Drinking Alcohol: How Much is Too Much?

Emmet Pierce
Drinking Alcohol: How Much is Too Much?

Enjoying a glass of wine, beer, or distilled liquor can be harmless for adults who monitor their intake, but drinking in excess can lead to a variety of physical and mental health problems.

Because alcohol is a drug, it's important to moderate your consumption so you don't develop a dependency that leads to illness. If you become dependent on alcohol to relax or cope with daily stress, drinking less can become difficult.

Avoiding Dependency on Alcohol

Overcoming alcohol dependency often requires persistence and professional treatment. According to a report in the New York Times, between 80 and 90 percent of people who are treated for alcohol abuse experience a relapse, which can occur even after years of abstinence.

Chicago psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You, says people often use alcohol to self-medicate for stress.

"When our stress gets higher, we tend to look for a quick fix," she explains. "Alcohol gets into your bloodstream quickly. It is a quick and fast-coping mechanism and it is easy to get. It is socially acceptable. Social events are centered around drinking."

woman pouring wine

People often aren't aware of how much alcohol they consume, she adds. "Alcohol affects your judgment, so you tend to drink more."

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health holds that alcohol is "both a tonic and a poison." The difference between the two is the amount you consume. For example, the school says that moderate drinking appears to be beneficial for the heart and circulatory system, and may offer protection against type 2 diabetes and gallstones.

The benefits may not outweigh the risks, however. According to the Harvard school, heavy drinking is "a major cause of preventable death" that may cause liver damage, depression, harm to unborn children, and increased chances of developing some types of cancer.

In November 2015, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that alcohol can either activate or suppress the immune system, depending on the amount consumed and how much is concentrated in tissues and organs.

The Toll of Excessive Use

One of the biggest dangers associated with drinking alcohol is impaired driving. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, every 2 hours, 3 people are killed in alcohol-related highway crashes in the U.S. Despite the danger, an estimated 4 million adults reported driving under the influence of alcohol at least once in 2010.

And according to a December 2014 report from the Department of Transportation, 10,076 people died in U.S. alcohol-impaired auto accidents in 2013 alone. Alcohol consumption shortened the lives of those who died by an average of three decades.

dangers of excessive alcohol use

Despite the dangers associated with excessive alcohol consumption, the CDC reports that few people go to a doctor for help. A 2011 survey conducted in 44 states and the District of Columbia found that just 1 in 5 people who used alcohol reported ever discussing alcohol consumption with a health professional. Less than one-third of patients with alcohol disorders receive treatment, and only 10 percent get medications to help them limit alcohol consumption, according to a May 2014 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

How Much is Too Much?

Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2015-2020, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defines moderate drinking as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men.

A standard drink is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits (40% alcohol).

One sign that you may be drinking too much is that your consumption continues to increase as you age, says Liz Gilbert, spokeswoman for First Call, an alcohol and drug clinical, educational and prevention facility in Kansas City, Missouri. Typically, adults drink less as they get older, she says.

doctor and patient

Alcohol isn't for everyone. There are many people for whom even one drink is too much. According to the CDC, these people include:

  • People under age 21
  • Women who are pregnant or attempting to become pregnant
  • People taking medications that may have harmful reactions when mixed with alcohol
  • People who are driving or planning to drive soon after drinking

Gilbert says most people can moderate their drinking on their own. However, if you find yourself unable to control the amount of alcohol you consume, it's best to seek professional help.

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