How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

The low-risk guidelines may be lower than you think

Men drinking
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Many adults enjoy drinking a few alcoholic beverages, but how much is too much? It's a common question, especially when you're trying to determine if your own drinking habits are worrisome. The threshold for harmful drinking is much lower than you might imagine.

Millions of people drink beer, wine, and spirits on a regular basis. They can do so without ever developing a drinking problem. However, you can drink at levels that could put your health and well-being in jeopardy without drinking becoming an alcohol abuser, alcohol dependent, or an alcoholic.

How much alcohol can you drink at a safe level and still be considered a low-risk drinker? How much will place you in the high-risk group? According to extensive research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), less than 2 percent of drinkers who fall within the following guidelines ever develop alcohol use disorders.

Men: Four or Fewer Drinks Per Day

For men, low-risk alcohol consumption is considered drinking four or fewer standard drinks on any single day and less than 14 drinks during in a given week. According to the NIAAA, to remain low-risk, both the daily and weekly guidelines must be met. 

In other words, if you are a man and you drink only four standard drinks per day, but you drink four every day, you are drinking 28 drinks per week. That is twice the recommended level for low-risk alcohol consumption. Likewise, drinking four drinks a day four times a week would also exceed the guidelines.

Women: Three or Fewer Drinks Per Day

Research has shown that women develop alcohol problems at lower levels of consumption than men. Therefore, the guidelines for low-risk drinking are lower for women. The NIAAA guidelines are three or fewer standard drinks a day and no more than seven drinks per week.

Again, both the daily and weekly standards must be met to remain in the low-risk category. If you drink only two drinks a day but drink them every day, that is 14 drinks a week, or twice the recommended amount for low-risk consumption.

Heart Health and Longevity

The low-risk category of drinking may not be the best level for your heart health and the guidelines vary from one country to another. One international study that looked specifically at the risk of cardiovascular disease found that an even lower amount of alcohol may help you live longer.

This study involved nearly 600,000 adult drinkers from all over the world who had no history of cardiovascular disease. The participants drank between 0 and 350 grams of alcohol each week. To put this into perspective, the American recommendations for men are equivalent to 196 grams, or about six glasses of wine.

The study found that drinking only 100 grams of alcohol per week lowered the harm to overall heart health. This includes lowering the risk of stroke and heart disease. For example, it estimated that if men reduce their consumption to that amount by the age of 40, they can live one to two years longer.

"Low-Risk" Does Not Mean "No Risk"

There are some situations in which no level of drinking can be considered low-risk. Depending on your age, health, and other circumstances, you may need to drink even less or not drink at all. Here are some circumstances in which you may need to stop drinking altogether:

A Personalized Approach

Keep in mind that all of these guidelines are for the "average" person. Since the thresholds vary greatly and there are many factors involved, it's best to take a personalized approach to find a safe level of drinking.

Harvard Men's Health Watch suggests that you speak to your doctor to determine how much alcohol is too much for you. Only they know your entire medical history and, with that, you can get a more accurate recommendation. It may also need to lower as you age or if you need to keep certain health conditions, like your blood pressure, in check. What is healthy for you may not be the same for everyone else.

A Word From Verywell

If you regularly exceed the above guidelines for low-risk drinking, you might want to take this quiz to gauge your drinking level. It may be good to cut down your alcohol consumption or quitting entirely and seek help if you believe it would help you do so.

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Article Sources
  • Harvard Men's Health. How Much Alcohol Is Too Much? Harvard Medical School. 2014.
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health." February 2009.
  • Wood AN, et al. Risk Thresholds for Alcohol Consumption: Combined Analysis of Individual-Participant Data for 599 912 Current Drinkers in 83 Prospective Studies. The Lancet. 2018;391(10129):1513–1523. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30134-X.