Why Does Alcohol Affect Women more than Men?

Apr 22, 2021

Women who drink regularly and excessively should understand the risks related to their alcohol use. This kind of information can help you become aware of potential medical issues and mental health concerns affected by your drinking. Today, we’re going to answer a handful of commonly asked questions about women and alcohol use disorders.

Alcohol can affect women differently than men in numerous ways. Even if a woman starts drinking later in life, she’s at a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder faster than a man and while drinking less. A higher risk of developing a mental health disorder is also a part of regular alcohol use. Medical risks differ, too. The increased chance of developing cancers, such as breast cancer, can be tied to heavy drinking over time. Women whose alcohol use has already created physiological and mental harm should seek treatment immediately to begin working on recovery and potentially lower future risks.

Are women at a higher risk for medical issues from drinking?

Yes. Evidence tells us women who drink face numerous medical risks. Some of these risks are more severe than others. The difference between the impact by gender can be stunning, too. For example, the mid-life cirrhosis death rate is nearly three times higher in women than it is in men.

Liver damage is another medical issue women are affected by differently. They can develop liver issues more quickly than men and through lower amounts of alcohol. Their greater vulnerability for developing alcohol-related brain damage and breast cancer is more evidence of their higher risk. Heart damage is yet another medical risk for heavy drinkers. Women can reach this point more quickly and even after drinking less than the men.

Does alcohol use in women increase the chance of developing a mental health disorder?

Yes. Specifically, women who consume more than 15 drinks in a week increase their risk of mental health issues. It may show up as depression or anxiety. Continuing to drink to self-medicate can worsen the mental health condition. Women are more likely than men to develop these mental health disorders from their regular alcohol use.

It’s important to point out that mental health disorders may have been present before regular drinking began. It may have been a factor in drinking patterns started at a young age. Unresolved trauma or post-traumatic stress are among the mental health factors that may have first influenced a woman’s choice to drink.

How does alcohol affect women more than men?

Women’s bodies contain the information about why alcohol affects them more than it affects men. For years, the assumption was about the size of women compared to men. They’re generally smaller and can become intoxicated on lower amounts of alcohol. But, that’s not the full story of what’s really going on.

Scientists identified an enzyme in the body that breaks down alcohol. It’s called alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH. It gets released in the liver, and women produce smaller amounts of ADH than men do. Because of factors like this one, women can develop a substance use disorder faster than men, even if they start drinking later in life.

Does alcohol affect hormones differently?

Hormones and heavy drinking can be a troubling combination for women. The extra estrogen produced can have value in the body, but it can also affect your risk of developing breast cancer. The additional estrogen increases the amount of acetaldehyde in your body. This chemical in your blood adds to the cancer risk, leads to hangovers, and can even affect your brain function and memory.

Postmenopausal women have some novel risks when drinking heavily. If they’re using hormone replacement therapy (HRT), regular alcohol use will increase their estrogen to potentially dangerous levels. An increase in their breast cancer risk follows. For women who aren’t on HRT, a few drinks a week can be safe but it’s always best to talk to your doctor.

Does alcohol increase cancer risks in women?

Yes. In general, heavy drinking can increase the overall risk of developing cancer in women. The list of potential cancers includes mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, and breast. But, not all types of cancers present the same level of risk from drinking.

The damage done to the liver by heavy drinking may be a factor in developing that type of cancer. Breast cancer, as we mentioned above, can develop in women who drink even small amounts of alcohol regularly. Colon and rectal cancer have been tied to drinking as well, although it tends to be a larger threat to men than women. The type of alcohol consumed is not typically a factor in developing cancer. The significant factor is the amount someone has drank over time.


Hannah’s House is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 561.841.1272.

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