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Discusses Women's Health

I routinely ask my new patients: “How much, on average, do you drink each week?” In order to make this question slightly less accusatory, I also add “do you usually have wine with dinner or a cocktail before?” If the answer is “yes, one or two glasses”, I then feel obligated to discuss the pros and cons of women’s alcohol consumption. I was therefore delighted to find an article under the heading of “Clinical  Crossroads” in last week’s JAMA which dealt with the question of whether a person (in this case, a 42 year old man) should drink for his health. The authors were kind enough to also consider the health implications of drinking for women. Here are some of the facts that they presented:

The estimated ethanol (alcohol) content per serving of various alcoholic beverages is similar, although their caloric content may vary. Twelve ounces of beer have 14 grams of ethanol and 150 calories, light beer contains 11 grams of ethanol but about 50 calories less; 5 ounces of wine contain 15 grams of ethanol and 120 -125 calories and finally 1.5 ounces of “hard alcohol” or spirits have 14 to 15 grams of ethanol and 100 calories.

Because women have a smaller volume of distribution in which to dilute the alcohol, overall smaller body size, and a different first –pass metabolism (alcohol is not as quickly metabolized by the liver), we experience the toxic effects of alcohol at approximately half the daily dose of alcohol as do men. One glass of  wine, serving of beer or “a drink” for a woman is like two for a man….so ( and I don’t meant to insult your intelligence, but  want to write this for emphasis)….two drinks at dinner would be the equivalent of four for a man. And that’s a number that would cause concern to most of their female companions.

Alcoholism has been ranked the third most important preventable cause of death in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has issued the following guidelines for safe drinking:

* Up to 2 drinks for men younger than 65
* Up to one drink per drinking day (I’m not sure what constitutes a drinking day, but it’s their wording) for non-pregnant women and older adults

No alcohol for

* Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
* Persons with medical conditions that could be made worse by drinking
* Persons who plan to engage in activities that require alertness and skill (such as driving a car)
* Persons taking certain over-the-counter or prescription medications (think sleeping medications, ant anxiety meds, antihistamines or anything that effects brazen chemistry)
* Persons recovering from alcoholism
*  Persons younger than 21

In order not to sound like an abolitionist, let me also proffer the data that was cited on the “biochemical effects of light to moderate alcohol consumption in short term feeding studies”. (Actually they were drinking studies). Researchers looked at certain biomarkers for cardiac disease and the effect of ethanol on these markers. HDL or high density lipoprotein (the good cholesterol) was minimally increased, but a lot of alcohol was needed to do this (60 grams per day in men and 35 grams in women). Alcohol seemed to work best on HDL if the levels were low to begin with. (Before menopause most women have fairly high HDL levels, perhaps due to their production of estrogen.) Triglycerides were increased in men who drank moderately but may have decreased in women (although beer with more carbohydrates seems to erase this phenomenon). Fibrinogen which is involved in clot production was lowered. Adiponectin which increases insulin sensitivity (a good thing) did minimally increase and as such may have lowered the risk of diabetes.

Now here is the concern for women: Light to moderate drinking increases the bodies own sex steroid hormones by 5% to 20% and can increase risk of breast cancer! This translates to an approximate 1% increase in the relative risk for each one gram a day of alcohol.   It also has an adverse effect on other cancers in men and women. Malignancies of the mouth, larynx and esophagus are increased in all moderate drinkers. The relative risk of developing these cancers (compared to nondrinkers) is approximately 1.4 to 1.7 with “just” 2 drinks a day.

So should we drink for our hearts or abstain for our breasts? Studies dating back at least 25 years have shown that 10 grams of ethanol per day among women (and 25 grams for men) lowered risk of coronary heart disease by 20 to 30%. The authors calculated that this conferred a 1% lower absolute 10 year risk for a 50 year old man who was deemed “average”, but remember our 10 year average risk at 50 is usually less than that of men.

It sounds like that one drink is a draw…but the authors go on to state that the typically high HDL levels in premenopausal women would appear to make any clinical benefit for alcohol limited at best, “and since the risk of breast cancer is increased, it is unlikely that premenopausal women would profit from drinking”.

There is so much more that we can do to prevent heart disease…not smoking, exercising, maintaining a reasonable body weight and if necessary treating elevated lipids (LDL cholesterol and triglyceride).

Alcohol is not a medicine. If you love it and want to drink a glass of wine with dinner or have that drink before….limit it to one.  Your choice to imbibe is similar to your desire for desert, but without the “nose”….it tastes good, you enjoy it and it adds to your meal. The toast “l’haim” (to life) that accompanies that drink is a wish, not a medical certainty.

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