Heavy drinking among Americans has been on the ascend over the past decade. And we’re not just talking about having an extra glass of wine at dinner. A dangerous aspect of the trend: excessive alcohol consumption. A 2015 study shows that more than 37 million Americans reported consuming alcohol in a year.
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In the study, researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at the results of surveys of more than 400,000 Americans. They found that 17% of American adults drank excessively, on average 53 times a year, or more than once a week.
This trend always turns out to be a problem. And a plus recent study from 2021 showed that heavy drinkers are more likely to abuse other substances as well, such as prescription drug abuse.
The dangers of excessive alcohol consumption can leave a lasting impact in many ways. But in the end, how do you know if you, or a loved one, are drinking heavily? And how to tackle it head-on?
Addiction Specialist David Streem, MDexplains the signs to look for.
What is excessive alcohol consumption?
Heavy drinking is beyond casual beer after work. But the definition of what constitutes a heavy drinking episode may surprise you.
The CDC defines an episode of binge drinking as at least four drinks for women or five drinks for men over a two-hour period. This is enough to raise your blood alcohol level to 0.08, which would result in impaired driving.
Results from the 2015 study showed that Americans consumed about seven drinks during each binge drinking episode.
“When you consider the minimum definition of binge drinking to be four or five drinks per two-hour session, that’s much higher,” says Dr. Streem. “It’s a frequency that is remarkable.”
Who binges drinks?
There could also be other factors related to excessive alcohol consumption. According to the CDC, heavy drinking is more common in:
- Young adults aged 18 to 34.
- Men than women.
- Adults with higher household incomes.
How much does a drink cost?
In order to know how much alcohol you’re consuming, it’s good to understand how much goes into a drink you pour yourself. As there are many types of malts, liquors and wines, it is important to pay attention to labels and serving sizes.
the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines a standard drink as:
- A 12 ounce beer (usually around 5% alcohol).
- A 5 ounce glass of wine (usually around 12% alcohol).
- 1.5 ounces of distilled alcohol (usually about 40% alcohol).
Excessive alcohol consumption vs alcoholism
Excessive alcohol consumption is not necessarily an indicator that you or a loved one has alcohol use disorder (also known as alcoholism), which is an addiction to the consumption of alcohol.
Unlike binge drinking, the problem of alcohol use disorder is not measured by a particular number of drinks. Instead, the CDC defines it as a chronic condition, meaning it’s a type of illness that persists over a long period of time. So, while there are similarities, alcohol use disorder should be addressed with a specific treatment plan that includes rehabilitation, care from addiction specialists, and self-help programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
But alcoholism and excessive alcohol consumption can have similar health consequences.
The main indicator of a heavy drinking episode is having four to five drinks (or more) in two hours. It is not related to alcohol addiction and the CDC considers it a preventable problem.
If you are concerned that you or someone close to you has a problem with excessive drinking, other signs include:
- Fainting frequently or having lapses in your memory.
- Feeling guilty or worrying about drinking too much.
- Having legal problems because of your drinking.
- Feeling tired or irritable after a night out.
- Feeling defensive about how much alcohol you drink.
- Drink more than originally planned.
- Drink early in the day.
- Substitute drinking for other activities you enjoy or center many of your weekend plans around going to the bar or drinking.
Excessive alcohol consumption can also cause immediate damage. What many people might consider a fun night out on the town can be very risky — or, in some cases, life-threatening, Dr. Streem notes. More than half of all alcohol-related deaths are caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
How does excessive alcohol consumption affect your health?
There are multiple health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption. While the dangers of driving while intoxicated may seem obvious, Dr Streem says it’s possible to be injured or even die after excessive alcohol consumption from falls and other incidents that arise due to a lack of judgment.
“The main factors that cause problems are our judgment, attention and reaction time,” he says.
As far as long-term effects go, binge drinking can also lead to internal damage, especially if you regularly engage in bouts of binge drinking. Large amounts of alcohol consumed over a long period of time can negatively impact the parts of your brain that deal with judgment, balance, and coordination.
Other long-term health effects that can result from excessive alcohol consumption include:
Excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol poisoning
As binge drinking involves consuming much higher amounts of alcohol, the health impact can be more severe. Another common and more immediate effect of excessive alcohol consumption is alcohol poisoning. This is when your blood alcohol level is so high that your body is not able to eliminate toxins fast enough. Essentially, you’re overdosing on alcohol.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Confusion and lack of coordination.
- Difficulty staying conscious.
- Irregular pulse, breathing, or heartbeat.
- Convulsions, vomiting or choking.
“Because blood alcohol levels get much higher with heavy drinking, you’re at much greater risk for acute alcohol toxicity,” says Dr. Stream.
How to avoid the risks of excessive alcohol consumption
The bottom line, according to Dr. Streem, is that Americans need to drink less alcohol.
“In general, Americans drink too much,” he says. “We would be well served as a nation, both in terms of health and safety and quality of life, if we drank less.”
The good news is that binge drinking can be avoided by adjusting your habits and being more intentional when pouring yourself a drink.
Here are some steps you can follow:
- Pay attention to the labeling and alcohol content of each drink.
- Be aware of how long alcohol stays in your body.
- Consider doing a dry January or a break to allow your body to recover.
- Contact a doctor or counselor if you indulge in excessive alcohol consumption.
The full results of the 2015 study are available in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.