By Sonia Alvarado, Senior Teratogen Information Specialist, MotherToBaby CA
Spring break 2014, which, for some, actually fell at the end of winter this year, is in full swing. Many students are back to school working diligently toward their degree. For some students, Spring break means a trip back home, a trip abroad for cultural education and for others, it’s a time to let loose on a warm beach, usually with one (or many) alcoholic beverages. Take the case of a young woman who went on holiday to the Caribbean after a particularly stressful semester at college. After returning to school and missing her period, she called the MotherToBaby service. She was frantic after recalling the amount of alcohol she had consumed during her seven days in the sun.
Social conventions that used to keep women from drinking alcohol publicly (or excessively) have changed drastically in the last two decades. Increased disposable income also enabled women to purchase their own alcohol instead of relying on men. Marketing, media and other societal influences have encouraged women to drink alcohol. These various factors have contributed to a higher number of women drinking alcohol during college, binge drinking during college and risking alcoholism. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the issue of women and alcohol drinking is an under-recognized problem. The CDC reports that approximately 24% of women 18-24 and 20% of women 25 to 34 report binge drinking. Binge drinking is classified as four or more drinks in one occasion. Studies suggest that college-age women may be binge-drinking in higher numbers than men. This may be due in part to the fact that many women do not know that the recommendations for alcohol drinking for men are different – and higher – than for women. These issues are very concerning because most pregnancies are unplanned and binge drinking is a threat to the healthy development of a pregnancy.
Fortunately, in the now worried “Spring Breaker” we spoke with, our counselor was able to reassure her after identifying her exposure as having occurred very early in pregnancy, prior to placental communication being established. However, the amount of exposure she had reported, four or more drinks daily, may have been a risk had it occurred later in the first trimester.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendation for alcohol use by non-pregnant women is one drink per day (maximum of seven per week). Men have a recommendation of maximum two drinks per day. The reason that women have a lower dose recommendation is that women are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Specifically, the average woman that takes two drinks will have more alcohol in her system compared to a man drinking the same amount. This is due to a size difference, genes, and maybe, hormones too. Women are generally smaller than men and that means having less blood. Having less blood means less water. A woman’s body is made up of about 52% water and a man’s about 61%. Water dilutes alcohol, both in a glass and in the body. More dilution means less impact. Also, women have more fat and unfortunately, alcohol in fat can’t be metabolized as quickly and it ends up concentrating in blood.
There is an important enzyme(s) called alcohol dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol. These enzymes are primarily stored in the liver and the stomach. These enzymes are found in greater abundance in men than women. The lower number of enzymes means that more alcohol gets into the blood and stays there longer.
Hormones may also play an important role in breaking down alcohol. Studies suggest that the premenstrual phase slows down alcohol and results in higher blood alcohol levels. There is some evidence that birth control pills that contain estrogen also slow the breakdown of alcohol.
So what does this all mean? Should Spring break mean all work and no play? Not necessarily. However, part of feeling empowered and making responsible decisions is learning the facts about how alcohol can affect us all differently. During April’s Alcohol Awareness Month, I encourage everyone to take a moment to think about those differences – It could make the difference in your future baby’s life.
Sonia Alvarado is a bilingual (Spanish/English) Senior Teratogen Information Specialist with MotherToBaby California, a non-profit that aims to educate women about medications and more during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Along with answering women’s and health professionals’ questions regarding exposures during pregnancy/breastfeeding via MotherToBaby’s toll-free hotline, email and private chat counseling service, she’s provided educational talks regarding pregnancy health in community clinics and high schools over the past decade.
MotherToBaby is a service of the international Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), a suggested resource by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about alcohol, medications or other exposures, call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets and find your nearest affiliate.
Jones, MK,,& Jones BM. (1984). Ethanol metabolism in women taking oral contraceptives. Alcohol Clin Exp Res, Jan-Feb;8(1):24-8