Biology explains why women can’t drink as much as men

Every now and again, we get a younger woman client who has gotten into trouble with alcohol because she has been drinking to keep up with the guys. She has tried to match them shot for shot. Then she blacked out. When we tell them that they really can’t do that, we are accused of being sexist or worse.

Ladies, it’s biology, really. We are not sexist. Women are more sensitive than men to the effects of alcohol. There are two main biological reasons for this. The first is an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). ADH breaks down alcohol, first in the stomach and then in the liver. Women have considerably less ADH in their stomach linings then men do. This means that more alcohol leaves their stomach and is absorbed into their blood. As a result, one drink for a woman has about twice the effect as one drink does for a man.

Second, pound for pound, a woman’s body contains less water and more fatty tissue than a man’s. Water dilutes alcohol in the blood; fat retains it. So alcohol remains at higher concentrations for longer periods of time in a woman’s body. This exposes her brain and other organs to more alcohol.

This makes women much more vulnerable to alcohol’s harmful effects. Research has found that if a woman has more than one drink per day, she increases her risk of car accidents and traumatic injury. Her risk of high blood pressure, stroke, suicide and breast cancer also goes up. Women also tend to advance from their first drink to their first alcohol-related problem to their need for treatment more quickly than men.

Together, the increased absorption of alcohol into the blood plus lower total body water explains why women may become intoxicated more easily than men. These factors also suggest why women are more likely to suffer adverse consequences after drinking less than, and for fewer years than, men.

That said we have all known women who have amazing capacities for alcohol, women who can regularly drink men under the table. The best theory I can find to explain this is that these women inherited an unusually efficient ADH enzyme. As a result, they rapidly break down alcohol in their stomach and less alcohol gets into the blood. With less alcohol in the blood, there’s less that travels to the brain, so they don’t get drunk very fast.

So there you have it. It isn’t fair, but it is explained by female biology.

If biology is getting the best of you and you need help quitting, give us a call today at 888-541-6350. We can help.

Standard Drink Chart (US and Canada)

Beverage Amount
(fl. oz.)
(% by volume)
(per drink)
80-proof liquor 44ml 1.5 fl. oz. one shot 40% 0.6 fl. Oz.
Wine 148 ml 5 fl. oz. one glass 12% 0.6 fl. oz.
Beer 355 ml 12 fl. oz. one can 5% 0.6 fl. oz.

Recommended safe amounts of alcohol for men and women:

Most health care professionals recommend no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. Drinks are defined above in the chart. For pregnant women, no amount of alcohol is considered safe. Recently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that all women of child bearing age refrain from drinking alcohol. This recommendation has been met with a great deal of criticism as both overly harsh and paternalistic, implying that women can’t exercise good judgement about their alcohol intake when and if they are trying to get pregnant. I don’t think it was meant that way but I can see why people got upset. However, accidental pregnancy is a known side-effect of getting drunk. So I can also see where the CDC was coming from. The guidelines stay the same but the recommendations for what is considered safe seem to change all the time.

Are you drinking more than the guidelines? You probably should cut back. If you are having trouble cutting back, you might want to give us a call and come see us. It can’t hurt. 888-541-6350