By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Aahhh, that glass of wine at the end of the day! Alcohol can mean the relaxing end to the day or the critical difference between good health and bad health.
A lot of alcohol is a bad thing, a little can be good. It all depends on the dose – and who you are. The impact – positive or negative – of alcohol depends on many factors, one of the most important being your sex.
Women have a different reaction to alcohol than men, and experts say it’s a prime cause of women’s alcohol-related health problems. But is it all bad? Should you drink at all? Does drinking really harm your health? Does just one itsy bitsy glass make a difference?
The Difference between Moderate and Heavy Drinking
Okay, let's set out the broad parameters first. When talking about alcohol and health, there’s a big difference between drinking an occasional glass of wine with your meal and drinking half a bottle of whisky every night.
Experts agree that drinking to excess will almost certainly harm your health. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, around one in six women will develop a health problem caused by alcohol and heavy drinking.
But is drinking with your friends once a week a problem? Does a glass of wine a day cause health issues?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, --- in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans --- that "moderate" alcohol consumption for women means having one drink a day.
A standard drink is equal to 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, and a 1.5-ounce shot of spirits or liquor.
Guidelines are Different for Men and Women – For a Reason
You have probably noticed that men are advised to drink no more than two drinks a day. How fair is that?
There is a difference in these guidelines for a reason. Women are advised to drink less because in general our bodies cannot process alcohol as efficiently as a man’s.
The average woman weighs less than an average man and she has less tissue to absorb the alcohol.
Women also have a higher ratio of body fat to water in the body than men, and this means we are less efficient at diluting alcohol in the body.
Also, men have a secret chemical advantage. Men have more "alcohol dehydrogenase (AHD)", a chemcial which metabolizes alcohol in the liver. Women generally have lower levels of the chemical alcohol dehydrogenase , so any alcohol you drink stays in a your body longer before it is processed.
All this means that women are more at risk of the effects of alcohol, in general, than men.
A report in the October 2008 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter states that when “a woman and a man drink identical glasses of wine with the same meal, she will have a higher blood level of alcohol, and for a longer time. This means her tissues are exposed to more alcohol per drink than a man’s.”
When you do drink, your health is generally more impacted than a man’s and you are more vulnerable to the long-term negative effects of alcohol. But what are these negative effects? Read on to find out.
Alcohol Affects a Woman’s Chances of Getting Cancer
While a small amount of alcohol every once in a while may not make much of a difference, the more you drink, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer, liver cancer, bowel cancer, mouth cancer, esophageal cancer and laryngeal cancer.
According to the Million Women Study (2009) from Oxford University in the UK, the relative risk of breast cancer increases by 7.1 percent for each 10 grams of alcohol (1 unit of alcohol) you typically drink a day.
For every additional drink regularly consumed each day, the increase in incidence up to age 75 years per 1000 for women in developed countries is estimated to be about 1 for cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, 1 for cancer of the rectum, and 0.7 each for cancers of the esophagus, larynx and liver, according to the study.
Alcohol May Affect Your Fertility
If you are trying for a baby experts say you should abstain from drinking alcohol.
Drinking alcohol disrupts your reproductive hormones and affects your menstrual cycle, and even small amounts can affect your chances of conceiving.
A 1998 study from the National University Hospital, Copenhagen, Denmark demonstrated that a woman's alcohol intake is associated with decreased fertility even among women with a weekly alcohol intake of five or fewer drinks.
Women who drink heavily have a greater risk of miscarriage when they do fall pregnant, according to data from the National Health Service in the UK.
During pregnancy, there is no safe level of alcohol.
The U.S. Surgeon General “urges women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant to abstain from alcohol.”
Alcohol Can Destroy Your Appearance
You know that feeling of shock you get when you look in the mirror after a night out? Bags under the eyes. Pimply skin.
Alcohol can affect your looks as well as your physical health – and that’s even before we talk about weight gain.
Alcohol disrupts your sleep process so you wake up looking like you got much less rest than you actually did. And because alcohol is so dehydrating, you see the effects on your skin – discoloration, lines, baggy skin and more.
Alcohol is full of calories - one glass of wine has similar calories to a slice of cake and drinking a rum and coke is the same as eating half a donut.
Alcohol contains around 7 calories a gram which is about the same as pure fat and the average wine drinker consumes 2000 extra calories a month.
According to a 2000 report from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Alcohol Research and Treatment Center, alcohol stops your body from burning the amount of fat it would have done if you had not had a drink.
That's worth repeating --- drinking blocks your body from burning fat. Alcohol is the diet killer.
Alcohol is stored in the body, so your body wants to get rid of it as quickly as possible which means it prioritizes this process over burning fat.
And As You Get Older, the Problems Increase
As you get older, you lose muscle and you gain fat, which means you break down alcohol even more slowly and are therefore more affected by drink.
Alcohol can trigger some menopause symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats.
Drinking a lot of alcohol can increase the speed of bone loss, which increases your chances of osteoporosis in later years.
But What About Red Wine Being Good for the Heart?
Wine, especially red wine, has been associated with various benefits for women including heart health improvements.
Studies show that red wine has many health benefits. Red wine may reduce the risk of depression, prevent colon cancer, have an anti-aging effect, prevent dementia, protect against damage after stroke, improve lung function, prevent diabetes, and prevent dental cavities.
According to experts, alcohol may increase the levels of good cholesterol in the body as well as help prevent the formation of blood clots close to the arteries that increase the risk of a heart attack.
A small amount of alcohol with a meal can decrease the likelihood of clots forming. Red wine has a high concentration of antioxidants, which is why it is the most talked about drink in terms of heart health.
It’s All About Moderation
A 2006 study from the John Paul II Center for High Technology Research and Education in Biomedical Sciences, Italy shows that one to two drinks a day for women is associated with a lower risk of mortality overall.
It is clear that drinking more than one or two glasses of wine a day for a long period of time will negatively affect your health. Whether limited drinking has health benefits is still being debated.
If you want to lead a healthy lifestyle then moderation is key – cutting your alcohol intake to within the recommended guidelines will be a a great investment in your health and wellbeing.