- Long-term drinking can lead to heart disease, and binge drinking can cause irregular heart rhythms.
- More women are misusing alcohol, and the health effects are more detrimental in women.
- Women who do drink should stick to no more than one or two glasses in a day, preferably with food.
- There are effective treatments to support moderation or abstinence, including new medications.
This post was co-authored with Dr. Gabriela Ghisi.
There are some important things you need to know about alcohol and your heart, especially as a woman. More women are drinking alcohol, and there is even a “mommy culture” around drinking. But alcohol carries risks, especially for your heart. Below we consider what the risks are and how alcohol affects your heart. And, if you do drink, drinking approaches that minimize negative impacts are suggested.
There’s a popular misconception that alcohol—particularly red wine—is good for the heart. Some studies have shown an association between moderate alcohol intake and a lower risk of dying from heart disease. But it’s hard to determine cause and effect from these studies. Perhaps people who drink red wine have higher incomes, which tend to be associated with fewer stresses and greater access to healthier foods. Also, nondrinkers include former alcoholics.
The resveratrol in wine that researchers believe may have benefits for the heart is better consumed via grape juice. Alcohol—even in small amounts—is a source of excess calories of no nutritional value. It also negatively affects the gut microbiome.
Heavy drinking is linked to a number of poor health outcomes, including heart disease. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, and other vascular issues in the brain that affect thinking and memory. Excessive drinking can also lead to cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. Recent research has also shown that while drinking, people often have abnormal heart rhythms, or atrial fibrillation.
Alcohol also negatively affects your sleep. Menopause can negatively affect sleep, too, so women risk making things worse with alcohol. While some people might find it easier to fall asleep after drinking, alcohol results in you waking up several hours later, often having to use the washroom. Sleep architecture changes, such that any sleep you do get is less restorative. This is not good for your heart, either; plus you may feel less motivation the next day to follow your heart-healthy behaviours such as exercise and eating well.
Women’s Use of Alcohol
Research shows that the number of women who are drinking and misusing alcohol is increasing. While alcohol misuse by anyone presents serious health concerns, women who drink have a higher risk of certain alcohol-related problems compared to men. Women are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease than men, even though they may consume less alcohol over their lifetime than men.
For women, there is a small difference between how much alcohol they can drink safely and how much will cause health problems. While guidelines vary by country, moderate drinking for women is defined as no more than seven drinks a week and no more than one to two on any given day. But the amount of alcohol a woman can safely drink depends on many factors including their weight and health, genes and family history, how much time has passed since eating, and age. As we age, it is harder for the body to metabolize alcohol, so you may notice you feel more intoxicated.
Some experts believe that women who drink more than one alcoholic drink a month may be putting themselves at increased risk for health problems. And please be aware of the acute risks of alcohol for women specifically—everyone is at increased risk of injury, but women are more often assaulted when under the influence or around someone who is…so stay safe.
As we age, too, there are more years of drinking and the risk of misuse rises. Some women may use alcohol to cope with all the stresses of juggling work and caregiving while running a household. Tolerance develops, and you might find yourself craving a drink to cope, rather than being able to take or leave a drink in a social situation.
If you are concerned about your drinking, please be compassionate with yourself, as alcohol does impact the brain in ways that make it hard to drink less. But know that in addition to types of talk therapy that can help, there are also now several medications to support patients to drink less or stop drinking if they need to. When used together, they can be quite successful in helping people with an alcohol use disorder. Talk to your health care provider.
Lowering Your Risk
The takeaway message is that if you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do, stick to no more than one or two glasses in a day, preferably with food, and try not to have more than one drink an hour so your body has a chance to metabolize it. Make sure you have a few drink-free days each week.
There are lower-alcohol drinks available, or you can add ice cubes or club soda to a drink to dilute it. Try alternating an alcoholic drink with a nonalcoholic one. There are now many nonalcoholic beers, wine, and cocktails available, for those who may be “sober-curious.”
Nutt, D. (2020). Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Health. Hachette Books.
Dowsett Johnston, A. (2014). Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. Harper Wave.
Whitaker, H. (2021). Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed With Alcohol. Random House.
For more helpful tips, visit https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/advice.