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Toasting the Holidays

Why Alcohol Affects Women Differently

'Tis the season to celebrate! Whether it's the annual Christmas party at the office or a casual New Year's Eve party at a friend's home, a glass of wine or a champagne toast are sure to be part of the festivities.

With so much tempting food and drink it's easy to get carried away and indulge a little too much. Whether you have two parties or two dozen to attend during this holiday season, the first rule of responsible drinking for women is not to "keep up with the boys."

It's All About Chemistry

According to the Society for Women's Health Research, women produce less of the gastric enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase – which breaks down the ethanol in the stomach – than men. So even if women drink comparable amounts of alcohol, they will have a higher blood alcohol content than men of the same age. When differences in size and body weight are taken into account, the blood alcohol content is still higher in women than in men.

So what is a safe amount to drink? Experts agree that for those who elect to drink, the lower risk way to do so is to consume no more than one drink per hour and not more than two drinks per occasion.

Remember that alcohol is alcohol, no matter what form it takes. A standard serving of alcohol is a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a mixed drink containing 1 1/2 ounces of liquor. Although drinking too much of any alcohol will get you drunk, drinking clearer liquids may decrease the severity of a hangover. Dark alcohols, such as red wine, dark rum and brandy are higher in tannins, which are impurities that can cause hangover symptoms. Another hangover culprit is cogeners, which are byproducts of the fermentation process. When these are released into the bloodstream, the immune system works to eliminate them by releasing cykotines. This surge of cykotines causes hangover symptoms such as headaches and body aches.

Reaping the Consequences

Something else to keep in mind is that the long-term effects of indulging are more severe for women. A recent study conducted by Washington University and the University of Michigan School of Public Health on women and alcohol report the consequences of alcohol consumption are more severe for women than men.

"Women who reported drinking heavily 20 years ago, and even those who reported they stopped drinking heavily in the past five years, were both greatly compromised by the long-term effects of alcohol," says Dr. Kyle Grazier, associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Researchers found that older women, who previously drank to excess some time during their lives, had difficulty climbing stairs, carrying groceries or walking around the neighborhood. Many also developed physical disorders that kept them from the amount of time they usually spent at work or in social activities with their families. More serious effects included liver disease, cirrhosis and hepatitis, each developing over a shorter period of time and after consuming less alcohol than men with similar diseases.

Stay With the Plan

There are plenty of good reasons to make a plan for how much you will drink before you slip into your holiday party dress.

Deborah Deal, a public relations executive in Orlando, Fla., attends many business-related parties during the holiday season and feels it's important to keep a level head. "I have learned to set a definite limit of two drinks per night," says Deal.

Although she may attend more than one party on a given night, she still abides by her personal policy of just two drinks. Her plan is to consume two alcoholic beverages per night, followed by one diet soda and then decaffeinated drinks. "I've learned to watch the caffeine as well as the alcohol so I can go to sleep and get some needed rest when I get home," says Deal.

However, just because you set a drink limit doesn't mean you have to attend the party and drink your quota. For Beth Rimmels of Westbury, N.Y, it's her mood that determines whether she will drink any alcohol. "It will depend on that day, how tired I am, if I'm driving and what's available," says Rimmels.

No matter what her mood is, she sticks to a two-drink limit. "The most I ever have at a party is two drinks, and that's only if I've eaten and the party lasts more than four hours," says Rimmels.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

For some, the holidays also signal calorie-counting season. Eating well before and during a party is important; drinking on an empty stomach is not a wise move.

Joyce Grzybek of Ramsey, N.J., found that out the hard way. Grzybek started dieting using a popular shake mix to replace her meals. One Saturday afternoon she attended a friend's baby shower, and two glasses of wine later, she was "knocked under the table." "Normally I can drink two glasses of wine in a four-hour period without much more than a happy glow resulting from it," says Grzybek.

Eating dairy foods and foods high in fat and protein are considered good choices to eat before drinking alcohol. Drinking fluids like water or juice before, during and after you consume alcoholic beverages will aid in slowing down the body's absorption of alcohol and prevent dehydration. When your body's absorption of the alcohol is slowed, the body will metabolize the toxins faster.

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