Cheers! What you need to know about alcohol and menopause
Unwinding at the pub after a long day of work. Celebrating the marriage of a family member with a toast of champagne. Chatting over a glass of wine with some old friends. These are all situations in which alcohol consumption is integrated into our lives.
The risks and benefits of drinking alcohol are fairly widely recognised. Acute risks like driving under the influence are broadcasted on the nightly news. And risks related to more chronic, long-term exposure to alcohol include more serious things like liver damage.
Alcohol is an important part of many cultural practices around the world. But how does it impact menopause?
There is also some research that supports moderate alcohol use can support bone and heart health, although these findings are more recently being reexamined.
But what is the relationship between alcohol consumption and menopause? How does alcohol impact menopause symptoms? Can alcohol make menopause symptoms worse?
Let’s explore some of the ways alcohol can impact your menopause experience. And then we’ll take a peek at some strategies you can use to change your relationship with alcohol if you so wish.
Alcohol consumption guidelines
First, let’s take a look at alcohol consumption guidelines. How much wine should you really be drinking per week?
The guidelines for alcohol consumption vary from place to place and over time, so determining exactly how much is too much can be difficult. However, more and more health departments and agencies are recognising the long-term and acute risks of drinking alcohol, and they often suggest abstaining from alcohol altogether.
However, if you do choose to drink alcohol, many health agencies recommend using moderation. But what does that mean?
According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), adults are recommended to limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. They define one drink as:
12 oz. 5% beer
8 oz. 8% malt liquor
5 oz. 12% wine
1.5 oz. 40% distilled spirits
As with anything you ingest, the way it interacts with your body systems can vary depending on a number of factors. For instance, having an occasional glass of beer is a different type of exposure than if you have a glass of beer every day at dinner. Or if you binge drink every weekend.
And how alcohol impacts your body might be different than how it impacts someone else. When considering the risks of drinking alcohol generally, the more you consume, the more likely you are to experience negative side effects. And if you drink less often or in lower quantities, you are probably less likely to see the negative effects, whether acute or chronic.
A glass with clear liquid, ice, and a lime slice sits on a table.
The way alcohol impacts menopause symptoms may vary from person to person.
Alcohol and menopause
So when it comes to alcohol and menopause, there are many different points of intersection. Alcohol consumption can impact different menopause symptoms and body functions.
Unfortunately for those who enjoy a drink from time to time, most of the potential effects are rather negative. That being said, each person experiences menopause differently. And each person may experience the side effects of alcohol use differently.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways alcohol can influence specific aspects of your menopause experience.
You may not associate drinking alcohol with hormones, but alcohol consumption has been shown to sometimes lead to an increase in oestrogen levels in the body. The jury is still out on this, but some research suggests that alcohol is oestrogenic. This means that oestrogen levels can increase after consuming alcohol, or drinking alcohol can have similar effects as an increase in oestrogen.
In younger people, this can mean disruptions of menstrual cycles. And in those going through perimenopause or menopause, it can mean an even larger hormonal imbalance than usual.
Hormones are the key to the menopause experience, most notably the balance between progesterone and oestrogen, and drinking alcohol may cause an imbalance. This imbalance can lead to an increased risk of oestrogen-related cancers (some breast cancer), disturbances in mood, and an increase in vasomotor symptoms.
As with much research related to reproductive health and menopause, there are still a lot of questions about how exactly all of this is connected and which relationships are causal. But generally, to avoid hormone imbalances, it can be useful to avoid drinking too much alcohol.
Hot flushes and night sweats are two of the most recognised symptoms of menopause. These types of vasomotor symptoms are caused by changes in hormone levels, specifically oestrogen. Fluctuations in hormones mean that your brain doesn’t work quite the way it used to. Namely, the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for temperature regulation, may give your body signals to make you sweat to cool off, causing hot flushes and night sweats.
Research exploring the connection between drinking alcohol and vasomotor symptoms suggests that regular alcohol consumption is pretty strongly correlated with an increased risk of hot flushes and night sweats. In short, if you drink alcohol regularly, you may experience more vasomotor symptoms during menopause. And your symptoms may be more noticeable.
Gut health is really important during menopause. And this is another area that may be impacted directly by alcohol consumption.
With a diverse gut microbiome, the digestive system is able to function properly. Recent studies have looked at the relationship between gut health and other systems in the body, specifically brain function.
A bowl of grains and fruit sit on a counter
Gut health is connected to brain health through the Gut-Brain-Axis. Alcohol can disrupt this system.
Gut-brain axis - The gut-brain axis (GBA) is a system in the body in which the brain and the gut communicate. Gut health has been shown to impact mental health and overall brain function.
And communication between these systems is bidirectional. A healthy gut supports a healthy brain. And a healthy brain supports a healthy gut.
So, how does alcohol impact the gut-brain axis? Drinking alcohol can disrupt your gut microbiome. Instead of promoting diversity in the gut microbiome, alcohol can wipe out some of the helpful microbes in your digestive tract.
This disruption can lead to a number of symptoms and conditions, such as:
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Decreased cognitive function
If a healthy gut promotes brain health, a compromised gut due to alcohol consumption may also lead to disruptions in brain function.
It should be clear by now that the impacts of drinking alcohol aren’t limited to one system of the body. And we’ve already touched on how hormonal imbalances can lead to symptoms in various areas of the body. One more area that is impacted by drinking alcohol is the brain.
In addition to the possible effects associated with hormone imbalances, brain health more generally is impacted by alcohol in a couple of other ways.
The hippocampus and alcohol
First, when looking at chronic side effects, studies have shown that even moderate drinkers were more likely to have damage to the hippocampus than those who didn’t drink. In fact, the moderate drinkers in the study were three times more likely to show atrophy of the hippocampus.
This means that functions related to memory processing and learning can be impacted when alcohol is consumed. This isn’t even considering more acute brain functionality issues that occur when you consume alcohol. Think: delayed reaction time and impaired judgment.
The study also found that those who drank more alcohol showed decreases in the integrity of the brain tissue and some cognitive functions, like the ability to recall appropriate words and categories as measured in lexical fluency clinical tests. With people experiencing alcohol dependency, there was also an increased risk of dementia and other cognitive disorders over time.
Those in menopause may experience changes in brain function due to fluctuations in hormones even without alcohol in the picture. One of the main jobs of oestrogen as it relates to the brain is to help create energy. Long story short, oestrogen helps your brain metabolise glucose into energy. Which helps you think and process and do all the things you need your brain to do.
Menopause and the brain
This means that when oestrogen levels fluctuate and decrease during menopause, your brain doesn’t have the same amount of energy. This shows up as the following neurological symptoms during menopause:
The addition of alcohol during this time can exacerbate these symptoms and cause long-term damage to your brain with prolonged exposure.
Those in the menopause phase of life have an increased risk of osteoporosis. And it turns out that an increased risk of osteoporosis is also associated with alcohol consumption.
While there may be some tenuous evidence that moderate drinking can sometimes protect bone health, the research clearly indicates that regular, heavier alcohol consumption (exactly how heavy is unclear), especially during young adulthood, is linked to decreased bone quality. The research also suggests that the effects of alcohol use on bone health cannot be reversed by stopping drinking. Once the damage is done, it’s done.
The good news, however, is that it’s never too late to make lifestyle changes to avoid further damage to your bone health. With some changes in physical activity and diet, you may be able to prevent additional deterioration of your bones.
Direct impacts of alcohol on mental health
Alcohol is a depressant. This means that when you drink alcohol, the communication from your brain to the rest of your body through the neurons and transmitters is slowed. This can cause changes in coordination and concentration. In small amounts, it can also lead to feelings of inhibition and even relaxation.
In larger quantities and over time, the use of alcohol, though, can cause damage to the transmitters and the way the brain communicates with the body. This can lead to increased tolerance and even dependence. Basically, your body needs more of the depressant substance, alcohol in this case, to achieve the same results.
And acute anxiety can be the result of alcohol disrupting the balance of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. Greater amounts of alcohol are associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms while drinking and anxiety symptoms are associated with withdrawal.
The good news is that while drinking alcohol at any stage of life can lead to increased risks of anxiety and depression, and those in menopause already run a greater risk for these symptoms, there isn’t clear evidence that drinking alcohol during menopause exacerbates these symptoms.
A woman is smiling and looking back behind her.
Your mental health can be impacted by both alcohol and the menopause experience.
Indirect impacts of alcohol on mental health
That being said, alcohol can indirectly impact mental health in a number of ways. Potential challenges created by alcohol dependence or even more moderate consumption can wreak havoc on mental health and general well-being.
Both menopause and alcohol use can lead to the following challenges that may impact your mental health:
Difficulties adjusting to changes in life
Miscommunication with loved ones
Strained personal relationships
Alcohol use can lead to increased anxiety and depression directly by changing levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. It can also make life changes and challenges more difficult.
Onset of menopause
Finally, the onset of menopause, meaning when menopause begins, has been linked to alcohol consumption in a number of studies. The research shows that menopause begins on average 2.2 years later for those who drink 5-7 days per week than those who did not drink alcohol. The data also suggests that even those who drink more moderately may begin menopause a bit later than those who do not drink.
Some research suggests that this later onset is caused by increased levels of oestrogen due to alcohol consumption since alcohol appears to be oestrogenic, while others claim that additional factors may be at play (other lifestyle factors, genetics, etc).
More research is needed in this area to really understand the possible link between alcohol and oestrogen, but if alcohol use does in fact increase exposure to oestrogen, there may be some positive impacts. For instance, increased exposure to oestrogen is associated with brain and bone health as mentioned previously.
For the moment, the research is a bit unclear about the possible benefits in this area, so each individual should weigh the possible pros and cons of alcohol use in relation to their health and general well-being.
Alright, so ingesting alcohol might have an impact on a variety of aspects of your menopause experience and overall well-being. What can you do with this information?
If you’re concerned about how much or how frequently you are drinking alcohol, it’s important to seek support from qualified professionals. It may be useful to speak to your doctor to get more information about local resources for cutting back or stopping drinking alcohol.
If you’re not really concerned about how much or how often you’re drinking alcohol, but you think maybe it could be useful to exercise a bit more moderation, the following tips might be for you.
First, it’s important to realise that establishing a healthy relationship with alcohol looks different for everyone. Whether you are concerned about your health during the menopause phase of life, or you’re looking to save some money otherwise spent on drinks over the weekend, whatever the reason for changing your relationship with alcohol, your decision is valid.
Now for some tips for integrating moderation into your relationship with alcohol.
Observe and reflect
By observing and noting when you consume alcohol, you can get a clear picture of your starting point. Observing your feelings and the context in which you find yourself when drinking alcohol can also be insightful. For example, maybe you notice that you always want a glass of wine after visiting your sister. Or when you’re under pressure at work.
Just noticing and reflecting on your feelings when you typically drink can help you observe any patterns and make informed decisions about any changes you want to implement.
Whew! So, we’ve explored a few different ways alcohol can impact your health and overall well-being during menopause. It can influence many different systems in the body and aspects of your life. And, unfortunately, most of the impacts are rather negative.
We’ve also looked at some specific tips and tricks you can use to change your relationship with alcohol. The thing to keep in mind about all of this is that you’re not alone! Even if you may feel alone at times.
A silver lining in all of this is that it’s never too late to make adjustments to your lifestyle. No matter what your relationship with alcohol has been in the past, you don’t have to maintain those same patterns. You have the power to support your health and well-being during menopause and beyond.