WinWin — Does alcohol affect girls differently to boys?
Jenny — Yes, right from the start. Neuroscientist Susan Tapert of the University of California has described ‘little dings’ in white matter (the nerve tissue that is responsible for relaying information between cells) when her team examined the brain scans of heavy-drinking 12- to 14-year-olds.
In girls, the effect of this damage tends to be poor performance in spatial functioning. That means navigation, recognition of faces and scenes, and the observation of fine details. Boys tend to fare worse on focusing their attention.
Males and females process substances very differently. It’s not just down to body mass. Females have lower concentrations of an enzyme that metabolises alcohol in the stomach, and that means more alcohol enters their bloodstream. Females also generally have lower body-water content, and so the effects of alcohol – or any other drug – are not as diluted and are more potent.
Lastly, the fact that females generally have a lower muscle-to-fat ratio than males means they’re likely to be more affected too, because blood flows through muscle tissue, but not so much through fat.
WW — What exactly is a blackout?
J — A blackout is a loss of time. You will never remember what has happened in a blackout, because you never committed the event to short-term memory in the first place.
A large quantity of alcohol can block the NMDA receptors in the hippocampus. These transmit glutamate, which carries signals between neurons, and blocking them prevents formation of memory. A person in a blackout could be wandering along train tracks and notice a train is coming, but lack the subsequent synaptic connections needed to then think “so I’d better get out of the way”. It’s like you’re swinging from vine to vine of awareness and when you look behind you there’s nothing there anymore.
You’re more likely to black out if you drink fast and skip meals, but being tired or having your period won’t help either.
WW — How do I help my friend who has had too much? Can she sober up somehow?
J — Encourage each other to drink water between drinks, or stop all together. Coffee won’t really help, so just get your friend home safely as soon as possible.
If you know you’re going to drink it’s a good idea to have a buddy system, where you and your mate(s) pledge to look out for each other.
Be sure to keep track of each other.
WW — What is drink spiking? How can I make sure my drink doesn’t get spiked?
The vast majority of drink spiking is not when someone slips something into your drink; it’s when someone buys or pours you a drink that is way stronger than you realise.
Don’t let someone buy you a drink without observing what they’re doing. They may be ordering you a triple, not a single. It’s also a good idea to keep your drink with you at all times.
WW — You said alcohol affects women when they have their period. Could you explain that?
J — Not many girls know this, but whatever point you’re at in your menstrual cycle will hugely influence how affected by alcohol you are.
During your period, the fatigue and low resilience of heavy-flow days are likely to hasten the effects of alcohol.
Due to low levels of estrogen and testosterone, things also hurt more. That includes hangovers. The week after your period is the follicular phase and you have rising estrogen levels, which makes alcohol more attractive to you because you’re feeling more impulsive. Then, in week three – after ovulation – that wears off some. You now have rising levels of progesterone, and that makes you less full of urges. Finally, in week four – when you’re premenstrual – you’ll probably crave alcohol again because you’re craving carbohydrates… and you may also be craving comfort!
WW — I want to go out and have fun, but I don’t want to get drunk. How much is too much?
J — Good move – there’s only a very small window of time when you’ll be at your optimum happy tipsy-time anyway. Then things start heading south fast! Drink slowly and alternate with water, which should also prevent you from getting a hangover.
Be mindful of every sip. ENJOY it.
Because it’s mindless drinking – knocking those drinks back when you’re distracted with conversation or trying to keep up with faster drinkers – that can lead you into trouble.