Why Does Alcohol Affect Men and Women Differently?

Apparently, fluctuating estrogen levels make drinking more enjoyable for women, according to new research. Note, however, that this study was conducted on mice.

Why Does Alcohol Affect Men and Women Differently?
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Why Does Alcohol Affect Men and Women Differently?

Here's a fun fact for men: while women are less likely to consume alcohol daily, they are however more likely to suffer from its negative effects: an increased risk of cancer, liver or brain damage, and heart disease, to name a few...

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In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience on June 1, 2020, researchers believe they have uncovered the science behind why alcohol affects men and women differently.

This imbalance is believed to be due to blood estrogen levels. This sex hormone ultimately makes drinking more "rewarding" for the fairer sex, scientists say. To reach this conclusion, they looked at the ventral tegmental air (VTA) from male and female mice's midbrain, a part of ​​the brain that's involved in reward circuitry. In fact, most of its neurons produce dopamine, the “wellbeing” neurotransmitter.

Paving the way for a targeted approach to disorders

The team observed that the level of estradiol (E2) had "powerful effects" on this dopaminergic system. When high, neurons react more intensely to the presence of ethanol, producing more dopamine. As a result, alcohol intake is more “rewarded” by female mice's nervous system than by males'. However, blocking certain estradiol receptors (ERα and ERβ, in particular) diminishes this effect -- meanwhile, it persists in males.

Amy Lasek, co-author of the study and psychiatrist at the University of Illinois, explained to Inverse:

If alcohol drinking is higher during times when estrogen levels are elevated, this can contribute to both the health risks of alcohol drinking and increase the likelihood of developing severe alcohol drinking problems.

Experts say that while this study has only been conducted on mice, the results could lead to breakthrough treatments for drink-related disorders. They also suggest that a targeted gender-based approach might be helpful. Estrogen modulators (SERMs), which are used in the treatment of breast cancer or menopause, already exist. However, they have many undesirable side effects (hot flashes, fatigue, mood swings).

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