Alcohol is not particularly good for anyone. After decades of research, scientists have all but debunked the studies indicating that mild alcohol consumption can have positive health effects; in truth, a glass of red wine per night is doing hardly more for your body than the cookie you eat after dinner as a reward for a hard day’s work. Small amounts of alcohol seem to allow the mind and body to relax, but regular consumption — and excessive consumption — certainly does more harm than good.
Women experience many of the same negative health effects of alcohol as men, with a few key differences. Read on to learn more about how women’s bodies process alcohol, the damage alcohol poses to women’s systems and what women alcohol users can do to stop the cycle of harm.
What Happens When Alcohol Enters the Body
The basic effects of alcohol on the human body are similar, regardless of whether a drinker is male or female. When an individual consumes alcohol, the substance is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream through capillaries in the mouth, stomach and small intestine. From there, it rushes to the largest and most important organs in the body: the brain, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs and the heart. In these organs and other bodily systems, alcohol causes dysfunction to a degree relative to the amount of alcohol consumed.
For example, in the brain, alcohol makes it more difficult for neurons to communicate with one another. As a result, the brain loses the ability to quickly and efficiently control the body, leading to slow physical responses and problems with balance and coordination. Additionally, the brain will lose the ability to perform high-level cognitive tasks, forcing it to rely on more basic instincts, in effect eliminating inhibition and stimulating unjustified euphoria. With too much contact with a large quantity of alcohol, certain areas of the brain can atrophy, and function without alcohol becomes difficult.
As the second-largest organ in the body — and the organ primarily responsible for metabolization — the liver bears the brunt of alcohol’s effects. The liver strives to convert alcohol into useful nutrients for the body, and in doing so, it breaks alcohol down into water and carbon monoxide, which is remarkably toxic. CO causes cells to suffocate and die, as it takes the place of vital oxygen, so having any amount of carbon monoxide in one’s system is dangerous. To protect itself against alcohol, livers can generate extra stores of fat, which makes it more difficult for the liver to metabolize nutrients properly.
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Additionally, alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate and for blood pressure to plummet. This can make the body feel uncomfortably hot and produce unsightly redness on the skin, but more importantly, it interferes with the heart’s ability to move blood efficiently around the body. Though the interaction between cardiovascular health and alcohol intake has been marred by misinformation for years, researchers are beginning to demonstrate how drinking can permanently harden and scar the heart and blood vessels, increasing one’s risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular concerns.
Why Women’s Systems React Differently
Women and men should be treated equally in society, but when it comes to health, women should be careful to understand their unique concerns. Women tend to be smaller in stature than men, which means an equivalent amount of alcohol will be relatively more taxing on their bodies. Additionally, women tend to have more fat distributed around their bodies, which means it can take more time for alcohol’s effects to set in but result in longer periods of drunkenness with the same alcohol exposure.
Often, social pressures cause women to try to match men drink-for-drink, which can produce much more damage to their bodily systems than to those of their male counterparts. Even when competition is not a factor, women eager to feel the effects of alcohol may drink more initially, causing extreme amounts of harm as the excessive alcohol intake begins plaguing their organs.
As a result, women who develop alcohol dependence tend to do so at younger ages, when they are even smaller and more susceptible to pressure to drink from peers. Fortunately, women who can admit to alcohol use disorders can find safe and secure spaces to endure alcohol detox and begin finding ways to reverse the harmful and unhealthy drinking habits of their past.
A glass of wine every so often will not cause the brain and liver to shut down, but women need to be more careful than men regarding how often and how much they imbibe. When a substance can have serious and permanent health effects, it is wise for everyone to apply caution when enjoying that substance — even if it tastes great.