Ask the doctor: Women, alcohol and their health

Dear Doctor, My friends say that men and women react differently to alcohol?
Dr. Rachna Pande
Dr. Rachna Pande

Dear Doctor,

My friends say that men and women react differently to alcohol? Why is this? How much alcohol is okay? I am a social drinker but once in awhile, I do drink more than I should.


Dear Janette,

Yes it is a fact that men and women react differently to alcohol. This is because the liver of women is less capable of detoxifying alcohol as compared to that of men.  Thus a woman is more likely to suffer from early and more severe adverse effects of alcohol on the heart, brain, musculoskeletal and nervous system, liver and other body parts as compared to men.

Alcohol induces more severe malnutrition in women. Studies show that women taking alcohol are more prone to breast cancer. Women are also emotionally more labile hence more prone to develop severe depression after taking alcohol. Risk of physical and mental harm to a woman    increases with drinking alcohol. Because, in a drunken state, a lady is more susceptible to being raped, which she can only regret later. This also exposes her to the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Habituation and dependence on alcohol occurs earlier and with lesser quantity of alcohol in women, as opposed to men.  Thus, even if the individual wants to give up alcohol, she finds it difficult to give up.

Moreover, alcohol has disruptive effects on the hormonal system which is more harmful for women in multiple ways. In an adolescent girl, alcohol can lead to delayed menarche. In a teenager or young woman, there can be irregular menses and anovulatory cycles leading to sterility when she plans to have a baby later in life.

During pregnancy, there is the risk of a miscarriage or a still birth. Even if the pregnancy is carried to full term, there is a high risk of the baby born with impaired intellect and other birth defects. The baby is most of the times neglected by an alcoholic mother.

Regarding safe limits of alcohol, there are guidelines which recommend that men should not take more than 21 units of alcohol per week and a woman should limit herself to 14units a week, both cutting down to at least 2 days per week.

Daily drinking, even in small quantities, is more harmful than drinking 2 to 3times a week. This is because the liver does not get time to detoxify the alcohol present and thus the liver cells are damaged. Alcohol is forbidden during pregnancy.

One unit of alcohol is the quantity of pure alcohol by volume in any drink. Now tell me how many times one measures the quantity of alcohol before drinking. What starts as social drinking gradually changes into daily drinking and dependence unknown to an individual. The body then craves for more alcohol, the person drinks more and the body gets more damaged.

Thus there is no safe limit. It is better to nip the habit in the bud.

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