Most of us enjoy an alcoholic beverage now and then. Some of us have a few too many on occasion and wake up the next day feeling sick. About 26.9 percent of us binge drink once a month or more often, and an estimated 15.1 million of us have had an alcohol use disorder.
Where are we supposed to draw the line? At what point can you tell that you’re drinking “too much?”
How Alcohol Functions in the Body?
“Too much” could mean a few different things. Too much in one night could put you at risk of alcohol poisoning, while “too much” on a chronic basis could lead to liver damage, and increased susceptibility to other illnesses and disorders.
So let’s start with a brief overview of how alcohol works in the body. In the short term, alcohol interferes with some of the brain’s communication pathways, which can alter your mood and behavior, and make it harder for you to think clearly or perform complex movements. Drinking too much in a single day can cause damage to your heart and your liver, which in extreme cases could even result in death.
In the long term, excessive drinking (either frequent occurrences of binge drinking or having more than a few drinks every single day) can cause high blood pressure, increase your risk of stroke, cause cardiomyopathy, and influence cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, and fatty liver. Pancreatitis and a weakened immune system are also common, and in many cases, you’ll be at increased risk of cancer.
Signs of Excessive Drinking
Still, the line between acceptable drinking and excessive drinking is a subtle, ambiguous one. According to Rethinking Drinking, people at “low risk” for an alcohol use disorder (AUD) are those who:
- Have no more than 4 drinks on any day (men) or 3 drinks on any day (women).
- Have no more than 14 drinks per week (men) or 7 drinks per week (women).
Low risk profiles are still considered excessive and/or dangerous if you’re underage, taking medications that can interact with alcohol, or have a medical condition that alcohol could make worse.
At-risk drinking profiles exceed these limits. Among people who drink heavily once a month, 2 in 10 have an AUD. Among those who drink heavily once a week, 3 in 10 have an AUD. Among those who drink heavily twice or more each week, 5 in 10 have an AUD.
These descriptions still leave some room for qualitative analysis, however; there’s no specific number of drinks that qualify someone for an AUD.
Instead, you need to look for the signs of excessive drinking, which include:
- Experiencing a strong, compulsive urge to consume alcohol on a regular basis.
- Having more drinks or drinking longer than you originally intended.
- Having the desire to cut back on your drinking but feeling like you can’t.
- Engaging in behaviors with a high risk of injury while you’re drinking, such as driving, using heavy machinery, or swimming.
- Showing signs of alcohol tolerance, meaning it takes a larger volume of alcohol to get you inebriated to previous levels.
- Continuing to drink even though it makes you feel anxious or depressed.
- Continuing to drink even though it’s putting additional strain on your family, your friendships, and/or your career.
- Cutting back or giving up on activities that once gave you pleasure, because of your drinking.
- Having legal problems due to drinking, such as being arrested.
- Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shaking, restlessness, racing thoughts, or hallucinations, when you stop drinking for an extended period of time.
What to Do Next?
If you drink more frequently than the “low risk” profile would allow, or if you have multiple symptoms of an alcohol use disorder, it’s an indication that you should take action and try to improve your health. The first step is admitting you have a problem and accepting that it’s okay to seek help. From there, you can try:
- Alcohol detox. If you want to try and tackle things on your own, you can try an alcohol detox period. During this period, you’ll abstain from alcohol completely. In severe cases, you may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms as soon as 6 hours after your last drink, and those symptoms could last up to several weeks (though most cases peak after 48 hours). In severe cases, medical intervention may be necessary.
- Support groups. You don’t have to go through this alone. Whether you want to abstain completely or wean yourself off alcohol, a support group can help you make healthier choices and feel a stronger sense of community.
- Mental health issues and alcoholism are notoriously intertwined. Going to therapy regularly can not only help you address the root causes of your habit, but give you coping strategies you can use to overcome it.
Drinking in moderation is perfectly acceptable, but there’s a point where it becomes destructive. Learning to recognize where that line is, and taking action when you cross it, could save your health, your relationships, or even your life.