For women, alcohol can put you at greater risk of breast cancer, negatively affect fertility, and increase some side-effects of the menopause. So, whatever age you are, it’s important to keep an eye on your alcohol consumption and drink within the guidelines to keep risks from alcohol at a low level.
The health harms covered below are those specific to women but there are many others that affect people of all genders. You can find out more about these in our Health Effects of Alcohol section.
The low risk guidelines for women
The UK Chief Medical Officers' advice is that both women and men should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week to keep health risks from alcohol low. If you do choose to drink that amount, it's best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days. If you wish to cut down the amount you are drinking, a good way to do this is to have several drink-free days per week.
There are some similarities in how alcohol affects men and women, but there are differences too.
If a woman and a man drink the same amount, the woman’s blood alcohol level will almost always be higher than the man’s. There are several reasons for this:
- Women tend to be smaller than men, so the same amount of alcohol is going into a smaller body.
- Even if a woman is the same weight as a man, she will have a higher blood alcohol level if she drinks the same amount as that man. Alcohol is held in the body in body water, not in body fat – women generally have a higher proportion of body fat than men1, so have less body water. That means the alcohol is more concentrated.
- It’s possible that some alcohol is broken down in the stomach before it reaches the bloodstream. This may happen less in women if they drink a lot of alcohol2.
It’s clear from a number of large scale studies that there is a link between alcohol consumption and cancer. A 2014 report by the World Health Organisation concludes that around one in five (21.6%) of all alcohol-related deaths are due to cancer3. And as breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women4 it’s important to be aware of how drinking alcohol can increase the risk of developing the disease.
The more you drink the higher your risk of developing cancer
Oxford University’s Million Women Study of 1.3 million women estimated that each additional alcoholic drink regularly consumed per day was associated with 11 additional breast cancers per 1000 women, in developed countries, up to age 756.
Drinking alcohol also increases your risk of several other types of cancer, including liver, bowel, breast, mouth, oesophageal cancer (gullet) and laryngeal cancer (voice box).
The UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines do not have specific advice on the effects of alcohol on fertility. But they do have guidelines for those trying to conceive: It’s recommended that women trying to have a baby, or pregnant women, should not drink alcohol at all to keep health risks to the baby as low as possible.
Alcohol can also disrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle and studies have shown that even drinking small amounts can reduce the chances of conceiving8,9.
Male fertility can also be affected by alcohol consumption, view our Alcohol and men webpage for more information.
Drinking alcohol at any stage during pregnancy can cause harm to the baby7 and the more you drink, the greater the risk. This is why the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that the safest approach is to not drink alcohol at all during pregnancy.
If you are now pregnant and drank only small amounts of alcohol before realising you were pregnant, and stopped when you found out, the risk of harm to the baby is low. However, if you are worried, you should talk to your doctor or midwife.
Tired eyes. Spots. Weight gain. There’s no doubt alcohol can have an effect on your appearance.
Alcohol interferes with the normal sleep process so you often wake up feeling – and looking – like you haven’t had much rest. Alcohol dehydrates your body too, including the skin. It’s also thought to deprive the skin of certain vital vitamins and nutrients.
With two large glasses of wine containing the same number of calories as a burger, it’s easy to see why regular drinking can make you gain weight. Alcohol also reduces the amount of fat your body burns for energy. Because we can’t store alcohol in the body, our systems want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and this process takes priority over absorbing nutrients and burning fat10.
As we get older, we lose muscle and gain fat. We also break down alcohol more slowly, which means we’re more sensitive to its effects. So, even if you drink the same amount of alcohol as you get older it’s likely to affect you more than younger people.
When women reach the menopause their bodies are affected by changing hormones. Alcohol can trigger some symptoms of the menopause, such as hot flushes and night sweats11. Menopause can also disrupt your sleep because of night sweats and cause you to gain weight and alcohol often makes both of these issues worse.
As we get older, our bones slowly get thinner too, particularly in women after the menopause – drinking a lot of alcohol can make this worse, increasing your risk of osteoporosis (a condition that affects the bones, causing them to become weak and fragile and more likely to break)12.
You can keep your risk low by staying within the CMOs’ recommended low risk guidelines.
Here are three ways you can cut back:
- Have several drink-free days a week: If you want to cut down, a great way is to have several drink-free days a week. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.
- Find other ways to relax: Some people drink alcohol to relax, but in reality alcohol can make you feel even more stressed out. Try not to make alcohol key to your after work wind down, and consider some alternative stress-busters, like hitting the gym or having a hot bath.
- Know what you’re drinking: Check out the ABV of alcohol before you buy it. ABV stands for Alcohol by Volume, which is the percentage of the drink that is pure alcohol. Six glasses of wine at 13% ABV strength equates to 15 units, putting you over the weekly low risk guidelines. You can cut down on units by switching to drinks that are lower in alcohol, or try having a spritzer with a small (125ml) measure of wine topped up with soda, instead of a large glass of wine. The Drinkaware app will help you to track the units in your drinks so you can be sure you’re staying within the guidelines.
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.
If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110
The Family Planning Association can help you make informed choices about sex and contraception.
If you have questions about cancer, call the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 0000 (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm).
Last review: 26 May 2017
Next review due: 26 May 2020
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