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Even a Drink a Day Can Adversely Affect Women's Health

Armen Hareyan's picture

Alcohol and Women

Women: new research on how alcohol affects your health makes it a good time to reassess how much you drink.

Until recently, most studies on alcohol and its effect on health have been conducted only in men. But new research that included women has highlighted some differences.

Based on size and composition, men's bodies are able to process slightly more alcohol with fewer negative consequences than women can. The primary difference between men and women, however, is the amount of an enzyme - gastric alcohol dehydrogenase - that's produced. This enzyme begins to process the alcohol before it leaves the stomach. The less alcohol dehydrogenase you produce, the more alcohol leaves your stomach in its original form, affecting the intestine, bloodstream and liver. Women naturally produce less gastric alcohol dehydrogenase than men do and are, therefore, less able to break down alcohol.

Because of these differences, it's important that women take extra caution with alcohol consumption. The March issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource covers how alcohol affects women's health.

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Heart disease: Even though limited alcohol consumption may decrease cholesterol levels, having more than one alcoholic drink a day is associated with an increased risk of heart and circulatory problems, particularly high blood pressure, a weakness of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) and stroke.

Cirrhosis of the liver: Women have a two to three times greater risk than men do in developing cirrhosis of the liver, even when men and women drink the same amount. Both cirrhosis and alcohol-related brain damage occur in women over a shorter time period and with lower levels of alcohol consumed, as compared to men.

Cancer: Among women who drink, cancer risks increase with increasing amounts of alcohol ingested. If you have more than one drink a day, each subsequent drink up to six drinks a day increases your risk of developing breast cancer by 9 percent. In other words, three drinks a day result in an 18 percent increased risk of breast cancer. Six drinks a day result in a 45 percent increased risk. Your chance of getting cancer of the mouth, larynx, colon, esophagus or stomach also increases with alcohol consumption.

Appearance: Each serving of alcohol contains between 65 and 200 calories. Over time, these extra calories can add up, leading to weight gain that can negatively impact your overall health.

In those who abuse alcohol or are addicted to it, the truly "ugly" effects aren't cosmetic. They are related to the disconnection and isolation that can occur with a drinking problem, and an increased likelihood of depression.

How much is safe: For younger women who aren't planning a pregnancy, one drink of alcohol a day may have some health-enhancing benefits. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Postmenopausal women should limit themselves to less than one drink a day. There is no safe level for women who are pregnant or who suffer from addiction.