Many people like to drink alcohol to relax or connect with others. Almost half of adult women say they have had a drink in the past month, and 13% of women say they binge drink occasionally. But medical research is showing that even moderate alcohol use can cause more negative health impacts for women than for men. According to the CDC, women are at greater risk for negative health effects of drinking, even if they drink less than men.
Alcohol can have a big impact on women’s health
Even though men are more likely to drink alcohol and consume larger amounts, the differences in men’s and women’s bodies cause alcohol to affect women differently. Biological differences between men and women, like body structure and chemistry, lead most women to absorb more alcohol and take longer to metabolize it. The effects of alcohol usually occur more quickly and last longer in women than men. These differences increase the long-term negative health effects of alcohol in women, compared with men. In women, alcohol is associated with diseases, injuries, and harms.
- Liver Disease: The risk of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher for women than for men.
- Impact on the Brain: Alcohol-related cognitive decline and shrinkage of the brain develop more quickly for women than for men.
- Impact on the Heart: Women who drink excessively are at increased risk for damage to the heart muscle at lower levels of consumption and over fewer years of drinking than men.
- Breast and Other Cancers: Alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon. In women, drinking is also associated with breast cancer, even at low levels of consumption.
Alcohol and pregnancy
There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant. There is also no safe time during pregnancy to drink. All types of alcohol are equally harmful, including liquor, wine, and beer.
Alcohol can cause problems for the developing baby throughout pregnancy:
- Drinking alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy can cause the baby to have abnormal facial features.
- Growth and central nervous system problems (e.g., low birthweight, behavioral problems) can occur from drinking alcohol any time during pregnancy.
- The baby’s brain is developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by exposure to alcohol at any time.
If a person is drinking alcohol during pregnancy, it is never too late to stop. The sooner a pregnant person stops drinking, the better it will be for both her baby and herself.
Breastfeeding, safety, and alcohol
Not drinking alcohol is the safest option for a breast/chestfeeding parent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If a breastfeeding person does choose to drink, no more than one standard drink per day should be consumed. Be aware: the alcohol from just one drink can remain in breast milk for 2-3 hours. Keep your baby safe: wait to breastfeed until 2 hours after having a drink.
- Alcohol levels are highest in breast milk 30-60 minutes after an alcoholic drink is consumed. Alcohol can still be detected in breast milk for about 2-3 hours later.
- The alcohol level in breast milk is the same as the alcohol level in a mother’s bloodstream. That’s why pumping milk after drinking alcohol, and then discarding it (also known as “pumping and dumping”), does not reduce the amount of alcohol present in the mother’s milk more quickly.
- Caring for an infant while impaired by alcohol is not safe.
Many people drink more when they are going through a stressful situation. The COVID-19 pandemic was stressful for many women, particularly those who were greatly affected by lost childcare. As a result, there was a major effect on women’s alcohol use. According to a RAND Corporation study, during the pandemic, women increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic. These behaviors have become ongoing habits for many.
To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that women of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 1 drink or less in a day, on days when alcohol is consumed. The guidelines also recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol do not start drinking for any reason, and that if adults of legal drinking age choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drinking less is better for health than drinking more.
When alcohol is consumed on its own or combined with other substances, safety can become an issue because judgment and decision making are impaired. While alcohol does not cause sexual assault, it can be a contributing factor. Research has found that alcohol is involved in about half of sexual assaults on college campuses with the perpetrator, the victim, or both, consuming alcohol.