically. It is now closer to 2 to 1 over all, and is close to equal for women who are college educated,” McGovern said. As women have gained equal rights in areas such as job opportunities, it appears we've also risen in the ranks in terms of self-destructive behavior.
Ken Snow, social worker and vice president of communications at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester points out women are more prone to depression than men, and all of the secondary issues that can accompany mental illness, like drinking too much.
“One of the risks people run is the wish to self-medicate,” he said. “They're under an illusion: 'After a couple drinks I feel better.' But this is false. Alcohol is really a depressive and actually complicates depression.”
That bottle of chardonnay chilling in the fridge is looking less and less attractive.
So now that I know that drinking a glass of wine every night might increase my chances of getting cancer, am I going to stop? That's a tough one.
For many of us, drinking is a part of our daily and nightly rituals. We drink while we cook dinner, while we eat around the family table, while we reconnect with our partners after the kids are in bed.
“In the summertime I love to sit in the backyard and look at the garden with a glass of wine,” Snow said. “It's very relaxing. A lot of times we come home from work and want to wind down – alcohol is usually a part of that. Hopefully people will stop at a glass or two and not a bottle and a half.”
While deciding how much to drink is a personal decision, there are guidelines that may keep you healthier if you choose to drink. McGovern said, “Generally, 5 drinks per week are reasonable for an average woman. This would be one per occasion (not 5 at one sitting!).” One drink is 12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine, and 1.5 oz of liquor.
“People who are pre-disposed to alcohol addiction have got to avoid all alcohol,” Snow said.
Edwards agrees. “The guidelines are no more than one drink a day; and that is if she does not have a history of alcohol abuse/dependency, or a family history of alcohol dependency or may have any health issues or take medications which may be contraindicated with the use of alcohol.”
Edwards also advises speaking to your physician before changing your habits because of news reports about the benefits of drinking, which are not meant as medical advice.
If you think alcohol may be taking on a larger role in your life than you'd like it to, ask yourself a few questions about your own habits. If your answers tend to be “yes,” it may be time to get advice from a professional.
Do I need it? Can I take it or leave it?
Do I really miss it or feel anxious when I don't have the drink?
Do I drink when I don't really want to, or do I drink more than I plan to?
Do I ever regret the drink, or regret what I did or said while under the influence?
Do I get angry with people who suggest I'm drinking too much?
Edwards suggests, “If a woman or others in her life notice: a) her tolerance is increasing, b) she is drinking alone, c) that alcohol is interfering with area of her life (sick days from work, missing important obligations, driving under the influence), d) personality changes when drinking, going from very quiet and calm to angry and loud – these may be signs that alcohol is taking an increasingly more prevalent and malicious role in her life.”
Edwards urges women, or anyone, to speak to their physician about their concerns. You can also call 211, a statewide information resource line sponsored by Untied Way for more information.
I'll likely continue my one-drink-a-day ritual. But knowing how much is too much and being aware of future problems that could be caused by drinking will play an important part of the decision.
Andi Diehn lives in Enfield with her husband and three sons. She writes during naptimes.