Twenty years ago, women drank on average five and a half units per week.
It’s now closer to eight units, with a rising number, nearly a fifth of women, drinking more than the recommended maximum of 14 units a week.
We all know drinking to excess is bad for our health, and is linked to a range of serious health problems, from cancer to high blood pressure and liver disease.
But there have also been reports that moderate amounts may have health benefits for some people.
For example, it may help to boost ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and reduce levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, helping to protect against heart disease and stroke.
Danish researchers overturned the shibboleth that drinking during pregnancy will harm your baby.
They said that moderate amounts – one drink a day – were fine.
So exactly how much alcohol is too much for women? Does it matter how old you are? Can alcohol be good for your health? And can you drink while you are breastfeeding?
We asked the experts to separate the facts from the fiction, so women can enjoy one of life’s great pleasures without the angst…
Yes, women do get squiffy faster than men
Ladettes may think otherwise, but the fact is, alcohol does have a faster effect on women.
This has been shown by multiple studies in which women and men have been given the same amount of alcohol and then asked to perform tests such as coordination and verbal reasoning.
Even if a woman and a man are the same size and weight, the woman would still feel intoxicated sooner.
This has nothing to do with hormones, but the fact that women’s bodies contain a lower proportion of water, so there is less fluid to dilute any circulating alcohol in the blood.
“Another factor is that women’s liver cells have less of an enzyme which breaks down alcohol, known as alcohol dehydrogenase, so it stays in circulation longer, having a greater effect,” says Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, specialist adviser on alcohol to the Royal College of Physicians.
So do women feel the effects of alcohol differently?
There’s no scientific evidence to suggest this, but, women are more at risk of blackouts and may be more susceptible to milder forms of memory impairment, even when they have drunk the same amount as men.
Does this mean their hangovers are worse?
Alcohol, which is a toxin, is more concentrated in women’s blood.
This is why they’re more than twice as likely as men to suffer the morning-after queasiness, stomach ache, raging thirst and headache after having more than five alcoholic drinks, as a Danish study published earlier this year found.
“A morning-after headache is caused by the dehydrating effect of alcohol when the brain membrane shrinks,’ says Katherine Brown, at the Institute of Alcohol Studies.
Sickness is caused by alcohol’s corrosive effect on the stomach lining.
Are some types of alcohol healthy?
Women’s favourite tipple depends very much on their age.
Like Bridget Jones, women between 45 and 64 are dedicated wine drinkers, with wine accounting for 70 per cent of their weekly consumption in 2010.
For younger women (aged 16 to 24), spirits are the most popular, followed by wine, according to the NHS. Older women prefer fortified wines such as sherry.
“Different drinks contain different volumes of alcohol, so some will make you tipsy faster than others,’ says Katherine Brown.
“There is some evidence that the bubbles in champagne may help the alcohol to take effect more quickly.’
However, no drink is ‘better’ for you than another.
“It’s the alcohol content that matters, full stop,” says Sir Ian.
“There is no evidence that what you drink makes any difference to the health consequences.”
And if you choose red wine because ‘at least it’s healthy’, this theory is difficult to substantiate.
That’s because it’s hard to separate the health benefits of diet and lifestyle that tend to go with wine drinking.
“What is clear, however, is that it’s only after the age of 50 (when blood vessel disease is showing) that small amounts of alcohol with meals have a health benefit,” says Sir Ian.
Will a daily tipple cause cancer?
When it comes to breast cancer, there are no safe limits for women drinkers, according to findings earlier this year that suggested alcohol is responsible for one in five cases of breast cancer in Scotland.
Even one unit of alcohol a day increases a woman’s risk by 10 per cent.
Carolyn Rogers, a clinical nurse specialist at the charity Breast Cancer Care, says there’s an “established link” and the risk rises the more you drink.
“One theory is it could be affecting levels of the hormone oestrogen within the body, which is known to fuel some types of breast cancer cells.”
Would swapping to a less alcoholic drink, say from spirits to wine, help?
Only if you are already drinking more than the recommended weekly number of units.
But alcohol is not one of the three main risk factors for breast cancer (these are age, gender and a significant family history of the disease).
“If you cut down your alcohol intake, it doesn’t mean that you won’t get breast cancer, but it will reduce the risk,” says Carolyn Rogers.
Does that mean you should cut it out altogether? Professor Michael Baum, a leading oncologist who specialises in breast cancer treatment, says no.
“Alcohol in excess increases the risk of breast cancer in all risk groups, but I would never frighten women into abstaining, but merely to drink sensibly — no more than seven units a week.”
There are no other female-specific cancers linked to drinking alcohol (however, as with men, alcohol puts women at greater risk of bowel, liver, mouth and neck cancers).
Drinking more than the recommended limit of two units a day also raises women’s risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and pancreatitis.
Heavy drinkers of both sexes can suffer alcohol-related depression, possibly because alcohol reduces the amount of ‘feel good’ hormones such as dopamine circulating in the brain.
But women drinkers are more at risk of depression and alcoholic brain disease than men drinking the same levels of alcohol, because of the higher concentration in their bodies.
Alcoholic women also experience more brain shrinkage, associated with dementia, than men.
Isn’t alcohol good for my heart?
The good news is there is some evidence drinking in moderation may help boost your health.
The French love of red wine with a meal has been pinpointed as the possible explanation for the French paradox, where that nationality have lower levels of heart disease despite a diet rich in saturated fat.
However, it seems the colour of the wine is probably irrelevant — it’s the alcohol itself that counts.
And the heart benefit applies only to middle-aged men and post-menopausal women.
“There are a few studies which suggest that older women could gain a protective effect for heart disease if they drink alcohol in light amounts — one drink a day or every other day,” says Sir Ian.
‘But this does not mean teetotallers should take up drinking to get the benefit.’
There’s also a suggestion alcohol may protect against type 2 diabetes.
Women in middle age who eat large amounts of refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta can help reduce their risk of this if they drink alcohol in moderation.
A study at the Harvard School of Public Health found it cut the risk by nearly a third compared with women with similar diets who didn’t drink alcohol at all. It could be because alcohol reduces blood sugar levels.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Government has decided not to include any possible health benefits in its standard low-risk drinking guidelines.
“The health benefits are not concrete and some are quite hotly debated,” says Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.