Wondering why alcohol is worse for women? For centuries, global differences in alcohol intake between men and women have been striking, with men consistently drinking several times as much as women. However, evidence points to a significant shift in the drinking habits landscape: women are catching up to men in rates of alcohol consumption 1. The changing of gender roles and the rise of marketing alcohol to women may have gradually shifted the booze imbalance.
But the problem isn’t just that women are drinking too many alcoholic beverages. Researchers are finding that women’s bodies are affected differently by alcohol than men’s bodies – for reasons that go beyond mere size and other risk factors. Contrary to common belief, men and women of the same height and weight do not experience similar effects after consuming equal amounts of alcohol. Studies prove that women are more adversely affected by alcohol consumption 2.
Compared to men, women experience faster intoxication levels, worse hangover symptoms, and more importantly, increased risks of developing liver and brain damage among other diseases.3 4
But why exactly is alcohol worse for women? We list here 5 main reasons as to why men and women react differently to alcohol consumption.
1. Capacity to dilute alcohol
Women typically reach a higher Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) after consuming the same amount of alcohol as men of the same weight. This happens mainly because women have less water in their bodies. Typically, a woman's body is composed of 45% to 50% water, while a man's body is composed of 55% to 65% water. As a result, a man’s body is naturally equipped to dilute alcohol more efficiently than a woman’s body – regardless of the weight factor. 6
2. Alcohol metabolism
Men and women differ in their ability to metabolize alcohol. Scientists have discovered that women produce smaller quantities of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), the enzyme responsible for metabolizing alcohol 5 7.
Men have highly active forms of ADH in their stomach and their liver. The presence of ADH in the stomach of males can reduce the absorption of alcohol by 30%. By contrast, females have almost no ADH in their stomach. Consequently, females absorb more alcohol into their bloodstream. Additionally, the ADH in the liver of females is much less active than the ADH in the male liver.
3. Body fat
The content of body fat is directly related to the rate of absorption and metabolizing of alcohol. Women have a higher concentration of body fat than men. Since fat does not absorb alcohol, the entire alcohol content remains in a highly concentrated form in the bloodstream. Consequently, women experience alcohol-induced intoxication faster than men.
4. Hormonal changes
Variations in the hormonal levels prior to menstruation can cause women to become intoxicated faster. This happens because hormonal changes in women affect BAC directly. Research has found that one week prior to menstruating, women maintain the peak degree of intoxication for longer periods of time than menstruating or post-menstruating women do. This same pattern of prolonged peak intoxication is also found among women taking oral contraceptives since the medication slows down the rate at which the body is able to eliminate the alcohol content.
5. Age matters
Older women over 65 have even less body water, a decreased tolerance for alcohol, and an even slower metabolism rate for alcohol.
Putting it in numbers
Imagine you are a 150-pound woman and you drink four 12 oz beers in 2 hours. Your estimated blood alcohol concentration (BAC) would be about .10. Most people feel drunk at .10 BAC. Your reaction time is delayed and your muscle control is impaired. You might feel dizzy, nauseous, and have trouble walking. On the other hand, if a man weighs the same 150 pounds and drinks the same amount of alcohol over the same amount of time, his estimated BAC would be about .08 and he would experience fewer effects of alcohol consumption as a result. In fact, in this scenario, a woman would achieve the same effects after four alcoholic drinks that a man would after five or more.
What to do about it
Research shows that women start to have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than men do. One reason is that, on average, women weigh less than men. In addition, as mentioned above, alcohol disperses in body water, and pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men do. So, after a man and woman of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman's blood alcohol concentration will tend to be higher, putting her at greater risk for harm.
All this means that women will experience faster intoxication levels, worse hangover symptoms, and higher risks of alcohol-related organ damage if they keep up with men’s boozing levels. For social drinkers, what is moderate drinking for men is not moderate drinking for women. To reach a given blood-alcohol level, women need to drink 30-40% less of what men drink.
When it comes to reducing intoxication levels and hangover severity, it is important to stay hydrated while drinking alcohol and making sure to eat well before a night out.
In addition, a few supplement and vitamins might help to mitigate alcohol’s effects in your body. Since alcohol depletes B vitamin in your body and they're required to help eliminate it from your body, a B-vitamin supplement taken beforehand, as well as the next day, may help.
The amino acid N-acetylcysteine (NAC) was also studied and is thought to boost the production of the antioxidant glutathione and support more efficient alcohol metabolism while reducing oxidative damage to the body.8
All in all, the remedies presented above may reduce alcohol’s negative effects in the body, but it’s important to stress that the only way to completely avoid the long-term effects of alcohol or being hungover is to abstain from alcohol consumption. If you choose to consume alcohol, however, drink in moderation with adequate hydration.