How Much Alcohol Is Too Much Per Week?Anna Ciulla
Excessive alcohol consumption represents a major problem in the United States, one that imposes an unsustainable socioeconomic burden, harms families, destroys health, ruins reputations, and ends lives with epidemic force. Although social norms within our alcohol-saturated culture frequently paint a misleading portrait of what constitutes “too much alcohol,” the underlying reality of immoderation and abuse among millions simply cannot be denied. In fact, what many people consider “normal,” recreational alcohol consumption is, in reality, a clinically significant disease that may prove fatal if not identified and treated within in a professional context.
Alcohol’s deleterious effect on society has reached outrageous proportions and continues to worsen each year, fueling an increased risk of mental health disorders and elevated stress levels. The following statistics published by various government agencies and health organizations help illustrate the severity of the problem:
- In 2015, The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that approximately 90 percent of people ages 18 or older consumed alcohol at least once within their lifetime.
- Approximately 15 million adults over the age of 18 met the official diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). Among that population, only 7 percent received treatment within the past year.
- Approximately 625,000 adolescents ages 12-17 suffered from AUD, with only five percent receiving treatment within the past year.
- Approximately three-quarters of the total costs associated with alcohol abuse are the result of binge drinking—as defined by men consuming at least five alcoholic beverages within a two hour time span, and women consuming at least four within the same period.
- In 2018, approximately three million deaths were linked to excessive alcohol consumption, which equates to five percent of all global deaths.
- In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that alcohol was responsible for either producing or contributing to over 200 diseases and medical conditions.
- Approximately 10 percent of children in the US live with a parent suffering from untreated alcohol abuse or an officially diagnosed AUD.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 38 million people binge drink at least four times per month, with approximately 6 dying daily from alcohol-poisoning.
- On average, 40 percent of college students admit to regular binge drinking.
- According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), approximately 17 million adults over the age of 18 met the diagnostic criteria for AUD.
- Approximately 30 to 50 percent of people struggling with AUDs simultaneously suffer from depression.
- According to the American Psychological Association (APA), alcohol abuse worsens pre-existing depression while creating new physical, cognitive, and social deficits.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in approximately 30 percent of US suicides, blood alcohol levels (BALs) met or exceeded the legal limit.
- Alcohol-related car crashes, DUI arrests, and insurance claims cost Americans approximately $250 billion annually.
MYTH—THE FRENCH PARADOX
Historically, alcohol consumption has been promoted and normalized by ubiquitous advertising—a billion-dollar industry specializing in predatory sales tactics and sexualized imagery. Over the decades, numerous ‘scientific’ studies appeared to support the notion of light-to-moderate alcohol consumption as beneficial to physical health. However, the legitimacy of these so-called scientific studies has recently been called into question. The fictional notion of alcohol providing a variety of health benefits— which gained traction in the 1990s—was known as the “French Paradox” and was based on the lower rate of cardiovascular disease found in French culture, despite its robust wine intake and a diet rich in saturated fats.
Evidence has since revealed that many other cultural factors separate and apart from alcohol intake are responsible for the improved cardiovascular health among the French population. More importantly, the scientific community is now in almost unanimous agreement that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe—or beneficial—for human consumption. Alcohol is, first and foremost, a potent neurotoxin with far-reaching physical and cognitive effects—even among those who only consume moderate quantities.
CLINICAL GUIDELINES OF ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
According to widely accepted guidelines, “low-risk alcohol consumption” for men is considered four or fewer standard drinks on any given day, and fewer than fourteen per week. Both daily and weekly guidelines must be strictly adhered to in order for someone to fall within official low-risk parameters. Low-risk guidelines for women are determined by three or fewer standard alcoholic drinks per day, and no more than seven per week. Although low-risk guidelines appear to imply relative safety from the toxic effects of alcohol consumption, the reality of such excessive intake paints an entirely different picture. Consider the following blood alcohol content (BAC) chart published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):
- 0.04-.059 percent BAC—results in lower inhibitions and slightly impaired judgment
- 0.1–0.129 percent BAC—results in significant loss of judgment, impaired coordination and hearing, and slurred speech
- 0.13-0.159 percent BAC—results in blurred vision, significant loss of balance and dysphoria
- 0.2-0.249 percent BAC—results in loss of motor skills, disorientation, inability to stand or walk, and vomiting
- 0.25-0.399 percent BAC—results in unconsciousness (black outs) and alcohol poisoning
- 0.4 percent or higher BAC—results in a coma or respiratory failure-induced death
“Binge drinking” is a more immoderate, equally common, and potentially fatal pattern of alcohol abuse that involves men consuming at least five alcoholic beverages within a five hour time-frame, and women consuming at least four within the same time-frame. Binge-drinking is wildly popular on college campuses across America, and frequently results in sexual assault, debilitating accidents, and even fatalities. In fact, numerous clinical studies have confirmed that alcohol consumption in excess of 100 grams per week is associated with lower life expectancy and long-term cognitive deficits. It is also associated with a higher occurrence of mental health problems and mood disorders. In the majority of binge drinkers, this cautionary limit is met or exceeded within a dangerously narrow window of time.
Fortunately, a mere fraction of those who regularly consume alcohol develop moderate or severe alcohol use disorder (AUD), commonly known as alcoholism. However, one doesn’t have to engage in binge drinking to experience the cognition-distorting effects of alcohol.
For example, exceeding the legal limit for impairment when operating a motor vehicle is consistent with the definition of binge drinking in all 50 states; however, one can still be charged with a DUI for having any level of alcohol detectable in their system. Regardless of legal standards, cognitive impairment and decline begin long before the binge-drinking threshold has been officially reached—even in those who have developed a greater tolerance for alcohol.
Certain health risks make the dangers associated with even mild to moderate alcohol consumption more extreme. For example, alcohol intake should be curtailed—or ideally eliminated—in the following people and circumstances:
- Those planning to drive or operate equipment
- Those who are currently pregnant, or preparing for pregnancy
- Those prescribed medications that have contraindications when mixed with alcohol
- Those suffering from cirrhosis, hepatitis, and other serious medical conditions
- Those suffering from pre-existing mental health disorders and/or chronic pain
- Those genetically predisposed to limited (or no) tolerance for alcohol consumption
- Youth who are not fully developed, or seniors who are in an overall state of physical and cognitive decline
HARM REDUCTION STRATEGIES
Many people experience a desire to quit—or reduce—drinking that progresses in stages. At any stage, the process of refraining from drinking can be helped by implementing the following harm reduction strategies:
- Establishing clear drinking limits by predetermining the daily amount of alcohol you will consume and staying within those limits regardless of internal or external triggers.
- Designating at least two days per week for planned abstinence. After becoming comfortable with this routine, gradually increase the time frame to include more days.
- Maintaining a productive schedule that allows for social connection, personal hobbies, sports, community activities and/or volunteer opportunities—all of which reduce the likelihood of drinking as a result of boredom
- Eliminating the presence of alcohol from your home, office, or any other environment in which you have easy access—a symbolic and literal step in the removal of alcohol from your life.
- Tracking any alcohol consumption in a diary or personal log. Reflect upon the findings daily, taking notice of the patterns they indicate.
- Establishing clear social boundaries that include saying “no” whenever you are confronted with peer pressure or triggers.
- Willingness to openly seek the support of family, friends, and loved ones who can help you through the challenging moments on your journey to sobriety.
If you or someone you love are struggling with alcohol addiction and in need of help, call our Florida alcohol treatment center. Alcoholism can affect anyone, at any time, regardless of age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, genetic predisposition, or profession. Alcohol is not a harmless recreational beverage—it is a potent neurotoxin capable of producing fatal consequences among those who abuse it.
As evidence-based research has repeatedly proven, treatment delayed is often treatment lost, and time is a luxury you simply cannot afford. Act now—the life you are saving may be your own!
The Pharmaceutical Journal. Searching for new medicines to treat alcohol addiction. March, 2017.
International Journal of Drug Policy. Overview of harm reduction treatments for alcohol problems. July, 2006.
American Journal of Epidemiology. Stigma and Treatment for Alcohol Disorders in the United States. Dec, 2010.
Journal of Hepatology. Managing excessive alcohol consumption at a population level: The earlier the better. March, 2018.
American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM). Economic Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption in the U.S., 2006. Nov, 2011.