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Women and alcohol: Here are 5 facts you might not know

There are specific health impacts that drinking alcohol can have on women, especially among those trying to fall pregnant.

While politics, policies and parenting may take the spotlight when it comes to discussing women’s issues, there’s one area of female health we tend to avoid addressing – and that’s the impact of alcohol on women. Alcohol-related problems can be more pronounced in women, and those effects can impact a woman’s fertility and health.

So, while maintaining a healthy relationship with drinking looks different for everyone, it’s worth looking at five things all women should know about alcohol, and tips for a healthier future.

1. Women are generally more easily affected by alcohol than men

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.

The fat acts like Tetris blocks where the alcohol doesn’t distribute, making it more highly concentrated within the rest of the body. So, the more muscle you may have in your body, the less affected by alcohol you may be.

Women are generally shorter than men, meaning there’s less space in a female body in which the alcohol can be distributed.

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: Don’t feel pressured to binge drink or keep up drink-for-drink with men, as the effects of alcohol can be more pronounced. Alternate water with each alcoholic drink and eat a nutritious meal before drinking alcohol. 

2. Women are drinking more now than in the past

About 100 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 last century to reach consumption rates almost on a par with men, almost doubling the alcohol consumption for women over this period of time.

According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 13% of Australian women aged 50–59 are likely to be drinking at risky levels – defined as more than two standard drinks per day.

Women aged 40–49 are not far behind with a risky drinking rate of 12.5%. 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 and spending more time doing unpaid domestic work than men.

Tip: If drinking has become a way to cope with the ‘mental load’ or emotional labour of running a household, try reducing your expectations, asking for help and ‘doing less’ when possible. 

3. Cutting down on alcohol may be the fastest way to lose weight

In data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 60% of women were reported as overweight or obese. This suggests more than half of the female population could benefit from losing weight for better health.

In 2016, Australian women aged 25 and over were most likely to drink wine as their alcoholic drink of choice, whereas men preferred regular strength beer.

While it may sound obvious that sugar-laden cocktails can quickly add kilojoules to your overall daily intake, wine isn’t a harmless bystander. A regular size glass of wine (150ml) contains about 550 kilojoules, with slight variants for red vs white and sweet vs dry. Beer sits slightly higher, at about 585 kilojoules per 350ml bottle.

When you drink, you may also be more likely to reach for larger serving sizes of food, extra sweets and – more wine – due to not feeling satisfied from the consumption of ‘empty calories’.

4. Alcohol may increase the risk of developing female cancers

Alcohol use is a cause of cancer, the more you consume, the higher your risk – and that goes for both genders.

There is strong evidence to suggest women have a greater risk of breast cancer if they are heavy drinkers.

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.

And women who drink excessively, develop more medical problems than men who drink excessively.

Tip: For those who choose to drink alcohol, do so within the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, which recommend drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce the 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.

5. Alcohol can affect conception, fertility and the health of your baby

For pregnant women, drinking alcohol increases the risk of stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, miscarriage, birth defects and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). 

FASD is a condition that results from parents either not being aware of the dangers of alcohol use when pregnant or planning a pregnancy, or not being supported to stay healthy during pregnancy.

And while alcohol does not directly affect the efficacy of 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, increasing the risk of pregnancy.

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.

How to get expert help

If you’d like to change your relationship with alcohol, find out more about HCF’s partner, Hello Sunday Morning and download Daybreak, the alcohol behaviour change app that’s free and comes with added benefits and programs for HCF members.

  1. Sign in to HCF online member services or the My Membership app
  2. Click on 'My Cover' and then the 'Alcohol Support' button
  3. Download the Daybreak app
  4. Complete your registration in the app
  5. Start your Daybreak alcohol support journey to better health & wellbeing
Log in to get started
Words by Hello Sunday Morning
First published March 2019

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