As we enter the last week of Alcohol Awareness Month 2022, have you carefully considered your drinking habits? When someone is dealing with alcoholism (alcohol use disorder), the signs are usually clear:
- Spending excessive time and money on drinking
- Being secretive and defensive about alcohol consumed
- Invariably “needing” a drink to relax or enjoy oneself
- Atypically withdrawn or aggressive behavior after drinking
- Deterioration in job performance and self-care
- Lying, or asking others to lie, about alcohol-connected problems
- An inability to stop drinking despite sincere intentions
However, unhealthy drinking habits generally appear long before alcoholism. One major red flag: regular heavy drinking.
Heavy Drinking vs. Binge Drinking
Heavy drinking and binge drinking often go together, but they are not the same thing. The medical community defines “heavy drinking” as the consumption of more drinks in a week than the recognized healthy maximum: one drink a day/seven a week for women, two a day/fourteen a week for men. (The male body metabolizes alcohol more effectively due to chemical and muscle-versus-fat differences.)
Binge drinking, by contrast, is defined as four or more drinks at one sitting for a woman, and five or more for a man. Hence, it’s possible to “binge” with seven, eight, or even more drinks on Saturday night, do without for the next six days, and technically finish under the heavy-drinking limit for the week.
Neither approach to drinking is advisable. Binging can kill a person, with alcohol poisoning on the spot, or in an alcohol-caused crash on the way home. However, regular heavy drinking without binging comes with a series of health effects.
Why Is Heavy Drinking Dangerous?
While a couple of extra drinks a week may seem harmless, the body—especially the liver—has to work extra hard to flush out excess toxins. If this continues week after week, stress damage accumulates. Eventual long-term effects can include:
- Scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver
- Impaired heart function
- Rising cholesterol levels
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic nerve pain
- Throat cancer
Heavy drinking also increases alcohol tolerance, which can increase chances of a DUI charge should blood alcohol content rise above legal limits without showing obvious behavioral effects. (It should be noted that even low blood alcohol levels sufficiently affect judgment to make driving risky in any conditions.) Plus, feeling able to drink heavily without getting “drunk” can lead people to rationalize they couldn’t have alcohol addiction—when in fact one major symptom of addiction is the ability to tolerate a substance.
Heavy Drinking and Alcoholism
A drinking problem becomes an addiction when alcohol completely dominates life—when everything else, from friendships to favorite activities to money management to basic self-care, is of negligible priority by comparison.
A drinking problem of any sort is a problem with the potential to trigger a host of other problems. DUI arrests, alcohol-related accidents, and long-term health issues have all been mentioned. Heavy drinking can also mean wildly impulsive behavior or frequent hangovers, or other consequences with the potential to hurt relationships, finances, and careers.
And, of course, heavy drinking can quickly turn into addiction. Over 14.5 million Americans, including 20 percent of college students and thousands of younger kids, have some level of alcohol use disorder.
Once alcohol addiction takes hold, it’s very difficult to quit on your own. Heavy perspiration, headaches, nausea, and desperate cravings for another drink are all common. The worst-case scenario is alcohol withdrawal delirium, which can mean hallucinations, out-of-control heart rate, or even seizures. And withdrawal delirium happens primarily to people with longtime heavy-drinking habits.
What to Do
Probably more people than not experiment with heavy drinking at some point, so don’t panic if you’ve been there. If it’s happened only once or twice, it probably hasn’t caused lasting harm: just remember the reasons not to do it again, and discuss specific concerns with your doctor.
If you already have a heavy drinking habit, stricter measures are called for. Do not“just stop” drinking. See a doctor promptly, get a thorough physical examination, and find out if you need medical detox. Don’t delay getting help for alcohol addiction, or even for habitual overdrinking. Breaking the heavy-drinking habit can be difficult and painful—but not nearly as painful as the consequences of continuing.
A Place to Safely Recover
Before you finalize the decision to quit drinking, see a doctor and an addiction-medicine specialist. If you’re diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, you’ll need medically supervised detox to withdraw safely. Recovery from heavy drinking and addiction is a journey no one should take alone.
If you live in or near the Pacific Northwest, consider Lakeside-Milam for your addiction-treatment needs. We offer inpatient and outpatient programs to help you find freedom and reclaim your health and life. Getting help is the first step to recovery. Contact us today to learn more!
- “Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- “Alcohol Awareness Month 2022.” (St. Luke’s University Health Network/Penn Foundation)
- “Alcohol Facts and Statistics: Alcohol Use in the United States.” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)
- “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths: A deadly consequence of binge drinking.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- “Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium.” (Healthline.com)
- “College Students and the Dangers of Binge Drinking.” (University of Rochester Medical Center)
- “Drinking Levels Defined.” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)
- “Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking.” (WebMD.com)
- “Heavy drinkers aren’t necessarily alcoholics, but may be ‘almost alcoholics.’” (Harvard Health Publishing)
- “How Alcohol Impairs Your Ability to Drive.” (Michigan Health/University of Michigan)
- “Why alcohol affects women more than men.” (BBC.com, 06/18/2018)