Why So Many Americans Fall Between Moderate Drinking and Alcoholism
Defining Moderate, Heavy and Alcoholic Drinking Habits
Alcohol use has become a regular part of modern-day society. Whether you are enjoying a holiday, socializing with family and friends, or finding a way to decompress, many Americans will turn to alcohol in various situations. While some can engage in healthy alcohol consumption through moderation, others’ drinking behaviors can progress into heavy drinking that risks the individual becoming an alcoholic. Knowing the difference between moderate drinking, heavy drinking, and alcoholic drinking behaviors is essential to be mindful of your drinking habits and if they have become problematic or when it is time to reach out for help for your drinking.
It is to be intentional and mindful of how much alcohol you consume for moderate drinking. While the dietary guidelines for Americans suggest that individuals consume no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink or less for women. While others doctors recommend following the 1 2 3 rule, which is one drink every hour, no more than two at one time, and limiting alcohol consumption to three times a month.
The opposite of moderate drinking is heavy drinking, otherwise known as binge drinking, which is defined as drinking an excessive amount of alcohol within a short period. Binge drinkers typically will not engage in daily drinking habits and can have days of abstinence. Often, we see binge drinkers engaging in alcohol consumption over the weekend or during holidays or special occasions. During this time, the person intends to drink alcohol to excess to become intoxicated.
There can be a fine line between heavy drinking and moving into alcohol addiction. Alcoholism is characterized by engaging in heavy or binge drinking behaviors even after it has started to have negative impacts on your life. Often, individuals will identify that they want to quit drinking or attempt to cut down on their drinking habits but cannot do so.
How Many Drinks Is Too Many?
When you are trying to find a healthy balance with alcohol use, you will want to know how many drinks are too many to consume. However, each person’s perception of what constitutes a single drink may vary from person to person and various alcoholic beverages. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has developed a set of standards to outline what defines one alcoholic beverage. The NIAA states the following are defined as one alcoholic beverage:
- 5 oz of table wine with a 12% volume of alcohol
- 12 oz of beer with a 5% volume of alcohol
- 1.5 oz (a shot) of 80 proof distilled spirits at a 40% volume of alcohol
- 8-9 oz of malt liquor with a 7% volume of alcohol
Knowing how many drinks are too many includes various factors and depends on your genetic, biological makeup. These factors can be challenging in creating a standard outline for appropriate, healthy alcohol consumption as each person is different.
Physicians have said that heavy or binge drinking differs between men and women. Men are considered heavy drinkers if they consume more than four drinks a day and more than 14 drinks in a week. Whereas, for women, if you consume more than three drinks in a day or have more than seven drinks per week, your drinking habits would be considered heavy drinkers.
Why Alcohol Guidelines Vary Between Men and Women
There is an apparent discrepancy in how many drinks are considered moderate for men compared to women, leaving many to wonder why there is a vast difference between the two. This is mainly due to the physiological differences between men and women and how each sex metabolizes alcohol within their body. A woman’s body size and mass are typically smaller than men’s, which means that women have a higher liver-to-body mass ratio and a reduced amount of water within the body. This will impact how someone metabolizes alcohol, making women metabolize alcohol quicker, increasing the impact of alcohol, furthering feelings of intoxication faster, and reaching peak blood alcohol content. Therefore, cutting the suggested amount of alcohol for women is nearly half of what men consume.
Extensive research has demonstrated that women are at a higher risk for developing alcohol-related organ damage. Women tend to build alcohol-induced liver disease within a shorter period and consume less alcohol than men. Additionally, research has shown that women are at a higher risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis than men. Due to these additional factors, a woman’s recommended drinking limits are dramatically decreased compared to a man.
Health Risks of Heavy Drinking
For anyone who has consumed alcohol and experienced the unpleasant effects of a hangover, you know that alcohol negatively impacts your body. But what many do not take into account is the long-term damage that regular, heavy drinking behaviors can have within one’s body. Heavy drinking has been proven to have a significant impact on the body in the following ways:
- Brain damage: Alcohol can strain the neurotransmitters within the brain, impacting the brain’s ability to function normally. This often negatively impacts a person’s motor skills and their ability to think rationally and clearly, and causes significant mood swings within someone. Additionally, long-term alcohol use can cause permanent brain damage that can change the brain’s physical structure.
- Heart Disease: Regular alcohol consumption can lead to permanent heart damage. This can develop into other heart problems, including cardiomyopathy, hypertension, high blood pressure, arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat, stroke, or heart attack.
- Increased chance of developing various forms of cancer: When you consume alcohol regularly or even moderate drinking, you are putting toxins in your body that will increase your chances of getting cancer in many areas throughout your body, including mouth, throat, breast, and liver. Essentially any place that alcohol touches will put your body at risk of developing cancer.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Dependence
Your alcohol use most likely began as a recreational activity or a way to connect with others. How does one know if your alcohol consumption has moved from moderate drinking to problematic? There are some common signs and symptoms to be mindful of to help you determine if your drinking or a loved one drinking needs addiction support:
- Expressing wanting to cut down on alcohol consumption, but even after attempting unable to do so
- Lying about or hiding your drinking from others
- Continuing to engage in alcohol use even after there have been negative consequences within your personal and professional life
- Having to consume more alcohol to reach the same desired effect
- Thinking about or planning the next time you will be able to drink/ thought processes become taken over by the thought of drinking.
- Experiencing financial issues due to drinking
- Engaging in high-risk behavior such as drinking and driving or engaging in criminal behavior
- Difficulty performing in school or work
- Loss of employment
- Strained relationships with loved ones and social circles due to your drinking behavior
What to Do if You’re Drinking Too Much
You recognize that your drinking behavior has escalated and that it is time to do something about your drinking habits, but you aren’t sure of the right course of action to get the support you need. Many options give you the therapeutic support you need to rid your life of alcohol dependency. Choosing the right choice for you will depend on your current alcohol use severity.
Those in the beginning stages of their alcohol use who want to address your alcohol use before it escalates further may wish to access a specialized addiction therapist. The therapeutic sessions you engage in will clarify what has been impacting your ability to remain sober and begin to learn healthy routines and practical skills to mitigate any potential triggers or cravings in the future.
If you have been engaging in alcohol use for a prolonged period and have been drinking heavily, your body most likely has developed a physical dependency on alcohol. To safely remove the influences of alcohol from your body and your life, it is essential that you must enter into a medical detox before addressing the underlying causes of your addiction within alcohol rehab. Medical detox will provide you with the support of doctors and nurses who will monitor your withdrawal symptoms as you move through your detox process. Medications, therapeutic support, and holistic therapy methods will be offered to help ease the severity of your symptoms and keep you feeling safe and comfortable. Once you regain your health and strength, you will be able to transition into an inpatient alcohol rehab program where you will engage in individual and group therapy sessions to help you gain perspective on what has been the driving force for your addiction. You will also learn the skills for relapse prevention and effective emotional regulation to ensure you stay on the road to recovery.