We all know that alcohol is not the healthiest thing for our bodies. Not only can it lead to liver and heart disease when consumed excessively, but moderate consumption can increase anxiety, sleep disturbances, heart palpitation, and weight gain. I’ve certainly started noticing an increase in anxiety (hangxiety) every time I’ve had 4+ drinks. I wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to keep intrusive thoughts under control. Things get worse if I’ve had drinks 2-3 nights in a row; my mood is low and everything feels pointless.
But it seems the effects do not stop at mood, alcohol can also have a significant impact on our reproductive hormones, Estrogen and Progesterone.
Estrogen and Progesterone are essential hormones for women's health. They regulate the menstrual cycle, fertility, and pregnancy. Alcohol can disrupt the production and balance of these hormones, which can lead to health problems, including irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, early menopause, weight gain, mood swings, and anxiety.
In this article, we'll explore the impact of alcohol on women's hormones and offer tips for reducing your risk.
A note on early research on menstruation and alcohol
Before the mandate to include women in research was made in the 1990s, many researchers were excluding women because of the “unstability” of the menstrual cycle phase (Lammers et al. 1995). Belfer et al. (1971) published an early investigation on the association between menstrual cycle and alcohol use. At that time, virtually no empirical research existed on the topic, and deductions of a connection between alcohol and the menstrual cycle phase posited that the menstrual cycle is disruptive, and disruption leads to drinking.
Yes, you read that right. The deduction between alcohol and the menstrual cycle was that the menstrual cycle is disruptive, and disruption leads to drinking….
How does alcohol affect female hormones?
When consumed, alcohol has an immediate and direct impact on the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries - all vitally important components for controlling menstruation cycles and reproductive processes.
- Hypothalamus: The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that controls the production of hormones, including gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH stimulates the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). FSH and LH then stimulate the ovaries to produce Estrogen and Progesterone. Alcohol can interfere with the production of GnRH, which can lead to irregular menstrual cycles and infertility.
- Pituitary gland: The pituitary gland is a small gland located at the base of the brain. It produces a number of hormones, including FSH and LH. Alcohol can damage the pituitary gland, which can lead to decreased production of FSH and LH. This can also lead to irregular menstrual cycles and infertility.
- Ovaries: The ovaries are the female reproductive organs that produce eggs and hormones, including Estrogen and Progesterone. Alcohol can damage the ovaries, which can lead to decreased production of Estrogen and Progesterone. This can also lead to irregular menstrual cycles, anovulation (absence of ovulation), and infertility.
How does alcohol affect the menstrual cycle?
Alcohol can disrupt the production and balance of Estrogen and Progesterone, which can lead to severe consequences for female reproductive health, causing irregular cycles, amenorrhea (not getting a period for 3 months or more), anovulation (ovulation does not happen within the menstrual cycle), infertility, and even trigger early menopause.
Will having even just a few drinks impact my cycle?
Research on this point appears to be conflicting and there doesn’t seem to be a concrete answer. Consuming alcohol in moderation will probably not impact your menstrual cycle, however, it’s worth considering its impact on other areas. There is some evidence to suggest that alcohol consumed in the luteal phase (approx on day 15 of your cycle) can negatively impact your mood, by increasing feelings of anxiety and depression.
How does alcohol impact change during the different phases of the cycle
Before we dive into the next phase, we want to stress that research evaluating how alcohol impacts women in different phases of their cycle is scarce and methodology at times questionable. As such the following are based on anecdotal evidence.
Drinking Alcohol during Menstruation (period)
Drinking alcohol during your period can worsen common menstrual symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, irritability, depression, bloating, and cramps. Anecdotal evidence would also indicate that during menstruation women tend to get impacted by alcohol a lot faster than later in their cycle.
“Usually at the beginning of my period, I'm kind of a lightweight, and at the end I can drink more. It's not a huge difference and I'm not sure why but I've definitely had it happen more than once.” one reddit user shares.
Drinking Alcohol during the Late Follicular phase
Heavy drinking during the late Follicular Phase (the first half of the menstrual cycle, just after your period and before ovulation) and during ovulation has been associated with a reduced chance of conceiving due to the disruption of female reproductive hormones.
However, light and moderate drinking during these phases, the late follicular phase, and ovulation, did not seem to impact the study participants' chances of conceiving compared to non-drinkers.
Drinking Alcohol during the Mid Luteal phase
Drinking alcohol during the luteal phase (the second half of your menstrual cycle) may affect your mood more than drinking alcohol during the follicular phase. This is because alcohol can both increase feelings of depression and anxiety, while also increasing feelings of enjoyment from its effects. However, as previously stated the research is scarce. We’d highly recommend tracking your symptoms, alcohol intake, and the day of your cycle to help understand how you may react to alcohol.
Drinking Alcohol during the Late Luteal phase (PMS)
Our experts strongly recommend limiting, if not eliminating alcohol consumption during this phase as it can increase PMS symptoms, especially mood swings and irritability.
What are the effects of alcohol on women’s health?
Does alcohol make you more anxious?
- Short-term Effects: Alcohol can initially act as a sedative, helping individuals feel more relaxed. However, as its effects wear off, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
- Long-term Effects: Chronic alcohol use can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.
Does alcohol impact bone health?
Studies have shown that chronic alcohol consumption negatively affects bone health at all ages, with particularly severe effects on young, developing bones. Alcohol reduces peak bone mass, leading to weaker adult bones that are more prone to fractures.
Does alcohol increase the risk of breast cancer?
Yes: Numerous studies have shown that alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.
How much does alcohol increase breast cancer risk?
Moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to an approximate 30-50% increased risk of breast cancer (study link)
Does alcohol impact brain function?
Yes: Alcohol can have a variety of negative effects on the brain, including impairing cognitive function, memory, and coordination. It can also lead to brain damage, particularly if consumed in large amounts over a long period.
Does alcohol increase the risk of neural dysfunction - like dementia?
Yes: Chronic heavy drinking is a risk factor for several types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. It can cause brain damage, which can contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.
How does alcohol affect puberty?
Though there is little research focusing specifically on the physiological effects of alcohol consumption on girls, one study (Block et al. 1993) found that estrogen levels were depressed among adolescent girls ages 12 to 18 for as long as 2 weeks after drinking moderately. Additionally studies on prepubertal female rats, alcohol alters the reproductive awakening and maturation that marks puberty.
Moreover, estrogen’s role in bone maturation raises the question of whether alcohol use during adolescence has long-term effects on bone health.
To recap: research shows that alcohol consumption during puberty can have a number of negative effects on female health, including:
- Delaying the onset of puberty
- Disrupting hormone levels
- Impairing growth and development
- Increasing the risk of infertility later in life
Moreover, Alcohol can also harm the developing brain, which can lead to problems with learning, memory, and behavior.
Alcohol and hormone therapy
According to Alcohol.org, consuming alcohol can amplify some of the side effects associated HRT such as headaches, nausea, diarrhea, or anxiety Moreover, studies have estimated that women who are taking HRT and have 1-2 drinks daily are 3 times more likely to develop breast cancer, while women who have more than 2 drinks a day and are taking HRT are at 5 times greater risk of developing breast cancer. (reference link) Heavy drinking can also cause blood clots, which increases your chances of heart attack or even stroke. (reference study) Because blood clots are also a side effect of HRT, the combination of the two can increase those risks even more.
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