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January 15, 2001
A Toast to Good Health?

e pop corks at weddings, on New Year's, and to complement fine meals. We often root for our favorite teams with a brewski in hand or warm up with a hot toddy. Now with reports of alcohol's heart-protective properties, do we have more of an excuse to imbibe?

Her Health


By Debra Wood, R.N.

"People don't drink for their health; people like how it makes them feel and how it tastes," says Dr. Mary Dufour, deputy director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "The cardio-protective effect seems to have the most benefit for men over 45 or 50 and women who are postmenopausal."

While the statistics appear convincing for some folks, experts don't know if alcohol actually produces a protective effect or if temperate drinkers simply make other, healthier lifestyle choices. Either way, moderation is key, and no one recommends that abstainers start drinking. Moderate means two or fewer drinks per day for men -- for women, however, it means a maximum of one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. Why the disparity?

Contrary to popular belief, it's not simply a matter of body weight. Women absorb and process alcohol differently than men, and we're more vulnerable to its dangers. A woman who is the same weight and consumes the same amount of alcohol as a man will become more intoxicated and have a higher blood-alcohol level. The reasons boil down to body chemistry. Women tend to have less body water to dilute the booze; an enzyme that breaks down alcohol seems to work better in men; and variances in brain chemistry or genetic risk factors may account for some of the difference. In addition, fluctuating hormone levels cause the same amount of alcohol to produce more of a buzz on some days of the month than on others. Postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy also may boost alcohol's effects.


Although it hardly seems fair, alcohol is one place where we donít have an equal playing field; the physical qualities that make us women place us in harmís way.


More serious differences linger long after we sober up. While moderate alcohol consumption can impair anyone's thinking and reaction times, women take longer than men to recover short-term memory, to recall words from long-term memory, and to make decisions. We're more prone to alcohol-induced liver, brain, and heart damage. In addition, drinking may increase our risk for breast cancer.

The good news is that far fewer women than men drink. Only 10 percent of women drinkers consume two or more alcoholic beverages daily, compared with 22 percent of men. Women between 26 and 34 drink more often than the rest of us, but younger women, ages 18 to 25, are most likely to binge, downing five or more glasses on five or more days a month. Binge drinking adds to the danger of falling victim to date rape or domestic violence, and ups the odds for an unplanned pregnancy or delivering a mentally retarded child suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. A developing baby is most at risk before a woman even knows she is pregnant.

Although it hardly seems fair, alcohol is one place where we don't have an equal playing field; the physical qualities that make us women place us in harm's way. Perhaps next time I'm offered a drink, I'll celebrate with a Perrier.

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Debra Wood is a registered nurse and health writer living in Orlando, Florida. Debra calls on more than two decades of nursing experience to effectively communicate medical topics to lay and professional audiences.