Written by Alex Fulton
For many women, enjoying a glass of wine with dinner or chatting with friends over a cocktail is a way to unwind — and for those who are in menopause, it may help them to forget about their symptoms for a while. But does alcohol do more harm than good during the menopausal transition? Could alcohol actually make menopause worse?
Understanding the ways alcohol affects your body during menopause, including the impact on disease risk and specific symptoms, can help you make mindful choices about drinking during this transitional time.
Does Alcohol Affect You Differently During Menopause?
If you’ve found that a glass of wine hits you a little harder than it used to, you’re not alone. Alcohol tolerance decreases as we age, and it takes the body longer to break down alcohol.1 Alcohol also has an impact on the body’s ability to metabolize estrogen, levels of which are already fluctuating during menopause.2 For these reasons, you may find that your body responds differently to drinking alcohol when you’re in menopause.
Potential Health Issues with Drinking Alcohol During Menopause
Alcohol consumption, aging and hormone fluctuations are each associated with increased risk of several health conditions, some of them serious.3 When all three of these components are combined — as is the case with drinking during menopause — risk of certain conditions goes up accordingly.
“Drinking alcohol during menopause is often an 'additive'; all the conditions that menopausal women are at an increased risk for, are inevitably made worse by anything more than moderate drinking,” says Dr. Rebecca Levy-Gantt, an OB/GYN in Napa, California who specializes in comprehensive women's health. These conditions can include:
“Since one of the factors that increases the risk for breast cancer is age, and menopausal women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than younger women, one of the things that consuming alcohol during menopause does is increase the risk for breast cancer,” Dr. Levy-Gantt explains.4
According to Dr. Levy-Gantt, heavy drinking (defined for women as consuming more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week) is linked to increased risk of osteoporosis — something menopausal women are already at greater risk of developing.5 Heavy alcohol use has been shown to decrease bone density as well as weakens the mechanical properties of bones.6 Additionally, the risk of falling after drinking can potentially increase, contributing to an escalated risk for fracture.
“Heavy drinking also increases the risk for depression, and menopausal women are also more at risk for this than younger women,” Dr. Levy-Gantt says. An estimated 20% of women experience depression at some point during menopause.7
Does Alcohol Make Menopause Symptoms Worse?
In addition to increasing your risk of developing certain diseases, drinking alcohol during menopause may also exacerbate some common menopause symptoms. “Alcohol can be a trigger for many things that appear to be menopausal symptoms, but they are different for everyone,” Dr. Levy-Gantt explains.
“Alcohol, especially red wine, can trigger hot flashes, so if a woman is already prone to hot flashes, she may have an increased number of or an increased intensity of her hot flashes,” Dr. Levy-Gantt cautions.8 “Alcohol also seems to increase night sweats, especially if consumed right before bed. This has more to do with the sugar content in the alcohol than it does the effect of alcohol on hormone levels.”9
How to Drink Moderately During Menopause and Beyond
If you decide the amount of alcohol you’re currently drinking isn’t right for your body at this time, there are things you can do to cut back. Here are some tips for moderating your alcohol intake during menopause.
- Drink mindfully. Experts suggest that being conscious of how each drink is affecting your body, mind and behavior can help keep you from overdoing it.10
- Keep track. Using an app to track your drinking habits can give you an objective and realistic understanding of how much you drink.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Hunger and thirst can cause you to drink more alcohol than you would otherwise.11 You could also consider diluting your alcohol to diminish the volume by adding seltzer or more ice to your drink.
- Do a “dry” month. Research indicates people who abstain from alcohol for a month tend to drink more moderately afterwards.12
- Know your triggers. What is it that makes you reach for a drink? Identify your drinking triggers and try to avoid them.
- Normalize saying no. It can be awkward to abstain in some situations. Practice turning down alcohol when it’s offered and remember that it’s perfectly okay to choose a nonalcoholic beverage.
“Realize that you will have better sleep, more energy and improved health through drinking less alcohol,” Dr. Levy-Gantt advised. “Save the drinking for special occasions instead of making it a regular part of the day.”