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Alcohol and gender not a level playing field

/ Dec 10, 2012 10:39AM / Print / ()

Alcohol and gender not a level playing field

It's late Friday afternoon in the office and already there is animated talk of drinks after work. Many people have left their cars at home today, as is their Friday habit, to allow them to drink with abandon at the pub.

And who can blame them? Work hard, play hard ... isn't that that what it's all about these days?

Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, if you're female, it's not as simple as that because if playing hard involves alcohol (and let's face it, when isn't alcohol involved?) it's likely to affect your health more than your realise.

Women can't drink the same as men

When it comes to alcohol and gender, it's not a level playing field. Sure, there's always the girl who boasts she can drink anyone under the table but what she may not know is that on a drink-for-drink basis alcohol is doing her a lot more damage than it's doing to her male colleagues.

And this is confirmed in a Danish study that shows women have a significantly higher risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease than men for any given level of alcohol intake.

Tissue ethanol concentrations are higher in women, and with regular binge drinking, severe hepatic damage can occur. Depending on the individual, significant liver disease may develop in as little as five years, or at most, a decade or so later.

But according to health experts, telling women that they can't drink the same amount as the guys without putting themselves at greater risk is an extremely difficult message to get across.

As anti-drug campaigner, Paul Dillon points out, "They just don't want to know".

Founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, Dillon says he has spoken to thousands of adolescent girls and young women about the risks associated with alcohol, but says many prefer to live in denial.

"They hate being told they can't do what men do and don't want to hear that they are at more risk," he says.

"There's definitely a fear that if they don't actually take part in the whole [drinking] experience they won't be seen as an equal in the workplace.

"And this seems to apply to managers, professionals and skilled workers across all occupations."

While hard data on professional women's drinking habits are scant, anecdotally, there are a relatively high number of them seeking treatment for alcohol problems, says Dillon, although he says this trend appears to have dropped slightly since the GFC.

Nevertheless, the problem of risky drinking among professional women is not likely to go away anytime soon with seemingly few women prepared to change their drinking habits.

"They say, 'I don't see the risk and I don't see the harm' but it may not be evident until a long way down the track and that's the problem. Unless the message actually rings true now they will dismiss it, especially when you say you can't have any more than two standard drinks a day."

So how much is too much?

Psychiatrist, Dr Lisa Juckes agrees that it's hard to convince these women to give up something they love if they are not experiencing any noticeable ill-effects.

"It's tricky because they want to know how much [alcohol] they can get away with without having a problem but we can't tell them because we just don't know. Some will fully recover if they stop drinking dangerously but others may not."

But what we do know, says Juckes, who works in the Northern Sydney Drug and Alcohol Service, is that people who binge drink will experience problems with executive functioning which includes decision making, reasoning and making complex decisions, at least temporarily if not permanently, which is hardly a good look for a woman trying to get ahead in the corporate world.

Definition binge drinking

These days binge drinking is defined by the National Health and Medical Research Council as having four standard drinks in one night: a standard drink being 100ml of wine, a 375ml glass of mid strength beer or a 30ml nip of spirits. But be warned; it's likely the drinks you are buying or even pouring yourself are significantly more than a standard drink.

A single can of full strength beer is actually 1.5 standard drinks while an average restaurant serve of wine can be up to 1.8 standard drinks, and cans of spirits, predominantly marketed to women, range from 1.5 to 2.1 standard drinks. So you can see how easy it is to underestimate how much you are actually drinking.

Exacerbating the problem for women is that their blood alcohol concentration (and therefore the damage) will be significantly higher than a man who is drinking the same amount.

"It's got to do with body size but that doesn't mean a large woman can drink the same as a man," she says.

"Whatever their size women have proportionately more fat and less body water than men which means alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream more quickly."

That's not to say that men aren't suffering from the effects of alcohol abuse too but that's another story for another day.

Don't be fooled by a lack of hangover

But it's not only men and women who metabolise alcohol at different rates. Adolescents are less likely to get sleepy after a few drinks and also less likely to have a hangover after a big night than someone aged over 25.

An important message from Juckes is that the lack of a hangover does not indicate that you've avoided damaging yourself whatever your age.

"Hangovers are protective because they can remind you not to drink excessively but younger people don't get them as much as the rest of us so don't have as big a reason to moderate their drinking.

"The other disadvantage for the younger ones is that they don't get the cues of being sleepy which allows them to stay on and party for longer than everyone else."

The long-term consequences of binge drinking

The long-term consequences of binge drinking for both sexes are not just confined to alcohol related brain damage. Liver disease, heart disease, and an increased risk of mental illness, cancer and neurological conditions are also very real possibilities.

Then there are all the social issues to contend with ... but who wants to think about all this with Christmas looming, festivities galore and perhaps an attractive business entertainment budget to spend?

Nonetheless, we women would be wise to pay better attention to what the experts are telling us given that so many of us are technically "binge drinking" on a regular basis.

As both Juckes and Dillon acknowledge, we live in a culture where drinking alcohol is not just expected, it is encouraged, and this is especially evident at this time of year.

For that reason they would like to see all women become more aware of their particular physiology and its vulnerabilities when it comes to alcohol consumption.

As for professional women who truly believe that not drinking at work functions risks being a deal breaker or alienating them from those who matter, Dillon has a good tip. In fact, it's pertinent advice for all women regardless of age or ambition.

"If a round is bought and everyone drinks at the same level , it's the female who is going to be at most risk from the alcohol so if you drink in rounds, make sure you only drink every second round or even better join a female-only round so you don't have to keep up with the men," he says.

Alcohol tips at Christmas

  • The NHMRC recommends a maximum of two standard drinks per day for both men and women
  • No more than four standard drinks on any one day
  • Avoid topping your drink up – you may lose count of how many you have had
  • Try to alternating water or a non-alcoholic drinks with your alcoholic ones
  • Learn how to say no and encourage your friends to be supportive
  • Remember that some drinks will contain more than one standard drink
  • Try to eat a substantial meal to increase your tolerance
  • Remember that you may still be over the limit the next morning after a large drinking session
  • Women can't drink the same amount as men and expect to have the same blood alcohol reading
This story first appeared on It'sMyHealth blog

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