Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Women’s Health
Alcohol is often part of seasonal gatherings and festive parties. However, the impact drinking can have on your health is not always something to celebrate.
“Alcohol affects your whole body,” says Hetal Choxi, M.D., who provides primary care at the Center for Women’s Health. “Some people mostly think about drunk driving and liver disease, but alcohol also affects depression, insomnia, stomach acid and heart health.” Drinking has also been shown to contribute to many cancers. Studies have linked even moderate drinking to changes in the brain.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption among women rose 19%, and they experienced 29% more alcohol-related complications. While those numbers have improved since 2020, women still are at higher risk of complications from alcohol than men.
Know your numbers
At the clinic, Dr. Choxi does annual behavioral health screenings, which include questions about alcohol use. This tool gives Dr. Choxi the chance to answer any questions or concerns patients may have about drinking.
She has found there can be confusion about current guidelines. The first step is to define what is considered a standard drink. One serving depends on the type of alcohol and the percentage of alcohol by volume. The CDC defines one standard drink as:
- 5 oz wine (12% ABV)
- 12 oz beer (5% ABV)
- 1-1.5 oz hard liquor (can vary by proof/liquor)
The second step is to know the recommendations. For women, these are:
- Do not drink more than three drinks in a single occasion.
- Do not have more than seven drinks per week.
“When you see numbers higher than that, that’s when there can be health consequences,” says Dr. Choxi. While the guidelines look a little different for men, anyone can benefit from cutting back or eliminating alcohol intake.
Choose your why and how
“The most important part is that people need to have their own motivation,” says Dr. Choxi. “My role is to share information about alcohol. I want my patients to decide what they can do, such as cut back, and have them come up with how they’re going to do it.”
Dr. Choxi says her patients have different reasons for deciding to drink less or not at all. Some may be having trouble losing weight, and they recognize alcoholic drinks have a lot of calories. Others may struggle with lowering their blood pressure, and cutting out alcohol can help. Sometimes, people may not even enjoy alcohol all that much. Knowing the health risks gives them an extra nudge to reduce or stop drinking.
She has seen patients cut back in many ways. Some choose to alternate an alcoholic beverage followed by a non-alcoholic one. Others try out doing a sober month. One patient was inspired to have a conversation with friends about how much their group socializes at the bar. Together, they decided to include more alcohol-free gatherings to better everyone’s health.
Be aware of unknown risks
Dr. Choxi stresses there is another reason for some women to be particularly careful with drinking: fetal alcohol syndrome. This group of birth defects can happen when a pregnant person drinks alcohol. “About 50% of pregnancies are unplanned,” says Dr. Choxi, “Women may not even know they are pregnant and significant damage can occur.”
It is important to know the risks of alcohol consumption. “There is a myth that moderate drinking is good for you,” says Dr. Choxi. “There's research coming out that any amount of alcohol can be bad for your health.”
Amidst the season of celebrations, take a moment to think about your intake. If you have questions or concerns about drinking, talk to your doctor. They can assess your risk and connect you to resources.