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12 ways alcohol damages women’s health

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on January 16, 2024

Ladies, we’ve explored the detrimental effects of alcohol on your health and revealed a concerning picture. Alcohol consumption in women was associated with increased risks of mortality, liver disease, breast cancer, psychiatric problems, menstrual irregularities, and infertility. 

A Journal of General Internal Medicine study found that “the highest rate of reported infertility (30%) was among women who drank 6 or more drinks at least five times a week.”

Over time, binge drinking can take a heavy toll on your moods, friendships, and many other important health aspects. 

Table of Contents

If you’re worried about your alcohol consumption habits, it’s time to speak to the experts. Ardu’s alcohol treatment center is waiting to lend a hand. Discover a path to recovery and wellness with our women’s rehab program.

The people that work at ARDU are my family, my tribe, my mentors, my partners, my friends, my teachers, my shoulders to cry on when having a bad day, and where my heart truly lies! They all have changed my life forever and helped mold me into the woman I am today. They provided a space for me to heal, a space for me to find my voice, a space for me to learn, and a space where I could be authentically me… I am grateful for my time spent at Ardu…

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While both genders suffer tremendously from alcohol abuse, women seem to face increased risks. Women have a higher percentage of body fat that tends to absorb more alcohol. This leads to faster organ damage and disease. 

Let’s discuss the following health effects of alcohol on women:

  1. Alcohol causes liver disease.
  2. Alcohol causes cardiovascular disease.
  3. Alcohol is neurotoxic. It delivers terrible hits to your brain and cognition.
  4. Heavy drinking suppresses immune function.
  5. Excessive drinking causes cancer.
  6. Alcohol leads to hormonal imbalance.
  7. Alcohol causes a “female alcohol belly.”
  8. Too much alcohol is bad for the skin.
  9. Heavy drinking ravages mental health.
  10. Excessive levels of alcohol consumption can disrupt the menstrual cycle.
  11. Excessive drinking leads to infertility in women.
  12. Alcohol messes with women’s sexual function.

Booze is quite detrimental to men’s health as well. If you’re struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD) or other types of addiction, our drug and alcohol rehab center welcomes anyone who wants to find lasting sobriety and thrive in recovery.

One: alcohol damages the liver

The liver metabolizes alcohol and its main chemical, ethanol. It breaks down ethanol into acetaldehyde and other toxic metabolites that wreak havoc on your entire body, starting from the liver. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the risk of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher for women than for men.”

Women seem to develop alcoholic liver disease after much less alcohol exposure than men. This is because women have higher blood alcohol concentrations than men after drinking the same amounts of alcohol. The immediate effects of alcohol typically occur faster and last longer in women than in men.

Two: heavy drinking is bad for the heart

Alcohol takes a major toll on cardiovascular health. Female drinkers face higher risks for conditions such as stroke, high blood pressure, and cardiomyopathy versus male counterparts at even lower levels of consumption. 

A 2022 study found that “women may develop alcoholic cardiomyopathy at a lower lifetime level of alcohol consumption.” This means that women are more vulnerable to alcohol-induced heart muscle damage and dysfunction, showing impairment with less total alcohol intake over their lifetime compared to men.

Three: alcohol harms the brain

Women seem to be more vulnerable to alcohol’s neurotoxicity and neuroinflammatory effects than men. Biological differences cause women to absorb alcohol faster than men, and also take longer to process it. According to research, these gender differences suggest that “women are more susceptible than men to the medical consequences of alcohol abuse.”

A 2020 review found that chronic excessive drinking in women is associated with a range of cognitive deficits, including issues with working memory, visuospatial abilities, balance, emotional processing, and social cognition.

The good news, your brain can recover after you stop drinking, regardless of gender. Contact Ardu and get all the help you and your brain need to kick the booze.

Four: binge drinking suppresses the immune system

Binge drinking deals a major blow to your immune defenses. Both acute alcohol intoxication and chronic heavy alcohol use impair female immune cells’ ability to mount inflammatory responses to infection and clear dead cells, resulting in increased susceptibility to illnesses.

Studies show acute alcohol intoxication severely impairs the function of infection-fighting white blood cells in females for up to 24 hours after a binge episode. This suppression also last longer compared to their male counterparts. All those slammed shots and cocktails sabotage your bodyguards, making it lots easier for bugs and infections to crash the party.

Five: alcohol increases the risk of gynecological cancer

Alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of several types of female-specific cancer. These include breast, ovarian, cervical, and endometrial cancers.

Find all the details about the relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer.

If you’re struggling to remain sober, our alcohol addiction treatment center can help. Our caring and supportive staff can support you through the six stages of recovery, from alcohol detox to the sweet, long-lasting freedom from alcohol addiction. 

Six: alcohol disrupts hormones

Heavy drinking throws women’s delicate hormonal balance completely out of whack. Drinking can dramatically spike estrogen while starving the body of progesterone. This leads to painful periods, fertility struggles, early menopause, and loss of bone density down the road. 

Emanuele, et. al. found that “alcohol has been found to disrupt normal menstrual cycling in female humans and animals and to affect hormonal levels in postmenopausal women.” 

The fluctuating hormones also trigger more body fat storage, particularly visceral belly fat, which increases bone disease risks.

Seven: “female alcohol belly”

Happy hour may taste good, but it can make your jeans a tad more snug. Booze contains a lot of empty calories, which over the years can lead to obesity. We are all aware of the infamous beer belly and the fact that men are more susceptible to enlarged stomachs from heavy drinking. But women also face a similar dread: the female alcohol belly.

Research indicates that even moderate drinking leads to a buildup of inflammatory belly fat in women, driven by alcohol’s disruption of testosterone and other hormonal pathways.

Eight: alcohol deteriorates the skin

The diuretic effects of alcohol deprive your skin of vital nutrients and moisture, leaving it red, dry, and puffy, with enlarged pores and fine lines. Drinking also triggers rosacea outbreaks, spider veins, acne, and psoriasis flares through inflammation. Accelerated skin aging and the loss of collagen give the appearance of premature wrinkling. 

For women especially, alcohol’s cosmetic impact erodes beauty, youthfulness, and self-confidence. Alcoholic men and women often struggle to maintain their skin health, among other things. The best way to improve skin health is to stay off the bottle entirely. 

Nine: degraded mental health

Alcohol is a nervous system depressant. While it may temporarily reduce stress and improve mood, excessive drinking over time can lead to increased anxiety and make existing depression worse. 

For women aged 18–34 years, depression was the predictor variable of problematic alcohol consumption, but for women aged 35–64 years it was the avoidant coping style, which is the predominant style in women of this age with clinical depression. (Villanueva-Blasco, et. al.)

Drinking depletes feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, spurring anxiety and depression. It also shrinks critical brain areas that regulate emotion and memory over time. Together, these effects manifest as mood disorders, emotional instability, and cognitive decline.

Ten: menstrual cycle disruption

Remember how alcohol wreaks havoc on female hormones? This is bad news for your menstrual cycle, ladies. Drinking suppresses hormones that trigger ovulation and build the uterine lining. It also erodes the estrogen-progesterone balance essential for cycle regulation. 

The result is often infertility, early menopause, or months of irregular, painful periods. Emanuele, et. al. discovered that, due to alcohol, “the interval between subsequent menstruations was lengthened, showing that alcohol affected the development of a regular monthly pattern of menstruation.”

Eleven: increased infertility

Are you struggling to get pregnant? Alcohol may have a greater role in that than you think. Heavy drinking can suppress ovulation and disrupt the menstrual cycle, while also generating toxicity that can damage eggs. It changes the uterine environment as well, making implantation difficult even if conception occurs. 

Research shows that over half of US women drink above moderate levels while trying to conceive. Pounding those bottles and cocktails leads to ovulatory issues, damage to eggs, and trouble carrying healthy babies. High levels of alcohol consumption (more than 140g per week, or six fluid ounces) were significant risk factors for infertility. 

Twelve: how does alcohol affect women sexually?

Far from enhancing prowess in the bedroom, alcohol undermines desire and performance in women at every turn. Heavy drinking disrupts critical hormones and fertility while lowering orgasm potential and libido over time. 

Alcoholic women are known to have a variety of menstrual and reproductive disorders, from irregular menstrual cycles to complete cessation of menses, absence of ovulation (i.e., anovulation), and infertility. (Emanuele, et. al.)

If that’s not sobering enough, it also fuels risky behaviors that jeopardize sexual health, leaving the ladies more prone to dysfunction, STIs, and reproductive issues across the board.

Alcohol deteriorates women’s sexual function

Alcohol can sink your sex life, ladies. All those liquid courage cocktails backfire between the sheets, sabotaging arousal, numbing sensations, and tanking sex drive over time. Here’s why heavy alcohol use causes sexual dysfunction in women:

  1. Alcohol decreases sexual stimulation and arousal. A 2023 systematic review found that excessive alcohol use can impair sensory input and reduce the intensity of sexual experiences, leading to decreased libido in women.
  2. Alcohol leads to vaginal dryness and painful intercourse by reducing blood flow to the genital area.
  3. Heavy drinking has negative effects on orgasm in women. According to the New York Times, it can hinder the brain’s ability to process sexual stimuli and coordinate muscle contractions, which are central to the orgasmic response.

Alcohol may lead to risky sexual behavior

Alcohol dependence can often blur the lines around safety and push women past the limits they’d respect when sober. Even moderate drinking lowers sexual inhibitions and impairs judgment at the moment. This leads intoxicated women to have unprotected, casual sex, or sex with risky partners they normally would not. The outcome is higher rates of unplanned pregnancy, STIs, and sexual assault trauma among women struggling with heavy, dependent drinking.

A 2016 review revealed that alcohol use in female students correlates with having multiple partners, casual or unprotected sex, drug or alcohol-impaired sexual encounters, and increased vulnerability to sexual assault.

We approach women’s sobriety with a gender-specific lens, incorporating therapies and interventions. Women’s detox is a crucial part of recovery that focuses on safely managing withdrawal symptoms and helping women rid their bodies of substances.

How many drinks can a woman have?

Alcohol affects every woman differently based on genes, medications, and other factors. According to the guidelines provided by numerous health organizations, a woman should not drink more than one standard drink in a single day and no more than seven drinks per week. The CDC suggests that more than three drinks in a day or seven per week elevate the risks of weight gain, hormonal imbalance, and other health effects. 

A standard drink is defined as 12 oz. of regular beer (about 5% alcohol), 8-9 oz. of malt liquor (7% alcohol), 5 oz. of table wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof hard liquor (40% alcohol).

The CDC also advises that women who are pregnant or are trying to be pregnant, those with certain medical conditions, or those taking medications that can interact with alcohol, should not drink alcohol at all. 

How to spot an alcoholic female

It’s often said alcoholism is a “silent” disease, but in reality, there are telling signs of alcohol addiction. Women (or men) displaying several of the following may be suffering from alcohol abuse:

  • Frequently consuming more alcohol than intended.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut back on drinking.
  • Spending significant time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol.
  • Powerful cravings and urges to drink.
  • Failure to fulfill major obligations due to drinking.
  • Continued excessive alcohol use despite interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by drinking.
  • Giving up or reducing involvement in other activities in favor of alcohol.
  • Drinking even with a physical or psychological issue made worse by alcohol.
  • Developing tolerance; needing more alcohol to get the same effect.
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, and tremors when not drinking.

If you think your drinking habits are becoming dangerous, Ardu Recovery Center can help you break the cycle of alcohol dependence. We provide comprehensive treatment for alcohol addiction, including medically monitored detox, counseling, group support, and aftercare planning. 

Contact Ardu Recovery Center

The experts at Ardu Recovery Center can help you take your first steps toward a new, healthier life. We offer specialized detox and rehab programs to suit your unique set of needs and make recovery as comfortable and successful as possible. 

We are located in stunning Provo, Utah, and have a full range of recovery programs and addiction resources.

  • With psychotherapy and other modalities of individual therapy, you learn healthy coping skills so you aren’t tempted to rely on alcohol. A variety of therapeutic approaches, from cognitive behavioral therapy to motivational interviewing to dialectical behavioral therapy, allow you to find the modality that resonates with you.
  • In a caring group therapy setting, you regain healthy social skills and build a network of support.
  • If your family wants to participate in your recovery, we offer family therapy sessions for healing your family unit and rebuilding trust and support.
  • If you have a co-occurring disorder such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, our dual diagnosis program will help you heal both your alcohol addiction and mental health.
  • Our addiction treatment program also features holistic treatment modalities such as yoga, nutritional therapy, and many other methods to help you regain balance and undo the effects of alcohol.

Choose health, ditch the booze, and contact Ardu.

Alcohol health risks on women FAQ

What does alcohol do to a woman’s body?

Alcohol has widespread damaging effects on women’s bodies. An inflammatory toxin, ethanol causes free radical damage, cell death, and scar tissue formation in organs, leading to fatty liver, brain damage, and cardiovascular disease. It severely disrupts the endocrine system, throwing delicate reproductive hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone as well as metabolic hormones like insulin out of balance. This leads to dysmenorrhea (menstrual problems), early ovarian failure (menopause), osteopenia and osteoporosis (bone loss), and subfertility or infertility (trouble getting pregnant). 

Alcohol also significantly contributes to weight gain and central adiposity, particularly inflammatory visceral belly fat deposition. By disturbing immune signaling proteins called cytokines, alcohol consumption reduces immunity, systemically increases inflammation, accelerates aging, and heightens the future risk of many chronic diseases from breast cancer to type 2 diabetes.

What is the alcohol body shape?

Chronic alcohol abuse leads to an “alcoholic beer belly” body shape in women. The combination of poor nutrition, electrolyte imbalance, hormone shifts, and ongoing inflammation caused by heavy drinking triggers preferential central fat deposition in the abdomen and around internal organs rather than peripheral fat layers in the hips and thighs. 

This visceral adiposity and fatty liver drive insulin resistance, metabolic dysfunction, cardiovascular issues like hypertension and stroke, and advanced diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) leading to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and cirrhosis over time. The alcohol beer belly reflects internal inflammatory processes, liver dysfunction, and altered stress hormone balances caused by chronic drinking that re-program where the female body stores fat.

What does 20 years of drinking do to your body?

After 20 years of regular high-risk alcohol consumption, extensive cumulative bodily harm becomes visible externally and manifests internally in female drinkers. 

  • Two decades of continuous alcohol exposure often yields severe liver fibrosis progressing to cirrhosis, which impairs toxin filtration and metabolism. 
  • Heart muscle also accumulates damage through twin impacts of ethanol toxicity and hypertension, raising the risk of cardiomyopathy leading to possible heart failure. 
  • Brain MRI scans reveal observable shrinkage and volume loss in critical areas like the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, reflecting alcohol-related cognitive deficits and memory impairment clinically manifesting as neurocognitive disorders for long-term drinkers. 
  • Skin reveals perhaps the most striking visible transformations, with markedly increased wrinkles, gravitational folds, pallid skin tone, lack of elasticity, bruising, and various vascular issues like rhinophyma “drinker’s nose”. 
  • Metabolic disorders also rise after 20 years, with escalated risks of central obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure, and dyslipidemia. 
  • Nutrient absorption suffers as well, depleting bone density and several vitamin levels.

Both the acute toxicity and cumulative negative impacts of alcohol across all organs and systems make the health consequences extremely amplified after twenty years of drinking.

Can I drink alcohol on my period?

It’s not generally medically recommended to drink alcohol during your monthly period. Alcohol is known to alter levels of key sex hormones that tightly control the menstrual cycle. This can significantly worsen many baseline PMS symptoms like dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps), headaches, back pain, breast tenderness, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and mood swings. 

Alcohol consumption also often increases total menstrual blood flow volume as well as the duration of menses. It can also interfere with common pharmacological treatments like NSAIDs (ibuprofen) used for menstrual cramps and headaches. 

While light intake may be less risky for some women, alcohol tends to amplify the hassles of menstruation due to its influence on multiple factors related to cycles and systemic inflammation.

Why do women drink alcohol?

There are complex combinations of psychological and social motivations behind women’s alcohol use, as opposed to any single factor. Women may drink to manage stress, to cope with difficult emotions, as a result of social or cultural influences, or to increase confidence in social situations. They may also drink as part of sensation-seeking/risk-taking behavior, to self-medicate underlying mental health issues, due to peer pressure, or to rebel or assert independence, especially during adolescence. Easy accessibility and normalization of alcohol in society also contribute to the initiation and maintenance of drinking. 

Why does alcohol make you sexually active?

Alcohol is perceived to boost sexual desire and activity due to its disinhibiting effects on the brain’s cerebral cortex, making women feel less restrained and more confident. Feelings of arousal may also stem from increased heart rate and relaxation of smooth muscles triggered by drinking. 

Alcohol suppresses physiologic sexual responses in women. It reduces vaginal lubrication, genital sensation, and the ability to reach orgasm. So any heightened arousal or participation in risky sex often associated with drinking reflects skewed perception rather than biological enhancement.

Does alcohol increase estrogen in females?

Research shows alcohol elevates estrogen levels in women through multiple mechanisms. Liver damage from drinking reduces estrogen breakdown allowing more of the hormone to remain active. Alcohol also boosts the adrenal production of androgens, such as testosterone, which are converted to estrogen. Plus, it may directly stimulate the ovaries to produce more estrogen. Over time, elevated estrogen levels from drinking contribute to increased breast cancer risk.

How do you know if a girl is too drunk?

Signs that a woman (or man) has had too much to drink and is dangerously intoxicated include:

  • Struggling to walk steadily
  • Blurry or incoherent speech
  • Emotional volatility (e.g., sudden anger or sadness)
  • Memory lapses or blackouts where periods can’t be recalled
  • Lack of peripheral vision or focus
  • Repeatedly dropping things
  • Extreme dizziness or vertigo
  • Vomiting
  • Losing consciousness
  • Abnormal skin color changes
  • Chills and hypothermia
  • Irregular breathing or heartbeat
  • Potential alcohol poisoning requiring emergency medical care

Any of these symptoms suggest a woman’s blood alcohol level is high enough to impact brain function, motor control, and systemic regulation.

Why are sex differences important in alcohol use disorders?

Sex differences in alcohol metabolism and hormonal responses mean women absorb more alcohol per drink and develop associated diseases like alcoholic cardiomyopathy and liver cirrhosis faster with lower lifetime drinking thresholds. Fluctuating estrogen and progesterone also renders women more susceptible to alcohol’s interference in mood and menstrual cycling.

Can moderate alcohol consumption reduce heart disease risk long-term?

Any perceived heart health benefits are outweighed by other risks. Even moderate alcohol doses increase blood pressure, arrhythmias, and stroke likelihood in women based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data. Alcohol also contributes to obesity by disrupting metabolism and hormone regulation, further elevating cardiovascular issues. 

Long-term, regular consumption has caused alcoholic cardiomyopathy through direct toxic myocardial damage plus oxidative stress, fueling the future risk of heart failure, especially in middle-aged females based on studies in JAMA Network Open. The cumulative effects on the heart muscle itself along with cancer risks make alcohol an unwise cardio-protective choice long-term.

Resources

Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health | CDC. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/womens-health.htm

Piano, M. R., Thur, L. A., Hwang, L., & Phillips, S. A. (2020). Effects of Alcohol on the Cardiovascular System in Women. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 40(2). https://doi.org/10.35946/arcr.v40.2.12

Alfonso-Loeches S, Pascual M, Guerri C. Gender-related differences in alcohol-induced neurotoxicity and brain damage. Toxicology. 2013 Sep 6;311(1-2):27-34. doi: 10.1016/j.tox.2013.03.001. Epub 2013 Mar 14. PMID: 23500890.

Fama, R., Berre, P. L., & Sullivan, E. V. (2020). Alcohol’s Unique Effects on Cognition in Adult Women: A 2020 Review to Envision Future Research and Treatment. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 40(2). https://doi.org/10.35946/arcr.v40.2.03

Barr, T., Helms, C., Grant, K., & Messaoudi, I. (2016). Opposing Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 65, 242. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2015.09.001

Villanueva-Blasco, V. J., J., M., Villanueva-Silvestre, V., & Vázquez-Martínez, A. Relationship Between Depression and Risky Alcohol Consumption in Women: The Mediating Role of Coping Styles and Age. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-022-00931-w

Chang, G., McNamara, T. K., Haimovici, F., & Hornstein, M. D. (2006). Problem Drinking in Women Evaluated for Infertility. The American Journal on Addictions / American Academy of Psychiatrists in Alcoholism and Addictions, 15(2), 174. https://doi.org/10.1080/10550490500528639

Salari, N., Hasheminezhad, R., Almasi, A., Hemmati, M., Shohaimi, S., Akbari, H., & Mohammadi, M. (2023). The risk of sexual dysfunction associated with alcohol consumption in women: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Women’s Health, 23. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-023-02400-5

Brown, J. L., Gause, N. K., & Northern, N. (2016). The Association between Alcohol and Sexual Risk Behaviors among College Students: A Review. Current Addiction Reports, 3(4), 349. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-016-0125-8

Facts about moderate drinking | CDC. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm

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