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Male vs. Female Metabolism of Alcohol In DUI Cases

It has been known to DUI lawyers for some time that women are generally more susceptible to the effects of alcohol than men. This has generally been explained by pointing out that women are smaller and have relatively more fat and less water than men. But recent research seems to indicate that a more important reason may be that women have significantly lower amounts of an enzyme that provides a protective barrier in the stomach by breaking alcohol down before it circulates into the body.

An article appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 11, 1990, page A27, recounted how scientists at the University School of Medicine in Trieste, Italy, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bronx, New York, found that the stomach lining contains an enzyme called gastric alcohol dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol. To determine the effects of the enzyme, they administered alcohol both orally and intravenously (i.e., bypassing the stomach) to a group of 14 nonalcoholic men, 6 alcoholic men, 17 nonalcoholic women, and 6 alcoholic women.

There were two interesting results. First, in both the nonalcoholic and alcoholic groups, women had higher blood-alcohol concentrations than men after ingesting an equivalent dose of ethanol; by contrast, there were no differences when the ethanol was taken intravenously. With weight differences taken into account, the researchers found that women became legally intoxicated after consuming 20 to 30 percent less alcohol than men; absent allowance for weight, an average-size woman reaches a given blood-alcohol level after consuming about 50 percent less alcohol than a man consumes to reach that level.

Second, the alcoholic men and women had significantly higher BAC levels after oral ingestion than the nonalcoholic men and women; the levels reached by alcoholic women indicated a nearly total absence of the protective enzyme in their stomachs.

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