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When Drinking Alcohol Becomes A Problem: How Much Is Too Much?

Published on September 23, 2020
How much alcohol is too much?

Most people enjoy moderate drinking habits with no problems, but when does a glass of wine with dinner or a celebratory drink with friends become a health problem? 

Especially during the lockdowns and restrictions of COVID-19, it helps to understand how much alcohol is too much. 

What Counts As A Standard Drink?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends no more than one standard drink per day for women, and no more than two standard drinks daily for men. 

According to the CDC, a standard drink is:

  • a 12-ounce regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol content)
  • an eight-ounce glass of malt liquor or craft beer (about 7 percent alcohol content)
  • a five-ounce glass of wine (about 12 percent alcohol content)
  • One 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits like whisky or rum, including use in a mixed drink (about 40 percent alcohol content)

Signs Of A Drinking Problem

Not everyone at risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD) has all of the signs of problem drinking, but consider some questions that could signify an alcohol problem. Two or more “yes” answers could suggest a diagnosis of AUD.

In the past year, have you or your loved one:

  • Ended up drinking more or for a longer time than planned?
  • Tried to stop drinking or cut back on drinking, but failed?
  • Spent significant time drinking alcohol, or dealing with a hangover?
  • Experienced cravings or urges to drink?
  • Had work, school, or family problems because of drinking?
  • Given up favorite activities that used to be important?
  • Gotten into an accident while driving or using machinery under the effects of alcohol?
  • Continued to drink even though you did not enjoy it or felt ill?
  • Experienced a memory “blackout?”
  • Needed to drink more to feel the same effect you did with fewer drinks?
  • Felt restless, shaky, irritable, or depressed when the effects of alcohol wore off?

Does Daily Alcohol Consumption Equal A Drinking Problem?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), not everyone who drinks daily has a problem with alcohol. A small amount of alcohol each day, such as a single glass of wine with dinner or a single regular-strength beer in the afternoon, can fit into NIAAA guidelines.

What Are The Stages Of Alcoholism?

The stages of alcoholism show how the motivation to drink alcohol changes over time. According to the NIAAA, there are three biological stages of alcohol use disorders (AUD):

  • Binge/Intoxication Stage: featuring a loss of control over alcohol intake because the brain is seeking more alcohol to trigger its internal reward system
  • Withdrawal/Negative Affect Stage: positive rewards are no longer present for drinking. Instead, people drink alcohol to avoid negative emotional and physical consequences
  • Preoccupation/Anticipation Stage: physical cravings cause a compulsion to seek out alcohol consumption regardless of positive or negative consequences

Understanding the stages has helped to identify how the brain changes with repeated heavy drinking. It has also helped to develop more effective methods of treatment for AUD, including medications to relieve symptoms and lower alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Abuse Risk Factors

Whether you’re drinking too much is influenced by many factors, including the alcohol content in a standard drink, your patterns of drinking habits, and your gender or other physical differences.

Any amount of alcohol could cause physical and mental health risks, according to the NIH. 

There are some standard risk factors for problem drinking, including regular heavy drinking over time or binge drinking as a young adult, but there are also individual differences. Risk factors can change with time or put you at an increased risk of health problems or AUD.

Binge & Heavy Drinking

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking more than one drink at a time, with the intent of intoxication. The NIAAA defines binge drinking as four drinks at one time for women, and five drinks at a time for men. 

People with smaller body sizes or lower tolerance could require fewer alcoholic beverages to achieve intoxication.

Excessive drinking doesn’t have to be linked to a desire to become intoxicated. Men who have more than four drinks a day, and women who have more than three drinks a day, are engaging in heavy drinking.

Health Risks Of Heavy Drinking

Most people know that car accidents are one of the major risks of drinking too much. But drunk driving risks are just the start. The NIAAA reports that alcohol plays a role in about 60 percent of fatal burns, homicides, and drowning accidents. 

Alcohol also plays a role in 60 percent of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults, and is involved in 40 percent of fatal car accidents, falls, and suicides.

Health problems resulting from excessive drinking can be life-threatening as well. Just one drink a day increases women’s breast cancer risk. 

Heavy drinking can also cause health conditions like: 

  • liver disease 
  • brain damage
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • immune system problems
  • several types of cancer, including mouth, larynx, and colon cancer

Pregnancy

Alcohol use during pregnancy is especially risky and can lead to severe medical conditions. It can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which can cause serious cognitive, behavioral, and physical disabilities. 

No level of alcohol use, including moderate alcohol consumption, is safe for a pregnant woman and growing baby.

Mental Health

Drinking too much can harm family, work, and community relationships. It can also cause depression, or make pre-existing depression or other mental health conditions worse. 

If you feel you or a loved one is drinking too much, help is available. You can find individualized care for alcohol abuse at Ark Behavioral Health

Reach out to speak with one of our substance abuse treatment specialists today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Alcohol Questions and Answers
National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Rethinking Drinking - Genetics Of Alcohol Use Disorder
National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Rethinking Drinking - What Are The Different Drinking Levels?
National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Rethinking Drinking - What Are The Risks?
National Institutes Of Health - When Does Drinking Become A Problem?

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