Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue – Part 1

Women and Drinking

Exercise, diet, hormones, and stress: keeping up with all the health issues facing women is a challenge.Alcohol presents yet another health challenge for women. Even in small amounts, alcohol affects women differently than men. In some ways, heavy drinking is much more risky for women than it is for men.With any health issue, accurate information is key. There are times and ways to drink that are safer than others. Every woman is different. No amount of drinking is 100 percent safe, 100 percent of the time, for every woman. With this in mind, it's important to know how alcohol can affect a woman's health and safety.

How Much Is Too Much?

Sixty percent of U.S. women have at least one drink a year. Among women who drink, 13 percent have more than seven drinks per week.

For women, this level of drinking is above the recommended limits published in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are issued jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Dietary Guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.

The Dietary Guidelines point out that drinking more than one drink per day for women can increase the risk for motor vehicle crashes, other injuries, high blood pressure, stroke, violence, suicide, and certain types of cancer.

Some people should not drink at all, including:

  • Anyone under age 21
  • People of any age who are unable to restrict their drinking to moderate levels
  • Women who may become pregnant or who are pregnant
  • People who plan to drive, operate machinery, or take part in other activities that require attention, skill, or coordination
  • People taking prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol.

Why are lower levels of drinking recommended for women than for men? Because women are at greater risk than men for developing alcohol-related problems. Alcohol passes through the digestive tract and is dispersed in the water in the body. The more water available, the more diluted the alcohol. As a rule, 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 breaks down and eliminates alcohol.

What is a drink?

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 distilled spirits

Keep in mind that the alcohol content of different types of beer, wine, and distilled spirits can vary quite substantially.

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Source: NIH Publication No. 08-4956
Revised 2008

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 29, 2014