Laura Allahverdi thought nothing of getting into the driver’s seat one evening in October 2004 after having two vodka cranberries.
“I didn’t feel intoxicated at all,” says the 29-year-old life coach, who waited two hours after drinking before leaving the bar. Heading home in Suffolk County, N.Y., she was surprised when a police officer pulled her over. When he requested that she take a Breathalyzer test, Allahverdi complied—and learned that she’d registered a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of a little over 0.08, the legal limit nationwide.
“He handcuffed me and put me in his car,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.” Just two drinks cost her a night in jail and an automatic license-suspension.
Like Allahverdi, you’d probably never dream of getting behind the wheel if you were drunk. Yet the number of women arrested for driving while intoxicated increased by 31.5 percent between 2000 and 2009. Now, more than ever, we’re drinking socially, and not just on a Saturday night out; we’re reaching for that Pinot or Pomtini to liven up book clubs and our kids’ afternoon play dates. Meanwhile, study after study tells us drinking may protect against illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, making that nightly glass of wine feel like a good-for-you habit.
While experts agree that moderate drinking may have benefits, they also note that women have to be especially careful about how much they consume. Alcohol goes wherever there’s water in your body—your tissues, your organs, your bloodstream. Generally, the more you weigh, the more water you contain, and the more quickly and/or easily alcohol is diluted in your system, meaning men (who tend to be bigger) will feel its effects less than women.
Women also have a higher fat-to-water ratio than men do. So a 150-pound man holds more water than a 150-pound woman; after one drink, the woman will have a higher concentration of booze in her blood. That leads to greater intoxication. And her liver has to work harder to metabolize that alcohol, prolonging her buzz.
“For every drink a woman has, it’s the equivalent of a drink and a half for a same-sized man,” says Dr. Harold Urschel, author of Healing the Addicted Brain and chief medical strategist at Enterhealth Ranch substance-abuse center in Dallas.