In this day and age, binge drinking has become a widely accepted pastime.
After a long, hard week at work, it’s to be expected that people will want to blow off a little bit of steam. To cut loose and have fun for a change. And to do so in a way that makes up for lost time.
And for many Americans, one of the most popular ways of doing that is by consuming alcohol. A lot of alcohol.
True, these short bursts of heavy drinking (known as binge drinking) are more widely accepted than other forms of substance abuse. But they still carry with them a variety of both short- and long-term detrimental effects and could actually be indicative of a deeper problem at work.
How Many Drinks Is Binge Drinking?
As with any condition, the first step in learning how to treat binge drinking is defining what it is. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the definition of binge drinking is:
“a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours.”
Similarly, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, better known as SAMHSA, adds the qualifier of having done so “on at least 1 day in the past month.”
These numbers may come as a bit of a surprise to some because the truth is, many people consider this type of drinking to be a normal, weekly event.
If, for example, you’ve engaged in binge (also known as “heavy episodic”) drinking 5 or more days in the past month, the NIAAA considers this type of behavior to be “heavy alcohol use.”
And while you may not think it’s a problem yet, the truth is that binge drinking can lead to a pattern of behavior that ends up spiraling out of control.
Heavy Drinking Statistics
One of the best ways of really recognizing the scope of a problem is by looking at the statistics. Once you see the real hard numbers, you’ll be able to see the true cost of binge drinking, both to the individual and to society as a whole.
The stats below are provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- One in six US adults binge drinks around four times a month with sessions of about eight drinks per binge.
- Men are twice as likely to binge drink than women.
- Bouts of heavy drinking are more common in households with incomes above $75,000 than lower income households.
- The majority of young people (under 21) report binge drinking on multiple occasions.
- This type of heavy drinking is statistically associated with a variety of problems such as increased risky behaviors, unintentional accidents, and alcohol dependence.
- Excessive drinking in 2010 caused losses in workplace productivity, unnecessary healthcare expenditures, criminal justice costs, and other expenses. It’s estimated that binge drinking cost the United states $191 billion in this year alone.
Binge Drinking and Alcoholism: What’s the Difference?
A lot of you are probably wondering right now, “What’s the difference between binge drinking and alcoholism? They sound pretty similar to me.”
And while it’s true, the type of heavy drinking described above does sound like quite a lot of booze at one time, most binge drinkers are not actually alcoholics.
In fact, the CDC reports that only 8.1% of binge drinkers actually meet the criteria for being an alcoholic.
What’s even more surprising is that among heavy binge drinkers (that report binging 10 times in one month rather than 5), more than two-thirds still didn’t meet the benchmarks of being truly addicted.
Binge drinking, then, and alcoholism are not the same thing. There are strict criteria that are used to assess alcoholism and binge drinking alone does not mean you fall into that use disorder. In all likelihood, you probably aren’t even to the point of a high functioning alcoholic either.
For those of you out there who are feeling a bit relieved right now, it’s completely understandable. But you’d be a fool to think that binge drinking doesn’t come with its own nasty group of both short-term and long-term effects.
The Short-Term Effects of Heavy Drinking
For most people, the short-term effects of binge drinking are part of the reason why they drink in the first place. But it’s when alcohol is consumed excessively in a short amount of time (as with binge drinking) that the effects move from desirable to detrimental.
The National Health Service provides a great breakdown of the process, noting the effects one is likely to experience as they consume more drinks in a short time span. We’ve provided a brief summary below.
- 1 to 2 Drinks – Warm, sociable, and talkative feeling. Impairment here is quite minor.
- 2 to 3 Drinks – This level of drinking is associated with brain and nervous system impairment. Your judgement and decision-making abilities will be stunted and you’ll be more uninhibited, reckless, and uncoordinated.
- 4 to 6 Drinks – Reaction time is impaired and vision becomes blurred.
- 7 to 9 Drinks – Bodily coordination is at a dangerous low and may be putting you in danger. What’s more, your system is now probably trying to get rid of the built-up alcohol through the urine, leading to intense dehydration.
This amount of alcohol can also lead to a variety of digestive problems like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and indigestion.
- More than 9 Drinks – Having alcohol in your body at these levels is particularly dangerous and may result in alcohol poisoning which can be deadly.
Other Short-Term Risks of Heavy Episodic Drinking
In addition to this slew of undesirable effects, heavy drinking also increases the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors. This includes violent and antisocial behavior, unsafe sex, additional drug use, and physical accidents that can lead to injury and death.
Drunk driving in particular is especially dangerous among heavy episodic drinkers. In fact, 85% of drinking and driving is reported by binge drinkers.
And considering the fact that 33% of all car crash deaths can be attributed to alcohol-impaired drivers, binge drinking and driving is a significant cause of thousands of deaths a year.
The takeaway here? This type of drinking is deadlier than you think.
The Long-Term Effects of Excessive Drinking
While the short-term effects of heavy episodic drinking can be terrifying (and fatal) by themselves, when you take a look at this type of consumption’s long-term effects is when binge drinking really begins to lose its appeal.
- High blood pressure
- Steatosis (fatty liver)
- Cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast
- Significantly weakened immune system
One of the most important takeaways here though is that alcoholics aren’t the only ones afflicted by these physical effects either. Damage to your body can occur after a single heavy use. So once again, just because you aren’t an alcoholic doesn’t mean you aren’t hurting your body.
For an even more detailed look at how long-term alcohol abuse can affect your body, the NIAAA publication “Beyond Hangovers” is a great place to start.
The Key to Realizing You May Be a Dangerously Heavy Drinker
The first step in turning over a new leaf and avoiding all of these terrible side effects is learning how to recognize when your binge drinking problem is getting out of control.
There are a lot of different signs that you might be developing a problem with alcohol. You may drink more than you originally intended, you might have several DUIs, you could be experiencing physical problems, etc.
While these are all certainly indications of a looming disorder, not all binge drinkers will experience these symptoms. And that’s one of the things that makes binge drinking so dangerous: most people don’t think it’s a problem!
One of the best ways of identifying whether or not you have an excessive drinking problem then is by understanding that binge drinking every weekend is not normal. In fact, it’s downright unhealthy.
So even though you may be used to doing it and your entire social group does the same, taking a step back and really examining your drinking habits over time can be especially helpful.
When was the last time you had more than 5 drinks in a setting? How often have you done that in a month? You might be surprised at what you find.
Heavy Drinking in College
For many, college is the first place that binge drinking becomes not only finally possible, but is also the accepted norm among students across the country. In fact, the NIAAA goes so far as to call binge drinking in college “a ritual.” Almost 66% of college students regularly engage in this type of excessive drinking.
It’s become so heavily ingrained in the minds of young adults that this is where you can finally let go of your inhibitions. You can finally become whoever you want to be. And no one, not parents, not lawmakers, not doctors, is going to hold you back from that magic elixir that will make it all so much easier – alcohol.
But of course, this is all a lie. While alcohol can provide relief from stress and make social situations a bit easier to handle, its abuse in higher education actually leads to a startling number of harmful effects each and every year:
- Around 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.
- About 696,000 students are assaulted by someone under the influence of alcohol.
- Around 97,000 college students report being the victim of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
- About 1 in 4 students experience academic consequences related to alcohol abuse. Heavy binge drinkers were 6 times more likely to perform poorly on a test and 5 times more likely to miss class.
So, before you go using the “but I’m in college” excuse for your drinking habits, take a second to remember some of these statistics. You just might want to reconsider.
A Few More Surprising Stats About Excessive Drinking Among Young Adults
SAMHSA notes that binge drinking is far more common among young people than older adults.
Below are just a few statistics on why that fact is such a big issue.
- The rates of binge drinking are highest among the 18 to 25 years age group while the rate of binge drinking among minors (12 to 20 years) is almost 20%.
- Adolescent binge drinkers are three times more likely to develop an alcohol-related disorder later in life. And they younger they start, the greater the risk.
- Heavy episodic drinking in adolescence affects men and women differently. Males who binge drank in adolescence were twice as likely to do so in adulthood while females were three times as likely.
- Underage binge drinking was also associated with an incredibly high likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors like tobacco and drug use, violence, and unsafe sex. In fact, the risk was 11 times higher in these individuals.
The Link Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism
As we’ve stated before, just because you are a binge drinker doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re alcoholic. Having said that though, there is an indisputable link between the frequency of binge drinking and the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence.
As such, knowing the additional risk factors of alcoholism can help you determine if your heavy episodic drinking habits are worth developing a potentially life-destroying dependency.
Known risk factors that can contribute to developing alcoholism include:
- Consuming more than 15 drinks per week as a male and more than 12 as a female
- Binge drinking at least once a week
- A family history of alcoholism
- A mental health disorder like depression or anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- High Stress
- Being surrounded by a culture that commonly uses or abuses alcohol
- Having a relative with an alcohol use disorder
If you find that any of these risk factors sound familiar, engaging in binge drinking is a surefire way of increasing the likelihood of developing alcoholism. As a result, you might want to skip it altogether.
How to Stop Binge Drinking
Once you’ve finally come to terms with your drinking habits and admitted to yourself that you have a binge drinking problem, the next step is changing your behaviors. But when you’re surrounded by a pro-binging culture, that’s easier said than done, right?
The first step is recognizing your limits. If you find, for example, that after your second drink you simply can’t stop yourself from having six more, you might want to start limiting yourself to only a few drinks.
If a certain group of people get you to drink far more than you know you should, either set some boundaries with them or confine your social interactions to non-drinking scenarios.
For more serious problems, there are a wide variety of excessive drinking treatment options, especially if you’ve developed an actual physical dependency.
Or you can go the route of a twelve-step program or other binge drinking help groups as well.
The important thing to remember, though, is that you are acknowledging the problem and taking steps to correct it. And that first realization is the key to getting on to a healthier track.
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Binge Drinking: Not Worth Underestimating
Despite the fact that heavy episodic drinking is so deeply ingrained in our culture, there are a lot of startlingly dangerous health detriments that come with it. And what’s more, you don’t have to be an alcoholic to suffer from them.
But the sooner you realize that your typical weekly behaviors are actually having a significant impact on your health, the better equipped you’ll be to get clean and get healthy.