Nov 29

Risks of Alcohol Consumption

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This one is for you Coaches! Something most of you have done after finishing training, a competitive game, or event is head off for a pizza and a cool jug of beer; especially with the holiday season right around the corner creating more stress at home and at work. Relaxation is even more tempting than usual during this time of year, but be aware of your daily alcohol intake – if indeed you do it! That one drink with a green olive or that one can of beer can easily become a habit-forming behaviour.

Over 14,000 German seniors over the age of sixty had to seek medical attention in 2015 due to alcohol poisoning. Keep in mind, Germany is widely known for its beer drinking culture (perhaps a ‘cultural’ disease?). Dr. Heidrun Thaiss, Director of the German Federal Center for Health Information and Prevention (BZgA), says many older people are not aware that alcohol has a greater impact as we age compared to our younger years.

  • Liver function declines and is reduced with age
  • Fluid levels slowly change
  • Alcohol levels remain longer in the bloodstream – having a greater impact and resulting in quicker effects, and is more severe and intense.
  • Due to the decline in liver function, more toxins remain in the body

Furthermore, the health risks that accompany regular and higher alcohol consumption are numerous.

Regular alcohol consumption affects: 
  • Personal capability
  • Personal performance capacity
  • Productivity
  • Efficiency
  • Efficacy
  • Self-esteem
  • Competitiveness
  • Physical mental, emotional, and psychological make-up

In addition, researchers have found that increased alcohol consumption can probably contribute to mouth, throat, and esophagus cancer as well as heart and circulatory health problems. Additionally, seniors are put at greater risk due to the medical prescriptions that, when combined with alcohol consumption, can have devastating effects.

The German Center recommends the following for general consumption:

Per day – Not more than 10 grams of Alcohol = 0.1 liter of wine and 0.25 liter of beer

Women and the Hidden Risks of Drinking

Over the past years, more women have taken to alcohol consumption, especially as younger women graduate from universities and colleges, and enter the professional field. Prior social culture within the post-secondary schools has often fostered binge drinking and eating. Research points to the fact that women are more vulnerable than men to alcohol’s effects, even after drinking smaller amounts. Women are as likely as men to recover from alcohol dependence, but women may have more difficulty gaining access to treatment.

Particular Alcohol Risks in Women

Women in many different cultures enjoy drinking alcohol for a variety of reasons: to celebrate a special occasion, help them feel more sociable, or simply to unwind with family and friends. While many are able to drink responsibly, alcohol use does pose unique risks to all women. While men are more likely to drink alcohol than women and develop problems because of their drinking, women are much more vulnerable to alcohol’s harmful effects.

  • Women tend to develop alcohol-related diseases and other consequences of drinking sooner than men, and after drinking smaller cumulative amounts of alcohol.
  • Women are also more likely to abuse alcohol and other substances in order to self-medicate problems such as depression, anxiety, and stress, or to cope with emotional difficulties.
  • Women who drink more than light to moderate amounts of alcohol (more than about 7 drinks a week) are at increased risk of car accidents and other traumatic injuries, cancer, hypertension, stroke, and suicide.
  • In addition, drinking at an elevated rate increases the likelihood that a woman will go on to abuse or become dependent on alcohol.

Health Consequences of Alcohol Abuse in Women

Women, who abuse or are dependent on alcohol, are more vulnerable than men to:

Liver disease

Women are more likely to contract alcoholic liver disease, such as hepatitis (inflammation of the liver), and are more likely to die from liver cirrhosis (chronic disease that progressively destroys the liver’s ability to aid in digestion and detoxification).

Brain Damage

Women are more likely than men to suffer alcohol-induced brain damage, such as loss of mental function and reduced brain size. Compared with women, who don’t drink or drink in moderation, women, who drink heavily also have an increased risk of:

  • Osteoporosis (a thinning of the bones)
  • Falls and hip fractures
  • Premature menopause
  • Infertility and miscarriages
  • High blood pressure and heart disease

Alcohol and Breast Cancer

Alcohol may also raise a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Each additional 10 grams of alcohol (the amount in about one 4-oz glass of wine) per day raises the relative risk of developing breast cancer over a lifetime by about 10%. To put this in perspective: A woman’s overall lifetime risk of breast cancer is almost 9 in 100 if she drinks no alcohol. Two drinks per day increases the risk to just over 10 in 100, while six drinks a day ups her risk to about 13 in 100.

Women and Girls Are Drinking More

According to a 2009 survey, approximately 47% of women ages 12 and over in the United States reported being current drinkers, defined as having had a drink in the past 30 days. Trends suggest that white, employed women are drinking greater amounts of alcohol and with greater frequency. Some of this increase may reflect a greater comfort on the part of women to discuss their drinking.

Social Stigmas Are Starting To Fade

Historically, women have tended to feel a greater sense of shame about drinking and getting drunk than men, but it appears that among younger women, this stigma may be fading. While men are still more likely to drink and binge – women are drinking more, and more often than they did in the past. According to data from a survey of almost 18,000 college students across the U.S., about one in three female students engages in binge drinking (consuming four or more drinks in a row, often in quick succession).

  • The rate of binge drinking in all-female colleges more than doubled between 1993 and 2001.
  • While more college men are dependent on alcohol, women constitute more than half of alcohol abusers among college students.
  • These trends are disturbing, given that binge drinking not only carries health risks for both men and women but also increases the chance of unwanted and unplanned sexual activity.
  • Women risk becoming pregnant, and both men and women risk contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Crossing The Line Into Risky Drinking

According to experts, 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

Remember: alcohol content of different beers, wines, and distilled spirits can vary and a single mixed drink may actually contain nearly two standard drinks. For women, in particular, there is a very fine line between healthful and harmful drinking – one that is easy to cross. While moderate drinking is defined as no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three on any given day, those levels aren’t set in stone.

The amount a woman can safely drink depends on:
  • Weight and health
  • Personal genetic makeup and family history
  • Time since eating
  • Age

Some experts believe that women, who drink even one alcoholic drink per day may be putting themselves at increased risk for health problems. Since women become addicted to alcohol more easily than men, drinking even moderately can be a slippery slope. This is especially true for older women. In fact, about half of all cases of alcoholism in women begin after age 59.

Certainly, no one should feel obliged to start drinking for the health benefits. There are plenty of other ways to safeguard personal health, such as regular exercise, a nutritious diet, keeping weight under control, and not smoking. However, women, who enjoy alcoholic beverages, it is important to know where to draw the line and to be prepared to redraw the line when getting older.

Alcohol Affects Women in Unique Ways

A woman’s body processes alcohol more slowly than a man’s. One drink for a woman has about twice the effect of one for a man. In addition, women have a “telescoping” or accelerated the course of alcohol dependence, meaning that they generally advance from their first drink to their first alcohol-related problem to the need for treatment more quickly than men.

Reason Women Are More Sensitive to the Effects of Alcohol

Several biological factors make women more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than men:

Body Fat

Women tend to weigh less than men, and – pound for pound – a woman’s body contains less water and more fatty tissue than a man’s. Since fat retains alcohol while water dilutes it, alcohol remains at higher concentrations for longer periods of time in a woman’s body, exposing her brain and other organs to more alcohol.


Women have lower levels of two enzymes – alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase – that metabolize (break down) alcohol in the stomach and liver. As a result, women absorb more alcohol into their bloodstreams than men.


Changes in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle may also affect how a woman metabolizes alcohol. These biological factors explain the reason women become intoxicated after drinking less and are more likely to suffer adverse consequences after drinking smaller quantities and for fewer years than men.


Abundant research data exists on the impact of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and potential effects on the unborn child and the offspring.

Sexual And Physical Abuse Increase Risk

Evidence suggests that sexual or physical abuse during childhood may predispose both men and women to alcohol and drug problems in adulthood. Since women are more likely to have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, they are disproportionately affected.

Research shows that:
  • Women who have been physically or sexually abused as children are far more likely to drink, have alcohol-related problems, or become dependent on alcohol.
  • Physical abuse during adulthood, which is suffered more by women than men, seems to raise a woman’s risk of using and abusing alcohol.
  • Alcohol is a major factor in violence against women, playing a role in as many as three of every four rapes and nearly the same percentage of domestic violence incidents.
  • Women with a family history of alcohol abuse are more likely than men with the same background to abuse alcohol.

Overcoming Barriers to Treatment and Recovery

Not only are women less able to tolerate the effects of alcohol than men, they are also less likely to seek specific help to overcome any drinking problems they develop. Men who abuse alcohol are more likely to enter alcohol-treatment programs, whereas women are more inclined to seek help from primary care practitioners and mental health counselors.

Women with drinking problems:
  • Are particularly reluctant to be labeled alcoholics
  • Are more likely to ascribe their problems to depression, anxiety, or family trouble
  • May tend to shy away from treatment programs specifically designed to deal with alcohol problems because of the social stigma about women drinking
  • As a result, women may seek treatment in general medical or mental health settings. Even brief counseling in this type of setting, though, has been shown to lower a woman’s use of alcohol by nearly one-third.

Women and Men Are Equally Capable of Recovery

For a long time, professionals believed that women with substance abuse problems were less likely than men to recover from them. Yet, limited evidence on the matter was available because many studies on the outcome of substance abuse treatment conducted before the 1990s enrolled only men. The few studies that dealt with both men and women did not examine the impact of gender differences.

The situation changed in the early 1990s after the FDA and the National Institutes of Health issued guidelines aimed at increasing the representation of women and minorities in research studies. A review of Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that women are equally able to recover as men, and yet, women still face some unique challenges.


Adapted with permission from Alcohol Use and Abuse, a Special Health Report published by Harvard Health Publications. 

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