Women and Alcohol – the Unique Health Risks

unique health impact women at a lake

Women suffer the health consequences of alcohol more quickly than men…


According to the CDC, nearly half of adult women report drinking alcohol. 13% of adult women, and 18% of women of child-bearing age binge drink. Females in their teens and early twenties drink/binge more than their male counterparts. In fact, the gender gap is closing on women of all ages, and the impact of COVID-19 has amplified their drinking patterns and mental health concerns. Given that excessive alcohol use is associated with more than 27,000 deaths among women each year, the rise in alcohol consumption among women and girls is a concerning trend.


The Unique Health Risks Women Face with Substance Use

Women have unique issues with substance use that make them more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. It is notable that 15% of women report they have used illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs as well. Drugs and alcohol uniquely impact a woman’s hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy and menopause. And women suffer the health consequences of alcohol more quickly than men (even with lower levels of consumption).


Although men tend to drink more than women, biological differences in body structure and chemistry cause most women to absorb more alcohol than men and metabolize it more slowly. The effects of alcohol occur more quickly and last longer for women. Hence, women are more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol than men.



Unique Health Risks

Women are impacted by diseases, injuries and harms associated with alcohol:

Cognitive Decline

Shrinkage of the brain and cognitive decline develop more quickly in women than men.

Liver Disease

Women have a higher risk of cirrhosis and other liver diseases than men.

Heart Disease

In women, the risk of damage to the heart muscle occurs at lower levels of alcohol consumption and over fewer years than men.


Alcohol is associated with mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and colon cancer. In women there is an added risk of breast cancer (even at low levels of alcohol use).


Excessive alcohol use increases the risk of infertility, fetal alcohol syndrome, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and sudden infant death syndrome. There is no know safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy.

Sexual and Domestic Violence

According to the CDC, “Excessive alcohol use, particularly binge drinking, is a major contributing factor to sexual violence. Changes in alcohol-related policies can reduce sexual violence in communities.”

Substance Use Disorder

Women have a greater risk for hangovers and blackouts. Similarly, women progress more quickly than men from first using alcohol to developing an addiction, a phenomenon known as telescoping.


Gender Responsive Treatment

Why are women drinking more? To cope, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). In fact, women are more likely to drink to cope with stress than men. And those who drink to cope have a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder – a double whammy for women.


And even though women are drinking more and closing the gender gap, they are still less likely to enter treatment. But when they do enter treatment, research shows that women have better outcomes when they are in women-only facilities. Gender responsive treatment focuses on mental health and trauma, rekindling of relationships and education about the gender specific aspects of addiction.




Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving all of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s facilities in Greater Grand Rapids is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a psychiatrist-led team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient, and telehealth patients. For more information, visit www.sanfordbehavioralhealth.com.