Alcohol awareness week this year is running from 16th-22nd November, so I wanted to take some time to discuss the impact that alcohol can have on women’s health.
It may be no surprise that drinking ‘too much’ alcohol can be harmful to our health. Heavy alcohol consumption may contribute towards developing diabetes, obesity, heart disease, liver disease and may increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Although statistics show that women abuse alcohol less than men, more recent data is suggesting that the culture and advertising around women’s drinking has changed so much that women now drink about as much as men do.
The focus of alcohol awareness week this year is mental health, and as women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression than men, I think it is important that we discuss how alcohol can feed into this. Alcohol consumption and mood disorders often go hand in hand as alcohol can be used as a coping mechanism or form of ‘self-medication’ when going through a hard time as it can ‘numb’ our emotions so we are able to temporarily avoid or forget issues within our lives.
However, for some, this can become a vicious cycle as regular and heavy consumption of alcohol can change brain chemistry and may decrease levels of serotonin within the brain. Serotonin is a brain chemical known as our ‘happy hormone’ and therefore decreased levels are associated with depression. As a result of this depletion, a cyclical process may begin where one drinks to relieve depression, but this further attenuates the disease process. This year especially, we are starting to talk a lot more openly about mental health struggles, so please try and see out help if you are currently in the midst of this self-perpetuating cycle, as there is so much help out there for you, and there is a brighter side. *
Women experience hormonal fluctuations monthly, but also at certain stages of their life such as puberty, pregnancy, perimenopause and post-menopause.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
PMS is described as a cluster of symptoms that can occur or become worse in the weeks or days leading up to a woman’s period and can include mood swings, feeling more upset or irritable, bloating, stomach pain, breast tenderness, headaches, changes to skin and changes in appetite or sex drive. Studies looking at the effect of alcohol on experiencing PMS have shown that alcohol intake was associated with a ‘moderate’ heightened risk of PMS of 45%, which rose to 79% for heavy drinkers. There may be several reasons for this including alcohol consumption altering levels of female sex hormones, interference with the production of mood chemicals within the brain, such as serotonin and poorer overall diet quality due higher alcohol intakes. High alcohol intakes (1-2 drinks per day) may even raise oestrogen levels, which could exacerbate PMS in already oestrogen dominant individuals.
It is recommended that pregnant women abstain completely from alcohol during their whole pregnancy as there is no know ‘safe’ amount to consume. Drinking during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy may increase risks of miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weights. If you have found out you are pregnant and have realised that you had been drinking whilst pregnant without knowing, then please do not worry or blame yourself. It is better for your body, your mind and your baby to shift the focus on what you can do now to nourish yourself and baby such as consuming nutritious foods and taking the necessary supplements. If you would like an in-depth and practical guide of how to nourish yourself and baby during pregnancy, please take a look at my Pregnancy Nutrition eBook here.
The menopause marks 1 year since a women’s last menstrual cycle, and is a time where hormone levels, such as oestrogen and progesterone take a steep decline, leading to many of the common symptoms women will experience such as hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, mood swings, vaginal dryness, skin changes and changes in sex drive. Although the menopause marks a year since cessation of periods, hormonal fluctuations can start many years before this and lead to experiencing similar symptoms. Due to the decline in oestrogen, women are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis and heart problems post menopause.
Many women notice that alcohol seems to have more of an effect on them post-menopause, and this could, in part, be due to cartilage and tendons holding less water as one ages, and therefore the alcohol is not as diluted once in your system. Heavy alcohol consumption post menopause may also exacerbate mood changes and increase risks of depression further. Some women also report a worsening of symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats following alcohol consumption.
Certain types of alcohol, most notably beer and wine, can interact with certain medications prescribed for hearth health or cholesterol, so please be aware of this and check for your medication interactions.
There are some noted health benefits of a low-moderate alcohol intake post-menopause such as decreasing risks of heart disease and diabetes, however this is drink and person dependant.
Although moderate alcohol consumption can form part of a healthy and balanced diet, in some cases it could be a reason many women find it hard to shift weight. Alcohol such as wine and cocktails are usually more calorie dense than clear spirits. A large glass of wine contains over 3 units of alcohol and about 215 calories. In contrast, a single serve 25ml shot of gin contains 1 unit of alcohol and about 60 calories. If you are someone who drinks 1-2 glasses of wine most nights, then this will be contributing to your daily calorie intake and may be hindering you from losing weight. If you are an avid cocktail drinker, then you may be unaware of added sugar and hidden calories contained within your drinks, which can also lead to higher overall daily sugar and calorie intakes.
We must not forget the knock of effects or behaviour attached to drinking alcohol which could impact weight too. Clients often tell me their food choices after a day or night of heavy drinking are affected and they tend to reach for more carbohydrate rich and processed foods. The same food cravings can also be experienced following sleep deprivation, so if drinking affects your sleep quality, then this is something to also consider.
Considering all the information presented above, I would generally recommend the following:
- Consider the effect of alcohol consumption on your mental health and try and speak to someone about this is you think you could benefit from help*
- Try and stick to a moderate consumption of alcohol and avoid going over the weekly alcohol limits
- 14 units per week is the maximum recommended alcohol intake, for both men and women, but women are often more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than men
- 14 units equates to roughly 6 glasses of wine (175ml) or 14 single serve spirit drinks
- Try keeping an alcohol and symptom diary to assess whether or not alcohol may be impacting certain symptoms you experience
- Try and spread out your alcohol intake across the week rather than on consecutive weekend days
- Assign 2 days a week as your alcohol drinking days and aim for at least 5 alcohol free days each week
- Size matters – consider opting for a small glass of wine or a single serve spirit drink
- Try and opt for plainer drinks such as gin or vodka with soda water, lime and mint to try and cut down on the intake of added sugars and syrups often used in cocktails
*for more help see the following:
Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90