Many people enjoy a drink every now and then.
They might have a few cold beers during a picnic on the beach, or a glass of wine with dinner. Drinking alcohol is common and for most of us, it’s an occasional enjoyment that causes few issues in our lives.
However, where does the distinction fall between casually enjoying a drink and unhealthy binge drinking? When does alcohol use go over the line from moderate and enjoyable to a serious problem? If excess drinking becomes an issue for you – what should you do?
Let’s take a look at the health effects of binge drinking and what you can do if you think it’s an issue for yourself or a loved one.
Binge Drinking is a serious health concern that can lead to significant issues. The word ‘binge’ means to indulge in an activity to excess – and it’s the excessiveness of the drinking habit that is the main issue here.
The question of how much is too much will be slightly different for everyone. However, it’s important to think seriously and critically about whether your alcohol use is negatively affecting your life.
An estimated 88,000 people in the USA die of alcohol related causes every year. This means that alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the USA, after tobacco and poor diet/lack of physical activity.1
Causes of Preventable Deaths in the U.S.*
* numbers are annual estimates and the listed causes do not account for all preventable deaths in the U.S.
When moderate enjoyment of alcohol ends, the harmful habit of binge drinking begins.
Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed drugs in the USA. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration2, around two thirds of people over the age of 12 reported drinking alcohol in the prior 12 months.
But what is the difference between having a drink or two – and binge drinking? According to the CDC, binge drinking is when your blood alcohol content reaches 0.08% or above3.
For the typical adult man, this usually includes drinking five or more alcoholic beverages within two hours. For the average adult woman, this level is reached after four or more alcoholic drinks in the same amount of time.
Alcohol abuse is defined as having five or more binge drinking sessions in a month. Following a binge drinking session, you may experience shakes or cravings for alcohol. When you start drinking again, you might find it harder to stop until you are very inebriated.
There’s a common misconception out there that for binge drinking to be considered alcohol abuse, your life must be falling apart. Binge drinking is also associated with immature young adults in their high school or college years. However, many binge drinkers are functioning adults.3
They can have steady jobs and may even be highly successful. Doctors, lawyers, professors and other members of well-regarded professions may be binge drinkers. A binge drinker doesn’t necessarily drink every day, so their alcohol intake might not seem problematic.
They might act as if they have everything under control – and might genuinely feel that their drinking is not a problem. However, binge drinking can be a persistent concern that may become worse during periods of stress – and has wide-reaching health effects.
You commonly drink more alcohol than intended. Maybe you meet a friend for a beer or two in the afternoon, then keep on drinking for the rest of the evening.
You find yourself drunkenly engaging in risky behaviors, such as driving, gambling, unsafe sex and violence.
You often want to play drinking games where alcohol consumption becomes a competition.
Extreme hangovers become more and more commonplace. (This is especially true for older drinkers.)
You often make excuses for your drinking and find yourself being defensive of your behavior.
You have experienced blackouts or memory loss associated with drinking.
Other people have commented on how much you drink.
You have forsaken other hobbies and responsibilities to make time for more drinking.
A habit of binge drinking will have serious negative repercussions on your body over time. Some of the effects can include:
When you binge drink, you’re also increasing your liver damage and your risk of alcohol-related liver disease5. The liver is one of the most complex organs in the body and it is responsible for filtering toxins out of your blood, helping you digest food, regulating your blood sugar levels and helping you fight infection and disease.
Your liver is resilient and regenerates itself continuously. However, if you binge drink too much, over time your liver will lose its ability to regenerate. This leads to Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, which can develop into Alcoholic Hepatitis, which is a serious and life-threatening illness.
Alcoholic Hepatitis is usually reversible if you stop drinking permanently. However, binge drinking continues it will lead to Cirrhosis — which is a much more serious condition where the liver is significantly scarred.
Heavy alcohol use increases your risk of developing cancer. As the Mayo Clinic explains, cancer is caused by mutations in DNA6. These errors within the DNA disrupt the functioning of the cell and result in it becoming cancerous by making abnormal cells divide more rapidly than they normally would.
According to the American Cancer Society, heavy use of alcohol can result in an increased risk to develop numerous forms of cancer. This includes cancer of the kidneys, liver, stomach, throat, esophagus, breast and colon.7
High blood pressure is the most significant risk factor for stroke – and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol raises your blood pressure8. Therefore, binge drinking has the effect of significantly increasing the stress on your blood vessels – making bleeding in the brain more likely.
Heavy drinking can cause issues with the digestive system – including acid reflux, stomach ulcers, inflammation and heartburn. This is because alcohol impairs the secretion of gastric acid within the digestive system.
This damage to the digestive system can sometimes lead to dangerous internal bleeding from the enlarged veins in the esophagus, which is related to chronic liver disease9.
Chronic binge drinking, especially during young adulthood, can dramatically affect your bone health. It can increase your risk of developing osteoporosis and cause a loss of bone mass later in life10.
This is because alcohol decreases your ability to process calcium and produce vitamin D, which are essential for strong bone structure.
Binge drinking not only has an effect on your body, it also takes its toll on your brain. Here are some of the effects binge drinking can have on your mental health.
Alcohol is a depressant. It actually affects the chemistry of the brain, which can increase your risk of being depressed. It’s a downward cycle. You feel depressed or stressed, so you drink to relax and numb the pain. Then, you wake up with a hangover feeling ill, jittery and anxious and the cycle continues.
Most heavy drinkers with depression find that they start to feel better within only a few weeks of cutting out alcohol11. If you find that the depression is still with you after four weeks of not drinking, you should talk to your GP about further treatment.
There is a strong connection between binge drinking and anxiety. Like depression, many people often drink to relieve anxiety – but it often only makes it worse. While the alcohol reduces anxiety temporarily, it can also increase anxiety within only a few hours of consumption.
This includes even moderate amounts of alcohol – and the effects of anxiety can last well into the following day. According to a study done by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, there is a connection between alcoholism and anxiety on a molecular level12.
Heavy alcohol use actually rewires the brain circuitry, impairing the brain’s ability to react to trauma in a healthy way and overcome fear.
Memory loss and amnesia are also side effects of binge drinking. If you have ever blacked out from drinking too much, it means you were conscious but your brain was not capable of forming long term memories13. Binge drinking is more likely to cause this than steady, moderate drinking – as it entails a sudden spike in alcohol levels.
In these states, you may be awake and alert – able to walk around and hold conversations. But you may forget those conversations almost immediately and you’ll have large gaps in your memory the next day.
In other words, your brain can still process information, but the alcohol is affecting the memory-building receptors in the brain. (This is why you may sometimes be able to remember events of the previous night when someone describes them to you. The reminder can be enough to trigger the memory.)
Since alcohol lowers your inhibitions, these blackouts can cause you to do or say things that you might not while sober. You might be more likely to engage in risky behavior, have unsafe sex, get into fights or do things that damage your relationships and reputation.
This is a type of dementia that is linked to heavy alcohol use14. It is a neurological condition that creates gaps in your memory. It is caused by brain damage due to a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency.
There are two different syndromes within this disease. Wernicke’s Encephalopathy is a severe and short-lived disease with symptoms that include reduced muscle coordination, mental confusion and paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes.
Korsakoff Psychosis is the more long lasting, chronic stage of the disease. It comes with forgetfulness, problems with learning, poor coordination and difficulty walking. Usually people get the symptoms of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy first, then it develops into Korsakoff Syndrome.
If you think you have a binge drinking problem, the first step is to be honest with yourself. Write down exactly how much you drink – the amount, frequency and type of alcohol. Also, make a note of how you feel before, during and after drinking – as well as the environments and situations where you drink the most.
Your body can only process one unit of alcohol per hour. A unit is equal to 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol.
General advice is to avoid drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week on a regular basis. With this in mind, you may be able to cut back your drinking levels on your own. Alternate with water or non-alcoholic drinks and designate several drink-free nights per week. You might find that you have just as much fun socializing – without the negative health effects and hangovers.
However, if you struggle to reduce your drinking habits on your own – you might need professional help. A rehab center can guide you and provide you with the tools and resources you need to get back into a healthy space.
Remember that changing your habits and your lifestyle is always a challenge and can take a lot of time. Be patient with yourself as you make changes. You won’t start to get better overnight, but if you stick with it you’ll slowly start to feel your mind and body heal.
If someone you love has a problem with binge drinking, it can be difficult to convince them to get the help they need. Sometimes the most challenging part is to get past their denial, as they may insist they don’t have a problem15.
It’s important to remember that you can’t force them to change their behavior. The only one who can make the decision to change is your loved one. The best thing to do in this situation is to present them with your concerns in a helpful and loving way, in the hopes they will see the situation clearly and get the help they need.
It might help to gather information about the effects of alcohol and the signs of alcohol misuse, so you can show them the facts. Also, make sure you time the conversation well. If you approach them when they have been drinking or when they are already stressed – they may not react well. Open up the dialogue at a time when they are feeling clear-headed and well-rested.
Let your loved one know that your concern comes from a place of care for them. You love them and you want them to be happy and thriving – and you’re here to support them. Remember that they might be defensive, so don’t push too hard or they may become closed off or hide their habits from you.
With every gentle conversation, you’re planting a seed and letting them know that you’re there for them whenever they are ready to make a change.