This Friday, 8th March, is International Women’s day – a time to celebrate how far women have come and reflect on how far they still have to go, in terms of gender equality. While politics, policies and parenting may take the spotlight, there’s one area where women may not be able to make considerable progress – alcohol. The effects of alcohol can be more pronounced in women, and women have unique considerations in terms of fertility and health. So, before you reach for the glass of chardonnay after the kids have gone to bed, or the gin and tonics for your girls weekend away, here are five things all women should know about alcohol, and tips for healthier outcomes.
Women generally have more fat and less muscle in their body composition than men. Alcohol tends to distribute itself mostly in tissues rich in water like muscle, instead of those rich in fat. In a way, the fat acts like tetris blocks where the alcohol doesn’t distribute, thus making it more highly concentrated within the rest of the body. Similarly, women are generally smaller in stature than men, meaning less space for alcohol to concentrate in. Both of these factors can lead to higher Blood Alcohol Concentrations (BAC) for women when they drink the same amount as similarly sized men.
Tip: Women shouldn’t feel pressured to keep up drink-for-drink with men, nor participate in rounds, as the effects of alcohol can be more pronounced for them. Alternate water with each alcoholic drink and have a nutritious meal before drinking alcohol.
Around one hundred years ago, the number of women who drank alcohol, globally, was approximately half that of men. The social acceptability and availability of alcohol has seen women catch up over the century to reach consumption rates almost on a par with men, effectively meaning almost double the alcohol consumption for women over this time period.
In Australia, among women, 13 per cent of those aged 50–59 are likely to be drinking at risky levels – defined as more than two standard drinks per day. This usurps the ‘stereotypical’ thinking that the younger nonchalant generation drink to excess. Women aged 40–49 are not far behind with a risky drinking rate of 12.5 per cent. Many theories attempt to explain this trend, such as the expectations of juggling parenting and careers, patterns of ingrained and automatic behaviour formed over time, or the emotional labour of running a household.
Tip: If drinking has become a way to cope with the ‘mental load’ or the emotional labour of running a household that disproportionately falls to women, try reducing your expectations, delegating and ‘doing less’ instead.
Whether for vanity or health reasons, straw polls of women in the Western world often indicate a desire to ‘shift a few kilos around the waistline’. In 2016, Australian women aged 25 and over were most likely to drink bottled wine as their alcoholic beverage of choice in 2016, whereas men preferred regular strength beer. While it may be obvious that sugar-laden cocktails can quickly add ‘empty calories’ to your overall daily intake, wine isn’t a harmless bystander. A regular sized glass of wine (150 ml) contains around 130 calories, with slight variants for red vs white and sweet vs dry. Beer sits slightly higher, at around 140 calories per ~350 ml bottle. You may also be more likely to reach for larger serving sizes of food, extra sweets and – more wine – due to reduced inhibitions and decision-making capabilities and not feeling satiated from the consumption of ‘empty calories’.
Tip: Drink half a bottle of wine, four times a week? If you cut it out completely and do nothing else differently you’d lose ~9 kilos in 12 months.
Alcohol use is a cause of cancer, the risk increasing in line with consumption for both genders. For women specifically, there is strong evidence to suggest that alcohol use increases the risk of breast cancer. For women whose alcohol consumption leads to weight gain and a high percentage of body fat, this in turn can increase the risk of cancers including of the ovaries and endometrium. Women who drink excessively develop more medical problems than men.
Tip: For those who choose to drink alcohol, do so within the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol i.e. drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces your risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury over a lifetime. Drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.
For pregnant women, drinking alcohol increases the risk of stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, miscarriage, birth defects and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD. FASD is a condition that is an outcome of parents either not being aware of the dangers of alcohol use when pregnant or planning a pregnancy, or not being supported to stay healthy and strong during pregnancy.
While alcohol does not directly affect the contraceptive pill, consumption of alcohol can lead to less compliance with contraception generally, due to forgetfulness, a change in regular routines or reduced inhibitions to use barrier methods, and therefore increases the risk of pregnancy.
Conversely, research shows that even drinking lightly can increase the time it takes to get pregnant; women who drink large amounts of alcohol are more likely to have heavy or irregular periods and fertility problems; and alcohol can also affect ovulation, which can make it difficult to conceive.
Tip: The National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s peak body on developing national health advice, recommends that for women who are pregnant, planning pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.
In what other ways do women have a unique relationship with alcohol?