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Alcohol and Health

5 “Taboo” Facts Women Should Know About Alcohol and Health

January 2, 2024
23 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
January 2, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
January 2, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
January 2, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
January 2, 2024
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Back in the nineties, Shania Twain sang about the “best thing about being a woman,” and all of us might have our own list — many of us can have children, we tend to live a bit longer, and we’ve got way more clothing and hairstyle options.

But when it comes to alcohol, things get a bit tricky. Historically, women have often gotten the side-eye for drinking — especially for drinking in excess. And while many social taboos around alcohol are fading away, certain health-related topics can still be a source of embarrassment, confusion, or controversy. Let's pull back the curtains on these "taboo" topics and explore how alcohol affects some of our most personal health-related issues.

The History of Women and “Booze Taboos”

First, let’s look at the history of drinking for women, and how the views about it evolved over time. It's a story of controversy, shifting norms, and empowerment.

  • Ancient beginnings. In ancient days, women were the original brewmasters! In Sumeria and Egypt, women brewed beer for religious ceremonies and daily use. Booze was seen as a gift from the goddesses, and women wielded the brewing stick with pride. Talk about divine happy hour!
  • Middle Ages: from alewives to witch accusations. Fast forward to the Middle Ages in Europe, and women, known as alewives, still reigned over the brewing scene. They crafted the ale, managed the sales, and often wore tall, pointed hats as a symbol of their trade. Unfortunately (as these things often go), as brewing became more profitable, men wanted in on the action. Suddenly, those alewives' hats morphed into witch attire in the onlookers’ eyes, and the whispers about the “suspicious” businesswomen being witches started to arise. 
  • The Temperance Movement: ladies leading the charge. In the 19th century, women, fed up with alcohol’s negative effects on their families and society, stood at the forefront of the movement seeking to eliminate alcohol consumption. It was a time of passionate speeches, protest marches, and yes, the occasional hatchet-wielding moment (we're looking at you, Carrie Nation!).
  • The Roaring Twenties: flappers and speakeasies. The jazz music and flapper style of the Roaring Twenties brought dramatic change for women and booze. Women — now flappers — bobbed their hair and raised their hemlines, danced in speakeasies, sipped illegal cocktails, and embraced a newfound social freedom (for better or worse).

Alcohol and Women Today

Today, the relationship between women and alcohol allows for more choice than ever. Women are sommeliers, master distillers, and craft beer connoisseurs. They're making informed choices about when and how they drink, breaking stigmas, and having open conversations about the role alcohol plays in their lives. It's less about taboos and more about personal empowerment, health, and enjoyment.

That said, when it comes to health, several topics remain somewhat “taboo.” Five of the most important are alcohol and pregnancy, alcohol and cancer, alcohol and depression, alcohol and aging, and alcohol and skin health. Let’s take a closer look!

1. Alcohol and Pregnancy: The No-Go Zone

Arguably the most controversial topic related to alcohol’s role in women’s health is pregnancy. When it comes to mixing the two, the advice is clear: just don't. We've all heard "no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy” and seen pictures of fetal alcohol syndrome, but why is this combo on the list of absolute no-gos? Let's look at the science. 

Why Zero Means Zero

The moment alcohol enters a mother’s system, it travels through the bloodstream and crosses the placenta to the fetus. Unlike an adult, the developing fetus lacks the fully developed organs necessary to process alcohol. As a result, the risks are higher: 

  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Drinking during pregnancy can lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which include conditions such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is characterized by growth deficiencies, facial anomalies, and neurological issues.
  • Neurodevelopmental effects. Even small amounts of alcohol can interfere with a baby's brain development and the delicate brain wiring process. Studies have shown that alcohol exposure in utero can affect cognitive abilities and attention and can even contribute to behavioral problems later in life. 
  • Physical growth impact. Alcohol can stunt the fetus’ physical growth in the womb, leading to low birth weight and potentially causing a lifetime of complications.

The Myths vs. The Facts

Every now and then, there’s some debate about light drinking during pregnancy, but the overwhelming consensus is a firm no. For example, some people think that a little alcohol won’t hurt, or that only heavy drinking is the real problem.

Let’s get one thing straight: there's no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy, nor is there a safe time to drink while pregnant. It's playing Russian roulette with development, and no shot is worth it!

2. Alcohol and Cancer: The Silent Saboteur

Moving onto another heavy subject: alcohol's link to cancer. Yes, ladies, our beloved wine might betray us. Drinking is linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer, including breast, liver, and colorectal. 

While the details of each type vary, the basic reason is the same: ethanol in alcohol metabolizes into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical and likely human carcinogen. Acetaldehyde can damage DNA, leading to cells that grow uncontrollably — the hallmark of cancer. 

Breast Cancer: A Closer Look

For women, the breast cancer link is particularly notable. Even moderate drinking can increase estrogen levels, and high levels of estrogen are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer

The Cumulative Effect

Here's another twist: combining alcohol with other risk factors (such as smoking) can add fuel to the fire when it comes to certain types of cancer. The harmful effects of alcohol can amplify the risk posed by other carcinogens, making it a dangerous cocktail for overall risk.

However, the reverse is also true! While risk factors, especially in combination, increase our chances of developing a serious illness, taking steps to improve our health stack the odds in our favor. Reducing alcohol consumption is one of the most straightforward, proactive steps we can take, with every drink we don’t take boosting our chances of living a long, healthy life.

3. Alcohol and Depression: A Sneak Attack

When it comes to depression, alcohol can be especially sneaky. Booze might give us a temporary lift, but it's actually a mood hijacker in disguise. 

  • The paradoxical effect. Initially, alcohol might feel like it's lifting our spirits and giving us a momentary boost. However, as a central nervous system depressant, it actually slows down brain function and alters the chemical balance in the brain, exacerbating depression once the initial effects wear off. 
  • Impact on sleep and judgment. Alcohol might help us drift off to sleep, but it actually disrupts our overall sleep patterns, leading to poor quality slumber and the bad mood that tends to follow. Lack of sleep can also dampen our mood indirectly by impairing our judgment and leading to regrettable decisions that might further feed our depression. 
  • The vicious cycle. Drinking can lead to a vicious cycle: we drink to alleviate our sadness or anxiety even though the alcohol itself is contributing to those feelings over time. Drinking to feel better is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline! The more we drink, the more we might feel the “need” to do so as we find ourselves trapped in a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows.

Women and Depression

Women are roughly twice as vulnerable to depression as men due to hormonal changes and societal pressures, among other factors. Here's how alcohol comes into play:

  • Stronger mood hijacking effect. While some women turn to booze as a temporary escape from sadness or stress, after that initial buzz wears off, it’s a whole different story. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that tends to amplify the blues over time — and this effect can be particularly pronounced in women, who metabolize alcohol differently from men and may be more susceptible to its mood-altering effects.
  • Hormone havoc. Hormonal fluctuations throughout life — such as menstrual cycles, postpartum periods, and menopause — can significantly impact mood. Alcohol disrupts this delicate balance, exacerbating mood swings and the depression associated with them.
  • Increased vulnerability. Women are more likely to face certain types of stress and trauma, such as domestic violence or sexual abuse, which can lead to higher rates of depression, with drinking becoming a way to cope. Unfortunately, this strategy often backfires and sets in motion a vicious cycle that can be hard to break. However, recognizing this pattern is the first step in taking back control! By reducing or eliminating alcohol, we can start to break the cycle, leading to clearer days and more stable moods. 

Some other ways to ease depression? Engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a balanced diet, and ensuring quality sleep all help manage symptoms. Activities like yoga, meditation, or any form of exercise can work wonders for boosting mood and reducing stress. 

4. Alcohol and Aging: The Fast-Forward Effect

The journey of aging is often an emotionally charged one, with every line, wrinkle, and gray hair noted and (often unfairly) judged by society. And here's a sobering thought: alcohol accelerates it.  Let's explore how alcohol can hasten aging in women in particular.

The Silent Accelerator: Unique Health Implications

Women's bodies react to alcohol differently — and often more severely — than men's due to differences in body chemistry and composition. As a result, alcohol takes a greater toll.

Hormonal havoc. Alcohol can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones in women's bodies, affecting everything from menstrual cycles to menopause. These hormonal fluctuations can accelerate bone density loss and lead to external and internal premature aging signs.

Sleep quality. Women often face unique challenges in getting enough quality sleep, whether from menstrual-related discomfort, pregnancy, or menopausal temperature fluctuations. Alcohol further disrupts sleep patterns, depriving us of sound sleep’s important anti-aging effects.

Brain health. Women are at a higher risk for certain types of alcohol-induced brain damage than men, including a faster decline in cognitive functions and a greater shrinkage in brain volume.

Osteoporosis risk. Women are more prone to osteoporosis than men, and alcohol's interference with calcium absorption and bone health can amplify this risk, making bones more fragile and increasing the chance of fractures.

5. Alcohol and Skin: A Complex Relationship

Last but not least is our body’s biggest organ, our skin. Alcohol is infamous for causing dehydration, leading to dull, lifeless skin. It also dilates pores, making them more prone to blackheads and acne (even in adults!). Plus, certain additives in alcoholic beverages might trigger rosacea or psoriasis

Women’s skin is unique in its structure, and it ages in a different way than men’s skin, so the pressure to slow the clock can be even higher. As far as skincare goes, women often test drive and juggle different products and routines, all in the hopes of maintaining a radiant and healthy complexion. How does alcohol undermine these efforts? 

  • Dehydration and dullness. Alcohol is a diuretic that leads to dehydration throughout the body, especially in the skin. For women, whose skin tends to be thinner and more prone to dryness, this dehydration can lead to pronounced wrinkles, dullness, and a lackluster appearance.
  • Collagen reduction. Collagen is the protein that keeps our skin firm and youthful. Alcohol can accelerate its natural breakdown over time, leading to sagging and premature aging. 
  • Exacerbation of skin conditions. Conditions like rosacea or psoriasis can be more common or severe in women. Alcohol increases blood flow to the skin's surface, which can exacerbate redness and irritation, leading to flare-ups.
  • Puffiness and bloated appearance. Alcohol can cause water retention, creating a puffy and bloated appearance. For women, this effect is often more noticeable, particularly around the face and eyes.

We can counteract alcohol’s dehydrating effects by drinking plenty of water and using hydrating skincare products. Look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid that bind moisture to the skin. A diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals can support skin health. Focus on foods high in vitamins C and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and other skin-loving nutrients. 

Action Steps: Reclaiming the Narrative

Now that we know a bit more about these potentially controversial health issues, here are some additional action steps to help navigate the complex relationship with alcohol.

  • Host a "mocktail" masterclass. Instead of the usual wine night, invite friends over for a mocktail crafting evening. Experiment with herbs, spices, and fresh fruits to create delicious, non-alcoholic beverages. 
  • Embrace a "dryathlon." Challenge yourself to a month-long break from alcohol. Notice the changes in your sleep, skin, mood, and overall energy. Document this journey through a diary or vlog, making note of the highs and lows. 
  • Incorporate alcohol-free beauty rituals. Connect skincare and sobriety by indulging in alcohol-free beauty products. Once a week, have a self-care evening with hydrating masks, serums, and moisturizers that promise rejuvenation without the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
  • Cultivate a gourmet tea collection. Replace the ritual of a nightly glass of wine with the discovery of gourmet (decaffeinated or herbal) teas. Try teas from around the world, exploring their history and health benefits.
  • Engage in “sober curious” book clubs. Join or start a book club focused on 'sober curious' literature. Read and discuss books about the alcohol-free lifestyle, its challenges, and its myriad of benefits. Some great ones to start with? Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol by Ruby Warrington or The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray.
  • Adventure sober. Turn a traditionally alcohol-centric activity, such a vineyard tour, on its head by focusing on the cultural, historical, or culinary aspects instead. Maybe a sober wine country bike tour to learn about viticulture and enjoy local produce? Or a tasting event for alcohol-free spirits, beers, and wines?
  • Try the Dry(ish) (aka “Damp”) January challenge. By creating and sticking to a plan to get this year off to a healthy start by signing up for Reframe’s Dry(ish) (“Damp”) January challenge. Whether your goal is to go completely sober for a month (or more) or simply to cut back, we’re right here with you, cheering you on as you keep moving forward on your health journey!

Summing Up

In the story of life, alcohol might have its cameos, but you are the protagonist. Understanding these "taboo" truths about alcohol and women’s health can help you make informed choices, ensuring that your life is joyful and fulfilling for years to come!

Summary FAQs

1. Why is alcohol considered harmful during pregnancy?

Alcohol is harmful during pregnancy because it easily crosses the placenta to the fetus, who isn't equipped to process it, leading to a risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) and other developmental issues. There's no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy, making abstinence the recommended approach.

2. How does alcohol consumption increase the risk of cancer in women?

Alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer in women by metabolizing into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can damage DNA and proteins, leading to cell mutations and cancer. Regular drinking is linked to breast, liver, and other cancers, with the risk increasing with the amount consumed.

3. Can alcohol really affect my mood and mental health?

Yes, alcohol can significantly affect your mood and mental health. It's a central nervous system depressant that can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety over time. While it might provide temporary relief or euphoria, the long-term effects include disrupted sleep, altered brain chemistry, and a heightened risk of depression.

4. Why does alcohol accelerate aging, particularly in women?

Alcohol accelerates aging by dehydrating the skin, disrupting sleep, and impairing nutrient absorption—all factors that contribute to premature aging. Women's skin is generally thinner and more prone to the aging effects of dehydration and collagen breakdown, making the impact more pronounced.

5. How does alcohol affect women's skin specifically?

Alcohol affects women's skin by causing dehydration, leading to dryness, dullness, and wrinkles. It dilates blood vessels, which can exacerbate conditions like rosacea and cause puffiness or redness. Additionally, the impact of alcohol on hormones and nutrient absorption further complicates skin health, leading to a less vibrant complexion.

6. What are some ways to enjoy social events without alcohol?

Enjoying social events without alcohol can include sipping on delicious mocktails or non-alcoholic versions of your favorite drinks, engaging in interesting conversations, focusing on the food or music, or even taking up the role of the photographer or game coordinator. The key is to find joy in the social interaction itself rather than the drinking.

Ready To Be Healthier This Year? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today! 

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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