A majority of Americans have consumed alcohol, and a plurality do so on a regular basis. It’s a cliché at this point: alcohol, when consumed responsibly, is not necessarily harmful.
But there’s often a very fine line between socially acceptable drinking, and a serious health risk. Alcohol is, for all intents and purposes, a poison. There’s no denying that – our system recognizes alcohol as a toxin, and often reacts appropriately.
Yet the dosage is critical, as too much of anything can cause a system shutdown. The difference being that even in non-lethal dosages, alcohol causes serious wear-and-tear.
You don’t have to be an addict to struggle with alcohol-related health issues. Even among heavy drinkers, alcoholism is not a given – it’s a risk, but only an estimated 50 percent of people who drink heavily more than twice a week eventually struggle with alcohol use disorder.
Nevertheless, heavy drinking can constitute a problem, especially for the heart, throat, liver, and brain. While most Americans enjoy a hearty drinking session a few times a year, a minority consumes several times more alcohol than the average person, putting themselves at risk of an early grave.
And if you’re not concerned about mortality, then consider that heavy drinking greatly increases the risk of addiction.
What Counts as Heavy Drinking?
Government agencies and authorities on health generally consider heavy drinking or binge drinking to constitute any drinking session that involves more than four/five drinks a day for a healthy adult man, and more than three/four drinks a day for a healthy adult woman.
A drink constitutes 14 grams of alcohol, typically found in a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor. One is not healthier than the other. When consumed within two hours, the amounts of alcohol described above tend to elevate the average person’s blood alcohol concentration to a 0.08.
As per the CDC, an estimated quarter of all people aged 18-34 engage in binge drinking. Among underage teens, about 17 percent of people are estimated to have engaged in binge drinking.
As the numbers indicate, binge drinking is not uncommon, and not indicative of an alcohol use disorder on its own. However, it is very unhealthy. Some of the health risks associated with regular binge drinking include diseases of the liver and heart, strokes, cancer in the breast, mouth, throat, liver, and colon, as well as cognitive deficits such as long-term memory problems, slowed learning, and more.
Alcohol is often linked to an increase in violence, as well as unintentional deaths caused by injuries, accidents, burns, and poisoning. Binge drinking is also linked to a higher risk of sexual violence, partner violence, and STDs.
Alcohol use becomes a problem when it’s uncontrolled and begins to have a serious negative impact on your life. It’s normal to feel hungover after a big drinking session, but it can become a problem when you’re hungover several times a month.
If your performance at work or your ability to remember things suffer at the hand of your alcohol use, then cutting back is important.
Alcohol use can also cause unexpected weight gain, as alcohol is converted into calories and unspent energy (fat). Due to its effects on the brain, regular heavy use can also lead to mood changes, worsen existing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and affect a person’s relationship to their partner, lowering their ability to perform sexually and be present physically.
While these problems can all occur without a diagnosis of alcoholism, heavy drinking turns into a disorder when the drinker finds themselves unable to stop drinking.
Heavy Drinking and Alcoholism
As mentioned previously, an estimated 50 percent of people who binge drink more than twice a week struggle with alcohol use disorder. Even among people who only binge once a month, an estimated 20 percent are addicted to alcohol.
While addiction to alcohol is not caused solely by heavy use, it is one of many factors. Avoiding heavy drinking and limiting drinking (or abstaining entirely) can be a protective factor against developing alcoholism.
Other factors to consider when speaking about alcoholism include family history, workplace and at-home stress, mental health (depression and anxiety are sometimes linked to substance use), and early use. Teens who start binge drinking at an earlier age are much more likely to get hooked on alcohol, as are individuals who have a history of alcohol addiction in the family.
If you’re aware of other factors in your life that might put you at serious risk for developing a dependence on alcohol, it might be a good idea to cut the drink out of your life. If you find yourself depending on alcohol to get through the day or to unwind after a frustrating day, it becomes crucial to seek alternative and healthier ways to cope.
Addiction can be debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be. Alcohol use disorder can also be diagnosed among high-functioning alcoholics, who continue to go to work and fulfill their daily duties, but struggle to do so without the ‘crutch’ of a daily series of drinks.
High-functioning alcoholism is something of a misnomer as well, because while high-functioning addicts continue to function, they still do so at a diminished rate. Alcohol’s effects on the brain and body are non-negotiable, and while some bodies are far more resistant to alcohol than others, no one is immune to its long-term effects.
Even with a well-paying job, a busy social life, and a good relationship with your partner, high-functioning alcoholism has many red flags.
Some drink to relax, drinking every day. Some have a track record of struggling with certain responsibilities as of late. And some forget what they were doing, or have entire evenings and afternoons go by without remembering what happened.
High-functioning alcoholism is often characterized by an individual who feels that they’re doing a great job of living a normal life in spite of their heavy use, but are actually in denial of the various ways in which their habit has already cost them trust, health, or time.
Without these red flags, a high-functioning alcohol user is simply someone who binge drinks, without the addiction. But that can still be a problem.
Why Too Much Is Still a Problem
Even without blackouts and memory gaps, long-term alcohol use can greatly increase someone’s risk of death through liver disease, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Alcohol kills more than any other drug bar tobacco, claiming several more lives per year than the opioid crisis ever did.
Drinking responsibly is one thing, but not being addicted doesn’t make you immune to alcohol’s dangerous long-term effects.