Hormones help regulate bodily functions and keep everything running smoothly in your system. How does alcohol use impact your body’s hormonal systems?
Many Americans come home to relax at the end of a long day with a glass of wine or bottle of beer. As with everything, moderation is always key. Studies have shown various effects alcohol has on health when taken in small quantities.
When it comes to your hormones, though, even moderate alcohol intake has an effect. What is moderate consumption in terms of impact on your hormones? What role does alcohol play in the body when it comes to hormonal balance?
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemicals traveling through your body that control the function of all tissues and organs. Various glands throughout the body release hormones that act on tissues in different areas. Some of these glands include:
- Pituitary gland
- Adrenal glands
The body orchestrates a finely-tuned release of hormones at proper times in order for your tissues and organs to function properly. Both men and women have a blend of testosterone and estrogen in their bodies, with men having more testosterone and women having more estrogen. Introducing a chemical like alcohol can impact this precise system, resulting in a number of different reactions.
How Does Alcohol Affect Estrogen Levels?
Some studies have shown that alcohol consumption can increase estrogen levels. However, women’s bodies change significantly over time, especially in relation to hormones. What you drink in your 20s will have a different impact than drinking the same thing in your 40s.
Younger women who drink heavily have less of an impact on their body than middle-aged heavy drinkers. It takes less alcohol over time to put a woman’s body through the same impact as when she was younger due to hormonal fluctuation as she ages.
In women who have yet to go through menopause, drinking alcohol correlates with a rise in estrogen. Certain studies suggest that the onset of menopause has been delayed as a result of moderate alcohol consumption. Its impact on the hormonal system is that significant.
The same study also revealed that binge drinking (five or more drinks per day for women) puts the most severe impact on not only hormones but the functioning of the rest of the body.
How Does Alcohol Affect Testosterone Levels?
Conversely, alcohol consumption tends to lower testosterone levels. A study from the Testosterone Centers of Texas suggests that alcohol and the male hormone, testosterone, decreases in inverse proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed.
Low testosterone levels in both men and women can lead to sluggishness, tiredness, irritability, lowered muscle mass, and a lack of motivation. Encouraged by the depressant effects of alcohol, heavy drinking can result in a significant impact on testosterone levels.
However, the same study showed that moderate drinking (two or three beers a day and no more) caused only a “slight” decrease in testosterone levels. This suggests that heavy drinking plays a much more significant impact on testosterone levels. It also suggests that as estrogen levels rise due to alcohol consumption, testosterone levels decrease as a result.
Does Alcohol Lower Testosterone Permanently?
Despite the research that shows alcohol decreasing testosterone levels, the glands in the body compensate for the loss. Once you remove alcohol from your system, these glands replenish your body with the necessary amount of testosterone needed relative to your gender. Still, whether you are a moderate or heavy drinker, it is still smart to have your hormone levels regularly checked, especially as you age.
Alcohol’s Impact on The Reproductive System
The reproductive system in both men and women is heavily regulated by a number of hormones. Men’s hormones are responsible for sexual maturation, development of sperm resulting in fertility, and other impacts on sexuality. Women’s hormones are responsible for breast development, regulation of their menstrual cycles, and for carrying and maintaining pregnancy.
Heavy drinking plays a toxic role in both male and female reproductive systems. In men, research has revealed the decrease in testosterone caused by alcohol can directly impair their fertility. Alcohol affects sperm production and impacts the development of sperm themselves, which can result in abnormal sperm structure.
Women who are heavy drinkers and have yet to go through menopause are at risk for a number of reproductive disorders. Alcohol can lead to a lack of menstruation, menstrual cycles with no ovulation, early menopause, and the risk of a spontaneous abortion when pregnant.
The majority of reproductive disorders are seen in women as they are responsible for carrying a fetus to maturation. When drinking heavily, the impact of alcohol on their hormones can lead to numerous complications for the developing child.
Hormone Replacement Therapy and Alcohol Consumption
Women who seek hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in order to conceive are at a special risk. The hormonal system is fragile to begin with; introducing extra hormones into the body affects this delicate system. While going through HRT treatments, women’s hormone levels are closely monitored to make sure there are no complications.
A study of more than 5,000 Danish women showed an increased risk of developing breast cancer in women who drink while on HRT. Data collected from their research revealed:
- Drinking had little effect on breast cancer risk in those not taking HRT
- Postmenopausal women taking HRT who drank 1 or 2 alcoholic beverages per day have 3 times higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who drink and do not take HRT
- Postmenopausal women taking HRT who drank more than 2 alcoholic beverages per day have 5 times higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who drink and do not take HRT
Clearly, limiting or eliminating alcohol consumption while taking HRT is the safest route to go.
Heavy Drinking Is the Culprit
Across each of the studies, heavy drinking seems to have the greatest impact not only on hormones but on the body as a whole. The heavier your alcohol consumption, the greater an impact it has on your body. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
To take it a step further, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides guidelines for standard drinking levels for men and women. Binge drinking is defined by 4 or more alcoholic drinks for women and 5 or more alcoholic drinks for men on a single occasion or within a few hours of each other. They continue and define heavy alcohol use as 5 or more episodes of binge drinking in the past month.
Individuals who fit the category of heavy alcohol use are at the greatest risk for health problems. Alcohol not only affects the physical body but lowers inhibitions and places you in dangerous situations more frequently. Consuming large amounts of alcohol on a single occasion is never truly necessary; you only put yourself in harm’s way.
What Can You Do About This?
If you take anything away from this, realize that binge drinking and heavy alcohol use have a significant impact on your hormonal system. You limit your body’s natural ability to balance bodily systems and regulate hormone production.
Having a drink a few nights out of the week will not destroy your body’s capabilities to repair itself. Consistent heavy drinking, though, will affect you. Pay attention to the amount you drink when you do drink. Consciously limit your alcohol intake in order to take the best possible care of your body.
If you find yourself unable to stop drinking when you try to limit yourself, you may have a drinking problem. Normal people can cut down or cut out drinking with little trouble when presented with a valid reason to do so. If you continue to binge drink knowing what you’re putting your body through, you may need some assistance.
If you need help with cutting alcohol out of your life, addiction treatment may be a path you choose to take. Addiction treatment centers specialize in helping individuals who have trouble quitting drinking. Through treatment you can learn alternatives to taking a drink to relieve stress and help you feel better.
It may seem like getting sober will keep you from ever having fun again, from being able to go out and enjoy a night out with your friends. However, removing alcohol from your life isn’t as terrible as it may seem. Not only do you give yourself a chance at a better life, your body and your hormones will thank you for it, too.