Ask an Expert: What sort of conversations do we need to be having with our daughters on issues like alcohol and sex?

Teenage girls and alcohol

Photo by Stop Alcohol Deaths, Inc via Flickr

In light of the controversy in the media recently regarding warning teenage girls about drinking and sexual assault, what sort of conversations do we need to be having with our daughters on issues like alcohol and sex?

Very timely question! I was asked to discuss this very issue on ABC radio recently. You may listen to the discussion here.

What else should every girl know about alcohol? Females are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than males. This is because males and females are physically different and so our bodies process alcohol differently. When a person drinks, alcohol enters the bloodstream and then, being water soluble, it is distributed throughout the tissues of the body that contain water. Females usually have smaller bodies than males, which means that there is less water volume to take up the alcohol, leading to a higher concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream and a greater effect. This is compounded by the fact that fatty tissues do not take up alcohol and females have a higher proportion of body fat than males. With fewer tissues in the body to take up the alcohol, a female will be more affected than a male who consumed the same amount. Additionally, the body’s ability to break down and rid itself of alcohol is limited by the size of the liver and, on average, females have smaller livers than males.

The culture of dieting and striving to be thin also increases the impact of alcohol on females. Dieting leads to an excessive loss of body fluid and as it is the body’s water content that takes up alcohol, there will be a higher concentration of alcohol in a dieter’s system. This has serious implications for teenage girls.

Heavy drinking is risky for both males and females, but females are more prone to the acute and chronic effects of alcohol abuse. Because of our physical differences, the risk to our health starts at lower rates of alcohol consumption than it does for males. For women, the risk of premature death increases once we start drinking more than two standard drinks of alcohol a day; at that point, the risk of death climbs to 40 per cent higher than it is for non-drinkers. For men, on the other hand, the risk begins to increase at four drinks a day.

The greater the amount of alcohol a person drinks above the guidelines, the higher their risk of premature death. Hence bingeing – consuming an excessive quantity of alcohol at once, a form of drinking adopted by most teen drinkers – is especially dangerous.

Because our livers are smaller than men’s, women are vulnerable to liver damage and cirrhosis at lower levels of alcohol consumption. Alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer and the risk rises with the level of alcohol consumed. A woman who drinks three or four standard drinks a day has a 35 per cent higher risk of breast cancer than one who drinks little or none. If a woman drinks more than four standard drinks a day, her risk is 67 per cent greater. Alcohol-related deaths in women usually take the form of strokes, injuries from falls, alcoholic liver cirrhosis, road accidents and breast cancer. Alcohol poses a further physical threat to women and girls in that it may increase the risk of being harmed by violence. Lastly, there is not only the risk of intoxication leading to unsafe sex or an unplanned pregnancy, but also the risks to the health of an unborn child.

I discuss this issue at more length in my book for parents, ‘The Butterfly Tattoo – a positive new approach to raising happy, confident teen girls’.

Dannielle Miller, CEO, Enlighten Education and Author, www.enlighteneducation.com.au

Our Ask an Expert Week panelists are all qualified professionals in their field. However, advice given on The Kids Are All Right website is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional counselling or psychological care, medical care and diagnosis.

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