Hormones are most commonly associated with both mood and sexual function. However, these chemical messengers also help regulate a slew of other functions within our bodies, including metabolism, growth and development, blood pressure, energy production and, of course, reproduction.
When this complex system, known as the endocrine system, is firing on all cylinders, the right amounts of hormones are released at the right time, so our organs, muscles, and tissues receive exactly what they need, when they need it, the experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine explain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to throw this whole operation into disarray. Common culprits include stress, changes in diet or exercise, various medications, or inadequate sleep.
However, there could be something you’re drinking (maybe even daily) that’s causing chaos for your delicate endocrine system—especially if you’re a woman. Read on to find out which popular beverage could be throwing your body off kilter.
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Hormone imbalances are just one of many health risks associated with drinking alcohol. According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, large amounts of the substance cause “hormonal disturbances that lead to profound and serious consequences at physiological and behavioral levels.”
While your first couple drinks may release “feel good” hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, persistent drinking can actually hinder a person’s ability to naturally produce these chemicals, and can also increase cortisol levels—the body’s main stress hormone. Alcohol’s impact on hormones also extends into physical health, and men and women’s systems react in different ways.
“Women and men produce hormones differently, and therefore, have different effects as it relates to alcohol consumption,” says Brooke Scheller, Doctor of Clinical Nutrition at Condition Nutrition LLC. “This means that typically women have greater likelihood to experience hormonal effects of alcohol consumption, since we regularly have greater fluctuations of hormones throughout the female cycle.”
A study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism in Sept. 2000 found that even moderate amounts of alcohol can increase estrogen and testosterone levels in pre-menopausal women, while also decreasing progesterone. Drinking alcohol also puts stress on our bodies, which can inhibit hormone production.
“All of these changes can affect our reproductive system, contributing to PMS, irregular periods, missed periods, menopausal symptoms, and more,” says Scheller. “Fertility can also be affected,” she adds, pointing to a 2021 study that discusses the burden alcohol puts on the implantation and ovulation processes, and which found a negative association between alcohol intake and a woman’s odds of conception.
When you drink alcohol, the liver turns its attention to removing alcohol from your blood, rather than doing its job of regulating the body’s insulin and glucagon hormones. Since these hormones help control blood sugar levels, this can cause low blood sugar levels in the short term—and ongoing heavy drinking can lead to hyperglycemia, also known as high blood sugar. For this reason, people with diabetes should be especially cautious when drinking alcohol.
Chronic alcohol consumption can also interfere with the hormones that help regulate calcium absorption and distribution to your bones, causing them to weaken. In more extreme cases, this can also increase the risk of osteoporosis. (It’s worth noting, however, that the opposite may be true for post-menopausal women, due in part to their naturally lower estrogen levels. Since higher estrogen has been shown to increase bone density, studies suggest that light drinking among this group can increase estrogen levels and actually decrease the risk for osteoporosis.)
Drinking alcohol can also increase your breast cancer risk. “Estrogen levels are higher in women who drink alcohol than in non-drinkers,” states the Susan G. Komen Foundation. “Higher estrogen levels are in turn linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.”
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The timing is not an exact science—some hormone-related functions can bounce back faster than others—but in most cases, damage to your hormones due to alcohol can be reversed.
“The timeline may vary depending on the level of alcohol consumption and other factors like stress levels, digestive and gut health, thyroid health, and more,” says Scheller. “Focusing on dietary changes like increasing fiber to improve hormone-balancing, adding in omega 3-rich foods, and even increasing fruit and veggie intake will help improve and balance the system more efficiently.”
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