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When it comes to alcohol, the question of “how much is too much?” is an important one to answer. Regardless of whether a person has begun experiencing negative consequences as a result of their drinking or whether they have come to the point where alcohol detox might be beneficial, it is advisable to learn more about one’s patterns and whether or not those patterns fall into a “high-risk” category.
The complications that can occur as a result of unhealthy drinking habits are numerous, and it’s important to note that drinking often involves the potential for experiencing adverse long-term effects of drinking too much alcohol, even if one is not at the point of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or alcoholism.
In this article, we will cover commonly accepted guidelines for what is considered “low-risk” vs. “high-risk” levels and officially answer the question, “how much alcohol is too much?” We will also cover what the risks are and possible ways of reducing these risks. As is the case with most questions of health, guidelines are to be considered exactly that: guidelines. There are many factors that can alter a person’s specific recommended levels of consumption. As such, each individual should plan on making an honest evaluation of his or her experience and history.
What Is A Standard Drink?
A “Standard Drink” is defined according to the NIAAA as, “any drink that contains about 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol.” Ethyl alcohol, or Ethanol, is the type of alcohol found in beverages and is the chemical that causes intoxication. Though alcoholic drinks may vary significantly in size and alcohol content, the following provides a useful comparison of amounts based on the type of drink:
- 12 fl oz. of regular beer (5% alcohol)
- 8-9 fl oz. of malt liquor (7% alcohol)
- 5 fl oz. of table wine (12% alcohol)
- 3-4 fl oz. of fortified wine (17% alcohol)
- 2-3 fl oz. of liqueur or aperitif (24% alcohol)
- 1.5 fl oz. of spirits (40% alcohol)
Again, it’s important to remember that alcohol content will often vary to a surprising degree, even within the same category. For instance, a beer may have 3% alcohol or 8% alcohol and still be considered beer. If you have questions about the alcohol content of a beverage, it is recommended you look at the product label or search online for the answer.
What Is Considered “At-Risk” or “Heavy” Drinking?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has created a standard guideline for what it considers to be “at-risk” or “heavy” drinking for healthy adults. Among those who stay below this threshold, only 2% of drinkers develop Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Again, there are a number of factors that can affect health recommendations for an individual, but the following is useful as a general parameter:
- Men – Four standard drinks or fewer per day and 14 standard drinks or fewer per week.
- Women – Three standard drinks or fewer per day and seven standard drinks or fewer per week.
An important footnote is that, in order to stay below the “at-risk” level, an individual must stay below both the daily and weekly recommended amounts. For instance, an adult male who never has more than four standard drinks in a day but has three standard drinks every day is considered “at-risk.”
As women have been found to develop alcohol-related complications at lower consumption levels than men, their recommended guideline amounts are lower. However, the same principle applies in that they must drink less than both the daily and weekly amounts in order to be classified as “low-risk” drinkers.
“At-Risk” Drinking – A Closer Look
In simple terms, heavy drinking means consuming too much too often. Around one in four people who exceed the above threshold can already be classified as suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder, and those who don’t are at a significantly higher risk of developing AUD or other issues. Individual risks may vary depending on the amount of consumption, health history, and other factors.
The Risks – What Are They?
Many potential risks can arise from drinking at levels exceeding those recommended by the NIAAA. Although it is possible for a person to have been drinking at “heavy” amounts without experiencing any of the following complications, it is important to remember that risk is indeed present, and it only increases with additional levels of consumption.
Numerous studies and research have well documented that alcohol increases your chances of being injured or even killed. According to the NIAAA, alcohol plays a role in around 60% of burn injuries, drownings, and homicides that result in death. “50% of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults and 40% of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and fatal falls” also have alcohol as a factor.
People who drink at heightened levels also carry with them a significantly larger risk of developing or managing some severe health problems. The toll that prolonged excessive alcohol use takes on the body can be severe. Health issues can include many of the following:
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
- Stomach bleeding
- Cancer: oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum
In addition, it’s possible that those with diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, and sleep disorders may have increased difficulty managing these chronic conditions. There also may be a heightened chance of contracting a sexually transmitted disease due to an increase in the likelihood of practicing unsafe sex.
Research has shown that alcohol consumption during pregnancy may directly cause brain damage and other serious health problems in the developing baby. It is currently unknown if even small amounts of alcohol are safe for a fetus. As such, it is strongly recommended that pregnant women do not drink at all, even at a level below that which is considered “at-risk.”
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Alcohol Use Disorder is a medical condition that may affect up to 17 million people in the United States alone. A doctor can diagnose an individual with AUD at the point when his or her drinking has caused distress or harm. For a further discussion of AUD, see below.
Beyond the potential physical and mental health risks of excessive drinking, there is also the possibility of harm being done to the drinker on a personal level. The loss of one’s driver’s license, the loss of a job, and the loss of valuable relationships may all be legitimate and serious consequences of “at-risk” drinking.
Alcohol Use Disorder
What may start as a small number of seemingly isolated and minor symptoms can quickly escalate into Alcohol Use Disorder. If problem drinking is not addressed at the point when symptoms begin to appear, the individual may continue to put himself or herself at greater and greater risk of this serious condition.
The following is a list of symptoms that may occur before or during Alcohol Use Disorder:
- Drinking a greater amount or for a longer duration than intended
- An inability to reduce or stop drinking
- Repeated instances of involvement in situations where alcohol increased the likelihood of injury
- Needing to consume more alcohol than previously in order to achieve the same effect
- Continued drinking in spite of memory blackouts, depression, or anxiety
- Spending large amounts of time drinking alcohol or dealing with its after effects
- Repeated drinking in spite of trouble with family and/or friends
- Alcohol consumption interfering with domestic, professional, or educational responsibilities
- Sacrificing previously enjoyed activities for the sake of drinking
- Repeated arrests and/or legal issues
- Instances of suffering from withdrawal symptoms when stopping drinking
If you have experienced any or multiple of these symptoms, the good news is that it is possible to take certain actions to decrease your level of risk. It may be vital that you begin to minimize the potential negative consequences immediately.
Ways of Reducing Alcohol-Related Risk
If an individual is experiencing negative consequences from excessive drinking, it may be necessary for him or her to take the steps necessary to reduce the possibility of developing Alcohol Use Disorder. The three main options are as follows:
Keep Alcohol Consumption Below “At-Risk” Levels
While drinking habits can often prove difficult to change or break, a person who drinks excessively over a prolonged period of time may be placing him or herself at considerable risk of serious complication. An essential first step can be to reduce alcohol consumption to within Low or No-Risk limits.
There are many instances where, for the sake of his or her wellbeing, an individual’s safest course of action may be to quit alcohol entirely. This can be a challenge. A positive is that there exists a wealth of resources, support groups, and programs that can help a person who has made the decision to stop drinking. Just remember, if a person is already dependent, quitting alcohol cold turkey can actually be dangerous to the individual.
Follow Safety Precautions
If an individual is not ready to quit alcohol entirely or reduce their consumption to low-risk levels, there are at least a couple of measures they can take to remain as safe as possible:
- Pacing Yourself – to help minimize the risk of consuming too many drinks, try limiting yourself to no more than one standard drink per hour.
- Safety Measures – when drinking, utilize a designated driver or taxi to avoid driving under the influence; find ways of practicing safe sex; stay away from heavy machinery or potentially dangerous areas.
In addressing the question of how much alcohol is too much, it is also important to discuss the risks and potential consequences of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is the severe and sometimes fatal result of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol in a condensed period of time.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the potential signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning could include:
- Slow Breathing (less than eight breaths per minute)
- Irregular Breathing (ten or more seconds in between breaths)
- Blue-tinged or Pale Skin
- Low Body Temperature (hypothermia)
- Passing Out (unconsciousness)
It is important to note that a person suffering from alcohol poisoning may not exhibit all of the signs and symptoms listed above. An individual suffering from alcohol poisoning requires immediate medical attention. Alcohol poisoning is an emergency. If you believe someone has alcohol poisoning, contact emergency medical services immediately.
Health Complications Of Alcohol Poisoning
The consequences of alcohol poisoning can be deadly. The list of potentially dangerous effects that can be caused by alcohol poisoning is lengthy, but it includes the following specifically:
- Cessation of breathing
- Severe dehydration
- Irregular heartbeat
- Brain damage
One of the major potential causes of alcohol poisoning is a phenomenon known as binge drinking. It can be defined as a situation in which an individual has consumed a large amount of alcohol in a condensed period of time. Once this behavior has started, it can be difficult for the user to know how to stop binge drinking altogether. Episodes of binge drinking can occur over a period of hours or even days. Specifically, the definition is as follows:
- Men – Consuming five or more drinks in two hours or less
- Women – Consuming four or more drinks in two hours or less
It is possible to consume a lethal level of alcohol before becoming unconscious. The body may continue to release alcohol from the gastrointestinal tract into a person’s bloodstream, even if the person has stopped drinking.
Too Much Alcohol
The human body absorbs alcohol into the bloodstream quickly – much quicker than food or other nutrients. It also takes the body a more considerable amount of time to dispel alcohol from the bloodstream. As such, it can be important to remain cautious when drinking to not consume alcohol too quickly. The more a person drinks in a shorter period of time, the higher the risk level for alcohol poisoning and its potentially catastrophic consequences.
Risk factors for alcohol poisoning include:
- The person’s size and weight
- The person’s overall health
- Whether or not the person has eaten recently
- Whether or not the person is combining alcohol with other drugs
- The percentage of alcohol in a given drink
- Tolerance level
- The rate and amount of consumption
The risks of excessive drinking can be serious and may vary according to a number of factors. While guidelines exist that can help a person process whether or not they might have problematic drinking habits, it is recommended that each person take an individualized approach to assess their history and experience, possibly in consultation with a doctor.
If a person does find that they have a problem with drinking, the good news is that there exists a variety of helpful solutions and support structures that can assist him or her with this challenge. The consequences of “at-risk” drinking can be serious. It’s important to put your health and wellbeing first.
- How much alcohol is too much? Very well Mind.
- How Much is Too Much? NIAAA.
- Alcohol Poisoning. Mayo Clinic.