“I Need a Drink!”
Middle-aged women and alcohol
So many things change as women age. Our bodies, our minds, our purpose, all appear to go through a major transition between the ages of forty-five and sixty. Perhaps the biggest of the female changes is that of menopause, the end of a woman’s reproductive ability. Currently, the average age for menopause is fifty-one. During peri-menopause, the years leading up to menopause, one of the primary goals of the female reproductive system is to drastically reduce estrogen levels. When a woman enters into full menopause, estrogen levels have fallen by 75-90%, resulting in the infamous menopausal symptoms we all dread – hot flashes, night sweats, and sleep interruptions, to name a few.
New symptoms, such as “brain fog” – that muddled feeling that requires great effort just to concentrate – are also coming into focus as being decidedly related to reduced estrogen levels. Adding insult to injury, as menopause settles in, women also lose water from within their systems, one of the most important components of metabolization in the human body.
Given these sometimes harsh changes, it’s no surprise that a woman may crave a cocktail as a means of relief, which begs the question: How does alcohol consumption affect women as they go through peri-menopause and menopause?
The simple answer is that alcohol changes the impact of our hormonal balance. First, alcohol cannot be stored in the body; therefore, it becomes a priority for metabolization. However, alcohol does not require digestion, as it is simply absorbed into our systems, meaning it moves through our bodies more rapidly than regular food.1 Our body reacts to alcohol similarly to how it reacts to sugar, and quick jolts of sugar to our system wreak havoc with our hormones, especially insulin.
Insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas whenever blood sugar rises, is the hormone responsible for sugar metabolism. Insulin is like the traffic cop telling all the excess sugar created by alcohol in our blood to move straight to the nearest fat cell. Insulin then tells that fat cell not to open its doors and burn the fat as energy until all the other nutrients in our system have been metabolized. End result: you’re stuck with excess fat cells.
So while a woman’s endocrine system is trying to drastically reduce estrogen levels in the years leading up to menopause, we tend to make it harder on our bodies by drinking alcohol and providing more places for estrogen to accumulate, creating mixed messages in our systems. On the one hand our bodies are going through these incredible symptoms of estrogen loss – night sweats, hot flashes, etc. – while on the other hand our fat cells are concentrating estrogen within their walls and releasing it when and if the body burns the fat. In the end, we have a state of confusion in the form of uncontrollable spikes and dips in estrogen levels that only stand to amplify menopausal symptoms. Of note is the fact that a woman’s metabolism also slows down in menopause. We do not burn the fuel provided by food as quickly or efficiently and that can lead to weight gain.
How much you drink makes a big difference as well. It’s one thing to enjoy a glass of chardonnay on a warm summer evening, another to down the entire bottle.
Studies have shown that moderate drinking (defined as one 5-ounce glass of wine per day) can actually have beneficial effects on women’s health including a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and stroke. However, increase the amount you imbibe and your risks also increase drastically. According to a recent Healthline article, heavy drinking during menopause can increase a woman’s risk of developing cancer, heart problems, liver disease, and osteoporosis. A more specific study by Jasmine Lew, a researcher at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, found that alcohol consumption did indeed increase the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women and the risk is dose dependent: one drink per day increases a postmenopausal woman’s risk of breast cancer by 7%, whereas three drinks per day up the risk to a whopping 51%.2
In the end, anecdotal reports find that some women feel happier having a drink at this stage in their lives; others find that alcohol immediately triggers hot flashes and sweating. Still more find that regular alcohol consumption impedes their ability to maintain healthy sleep habits. As with anything in nature, we are all unique. Find the right balance for your body and do your best to stay rested and comfortable during this physically tumultuous time.
Contributing writer Pam Salvadore of La Quinta is a nutrition journalist. For more from Pam visit her blog pamsalvadore.wordpress.com.
References: 1) Byrd-Bredbenner, C., Moe, G., Beshgetoor, D., & Berning, J. (2013). Wardlaw’s Perspectives in Nutrition (9th ed.). p 258-259 New York, NY: Mcgraw-Hill Education; 2) Barnes, Mary Ellen, PhD, and Ed Wilson, PdD,MAC. “Menopause and Alcohol Abuse.” GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. EdwardWilson Ph.D., MAC, 2008. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.