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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 19:01 GMT
Why alcohol acts faster on women
Female drinker
Female hormones accentuate the effect of alcohol
Hormones help women chill out faster when they drink alcohol, scientists have found.

Researchers have discovered that alcohol makes people relax by stimulating production of a brain chemical produced from the female reproductive hormone progesterone.

They believe this is why alcohol tends to have a more rapid effect on women.

New Scientist magazine reports that alcohol appears to interact with two brain receptors, one of which, the GABA receptor, is exploited by tranquillisers such as Valium.

Animal studies show that stress increases levels of the brain steroid allopregnanolone, which acts on the GABA receptor to reduce anxiety.

Alcohol triggers the release of stress hormones like corticosterone and progesterone.

A team from the University of North Carolina examined whether this also led to an increase in levels of allopregnanolone.

They gave rats moderate doses of ethanol roughly equivalent to the amount of alcohol typically consumed at a cocktail party.

Dramatically increased levels

After 20 minutes the rats given alcohol were found to have dramatically increased levels of allopregnanolone when compared to rats who were given a simple salt solution.

To test whether the steroid was responsible for the sedative effect of alcohol, the researchers treated rats with a drug called finasteride, which blocks the formation of allopregnanolone from progesterone.

By measuring subsequent brain activity they found that alcohol no longer had the same sedative effect.

Researcher Dr Leslie Morrow said: "We think that allopregnanolone is very important for the anticonvulsant and sedative effects of alcohol."

Dr Morrow said that women probably need to drink less to get the rewarding effects of alcohol because they naturally have higher levels of the steroid.

This could also explain why women are less likely to become alcoholics than men.

Previous research has shown that female rats were more likely to drink ethanol during a phase in their reproductive cycle when progesterone levels are relatively low.

Andrew McNeill, co-director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: "Almost universally women as a group drink less than men as a group, but this is probably due to a mix of social and culture factors as well as biological factors."

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