When Social Drinking Passes the Tipping Point

Philip Schmitt, MD

Having a social drink or two is a common part of life for many adults. But when does social drinking cross the line into a problem behavior? April is Alcohol Awareness Month, dedicated to public awareness and reducing the stigma of alcoholism and alcohol-related issues.

Low-risk drinking

In these days of large portions, it is helpful to define what a “drink” means. One drink is defined as five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. 

For men, “low-risk” drinking is having no more than four drinks in one day or 14 drinks in one week. For women, it is more than three drinks a day or seven drinks a week. This amount also applies to adults age 65 and older.

Consuming more than the “low-risk” amount puts a person into the “at-risk” drinking category, when research shows the negative health effects of alcohol can begin.

The gender factor

Why is it recommended that women consume less alcohol? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Gender differences in body structure and chemistry cause women to absorb more alcohol, and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies (i.e., to metabolize it).”

In short, women can become impaired faster than men drinking the same amount of alcohol. This places them at higher risk for dangerous behaviors, such as driving while intoxicated. Also, women's higher rate of alcohol absorption puts them at an increased risk for adverse health conditions associated with alcohol, including:

  • alcohol-related liver disease and cirrhosis
  • heart disease
  • cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and in women, breast
  • dementia

The early signs

Some early red flags of problem drinking include:

  • needing to drink much more than before to get the effect you want
  • finding that your alcohol use or its aftereffects are causing problems at home, work, or school
  • risky behaviors during or after drinking that raise your chances of getting hurt, such as driving, swimming, or having unsafe sex
  • continuing to drink although it makes you feel anxious or depressed

If you are concerned

If you are at all concerned you may be pushing the limits of safe drinking, there are some things you can do.

  • Keep a record of the drinks you consume and track it.
  • Plan the occasions when you would expect to have a drink or two and designate other days when you would have none.
  • Set a schedule for yourself and make sure you never exceed the recommended number of drinks allowable.
  • Educate yourself by doing some reading about problem drinking on reliable websites such as NCAAD or NIH.

If a loved one is drinking too much

If you believe a loved one is drinking too much, there are steps you can take to help them.

  • First, think about how you would like to be approached yourself on a sensitive subject like excessive alcohol use.
  • While avoiding any harsh, judgmental, or critical statements, tell the person you have noticed they may not be functioning as well as in the past, and you wonder if it is because of their increased drinking. Draw them into a conversation about whether they feel their drinking could be developing into a problem. 
  • You could suggest that they consult their primary care physician or a behavioral health professional specializing in addiction. While they may not be receptive to the idea, follow up and continue to encourage them, always being sensitive and empathetic.

Getting help

There are many helpful resources in the community for problem drinking. At Newport Hospital, we have opened a new section within our Partial Hospitalization Program, which offers intensive outpatient therapy to patients with both substance use and mental health issues.

Learn more about our partial hospitalization program here

The bottom line

For both men and women, true moderation is key to enjoying alcoholic beverages while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is something to think about the next time you uncork a bottle of wine or pour a second drink after a stressful day.

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