For reasons that go beyond mere size, researchers are finding that women’s bodies are affected differently by alcohol than men’s bodies .
- Fat retains alcohol, while water helps disperse it. Women have naturally higher levels of body fat and lower levels of body water than men.
“Women who drink excessively also tend to develop addiction and other medical issues more quickly than men. It’s a phenomenon called ‘telescoping’. Women are also faster to experience liver disease and damage to their hearts and nerves.”
Scientists just assumed you could study men and it could apply to women
Many of these gender-based differences in alcohol’s effects on the body weren’t discovered until recent decades.
Almost all clinical studies on alcohol were done entirely on men until the 1990s. This was partly because scientists were encouraged to eliminate as many variables as possible that might influence an experiment’s results – one of which was gender. And because alcoholism was assumed to be a mostly male problem, no-one wondered what not studying women and alcoholism might miss.
By the 2000s, brain scans of alcoholics seemed to show that women’s brains are more sensitive to alcohol than men’s. But Marlene Oscar-Berman, an anatomy and neuropsychology professor at Boston University Medical School, has found a twist.
“When her team looked at the brains of long-term drinkers, they noticed that alcoholic men had smaller ‘reward centres’ than their male counterparts. This area of the brain, made up of parts of the limbic system and frontal cortex is tied to motivation; it is key for making decisions and even for basic survival. But in alcoholic women, the reward centers were larger than in the non-alcoholic women – implying that their brains were less damaged than their male counterparts.”
“That blew us out of the water,” Oscar-Berman says. “Our findings are somewhat counter to the general idea that women have been more susceptible to alcohol damage in the brain than men.” Scientists don’t yet understand what might be causing these differences.”
Problem Drinking: Research shows that women’s drinking is tied to quelling emotional pain, while men’s drinking is more linked to social pressure.
Above all, say experts, the days of assuming that the research on men and alcohol can simply be applied to women should be long gone.
(Find out more about how different bodies react to alcohol differently: Why do only some people get blackout drunk?)