Because alcohol is legal we don’t think of it as a “drug.” We also think that there are two kinds of drinkers: alcoholics and people who have a glass of wine at dinner.
But actually, most Americans fall in between. They drink alcohol a few times during the week, then consume much more on weekends, according to research reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About a third of Americans drink “excessively,” defined as consuming 15 or more drinks a week for men and 8 for women — counting 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of spirits as a drink.
So let’s say a woman has a glass of wine at dinner Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Saturday night she has the wine, a cocktail after dinner, and then another wine. At Sunday brunch she has another cocktail.
She’s drinking too much.
If she has three wines and a cocktail and a beer on Saturday night, she’s gone on a binge.
How drunk you’ll get from alcohol depends on your size. If you’re a smallish woman, you can drink even less safely.
Most people who drink too much by these definitions aren’t alcoholics or dependent on alcohol. They won’t have withdrawal symptoms if they stop.
However, the number of people who feel their drinking is out of hand is bigger than you’d guess. Nearly 27 percent of young adults under 30 have told pollsters that they had trouble managing their drinking in the past year, in a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. That may be because teenagers are drinking more and sooner and carry the habit into their twenties.
Among 30 to 44 year olds, 16 percent reported problems within the last year.
And nearly 30 percent of Americans — 68 million people — say they had enough trouble with drinking to consider it a problem at one time in their lives. For men, that figure was 36 percent, women 23 percent.
The official term used by psychiatrists is now “alcohol use disorder," combining alcohol abuse and dependence.
People who end up drinking too much are likely to have their binge drinking nights. A binge is any more than five drinks in one sitting for men and more than four for women. According to the CDC, more than 38 million American adults say that, on average, they binge drink four times a month, consuming eight drinks in one binge. The more often you do this, the greater the damage to your health. The night after a binge, your immune system is down so you’d likely have more trouble fighting off an infection. Too much alcohol over time damages your immune system, nervous system, heart, liver, and pancreas. It can also weaken your bones, placing you at greater risk of breaking them. Even just heavy drinking when you’re young can increase your risk of osteoporosis later in life. A history of overdoing alcohol is associated with everything from high blood pressure and stroke to dementia and various cancers.
Six Americans die every day from alcohol poisoning. Don’t forget the risk of falls, fighting with friends and family, slipping at school or at work — and driving. Someone dies every hour from an accident involving a tipsy or drunk driver.
Alcohol is also loading up our waistlines. It contributes 16 percent of the total calories consumed by adult Americans who drink alcohol on average, about the same portion that kids get from sugar, according to a CDC analysis. Alcohol counts as an “added sugar,” and under the latest government guidelines, we’re supposed to limit all of our added sugars to 10 percent of our calories.
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA