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Men and Women Not Equal When It Comes to Alcohol Abuse

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

With media recently purporting the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption (most popularly red wine, for the antioxidants), you may be wondering whether to add a daily glass (or two) of wine to your diet. Here are some reasons to think twice – or at least strictly moderate your intake.

Even though on average men drink alcohol in larger amounts than women, women’s bodies have a harder time metabolizing it. That means that if a woman matches her male companion drink for drink, she will be affected by the alcohol faster and more powerfully and will have more alcohol in her blood than him. She will also suffer more pronounced long-term health effects from overindulging.

Alcohol in Pregnancy

There is no justification for drinking any amount of alcohol at all when you’re pregnant, because there is no known safe amount. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can cause birth defects and mental retardation. Because you may not know you’re pregnant for several weeks, you should also avoid alcohol if you are trying to become pregnant, and seriously consider whether drinking is wise if there is a chance you could get pregnant.

Other Health Concerns Related to Alcohol Abuse

Excessive alcohol consumption can cause reproductive health problems, such as disruption of the menstrual cycle, miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature delivery. In addition, excessive alcohol intake increases the likelihood of having multiple sexual partners, resulting in an elevated risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy. Binge drinking is strongly linked to sexual assault, especially among college students.

Women also have a greater risk of cirrhosis of the liver and other liver diseases related to alcohol. Effects on the brain impact women more as well, and these can include brain shrinkage and memory loss. These effects tend to take place in women sooner and with shorter periods of alcohol abuse than in men.

Consuming too much alcohol also affects women’s hearts differently than men’s, and women have a greater risk of damage to the heart muscle. Alcohol consumption leads to a higher risk of cancers of the breast, colon, liver, esophagus, throat, and mouth.

What about the Benefits?

So what about those antioxidants in red wine? New studies show that they aren’t particularly effective at the low doses obtained from a daily glass of wine anyway. You’re better off getting your antioxidants from a balanced, healthy diet that includes lots of fresh fruits and veggies. You can get resveratrol, the specific compound found in red wine, from grapes and raisins (and, to a lesser extent, peanuts); a wide range of other antioxidants can be found in other natural foods such as berries, apples, beans, plums, and many, many more. So if it’s antioxidants you’re after, head to the farmers’ market or the produce department – not the beer and wine aisle.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H