Why You Should Stop Binge Drinking

According to the latest research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 26.45% of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month and 6.6% reported that they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month.

If you regularly drink more than the recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption, you may be wondering what exactly are the risks. What's the harm in heavy or binge drinking?

Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines

The recommended guidelines for low-risk drinking is four or fewer drinks a day for men and no more than 14 drinks a week. For women, it's three or fewer drinks a day and no more than seven drinks per week.

If you drink less than the above-recommended amounts, your level of drinking is considered in the "low-risk" category. Still, you may be thinking, "No one drinks that small amount of alcohol. Anyone who drinks alcohol drinks more than that."

According to the NIAAA:

  • Less than 30% of people drink at at-risk levels
  • 37% always drink at low-risk levels
  • 35% do not drink at all
  • 28% of people drink at heavy or at-risk levels

Defining Binge and Heavy Drinking

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent (or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter) or higher. For a typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming five or more drinks (male), or four or more drinks (female), in about two hours, on at least one day in the past month.

Heavy drinking is defined as having five or more episodes of binge drinking in the past month. Heavy or "risky" drinking also involves drinking more than 14 drinks a week (for men) and more than seven drinks a week (for women).

Binge Drinking
  • Men: 5 or more drinks, in about 2 hours

  • Women: 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours

Heavy Drinking
  • Men: 5 drinks or more per day, or more than 14 drinks a week

  • Women: 4 drinks or more per day, or more than 7 drinks a week

Understanding the Risks

Binge drinking is a widespread practice among young people, especially younger adults ages 18 to 34 years, but more than half of the total binge drinks are consumed by those ages 35 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The problem, especially for young drinkers, is that drinking at that level can cause a long list of physical and cognitive problems and increase your risk of becoming a victim of injury, violence, or sexual assault.

Alcohol Use Disorder

If you are a heavy drinker, the first risk that you face is developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Generally, about 25% of people who drink at higher than the recommended guidelines will develop problems with alcohol. Only 2% of people who drink at the low-risk level are ever diagnosed with an AUD, according to the NIAAA.

If you develop an AUD, you also run the risk of developing other personal problems and negative consequences, such as losing your driver's license, losing your job, and having problems with relationships.

Health Problems

Scientific research has linked heavy drinking to a wide range of effects on your health. Almost every system in your body can be negatively affected by alcohol. 

Binge drinkers, especially young binge drinkers, face a greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors for developing heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Heavy drinking has also been shown to cause or contribute to the following health conditions:

  • Liver disease or cirrhosis of the liver
  • Brain damage or dementia
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cancer (head and neck cancers, breast cancer, colon cancer, and liver cancer)
  • Sleep disorders
  • Depression

Drinking too much can also make managing other health problems and conditions more difficult, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and others.

Brain Damage

High-resolution images of the brain have revealed that binge drinking causes some visible, physical changes to the brain. The more drinks you have, the more your pre-frontal cortex is thinned, impacting cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

If you stop binge drinking, you may find that your ability to pay attention, plan, make decisions, process emotions, and control your impulses will improve.

Verbal Learning Skills

If you are a student, binge drinking can stand in your way of academic success for a multitude of reasons, including being too hungover to attend morning classes and problems with next-day learning after going on a binge.

For example, binge drinkers have been found to have problems with verbal learning skills. You may even find your ability to learn new verbal information improves if you cut down on the number of drinks you have.

Decision Making

If you started binge drinking early in life (before age 15), it's possible that your decision-making skills have been affected.

In fact, research shows that young binge drinkers have about the same decision-making problems as people with a severe AUD. If you quit binge drinking, chances are those skills will begin to improve immediately.

Attention and Memory

Binge drinkers, especially young drinkers, have been found by researchers to develop problems with attention and memory. Specifically, binge drinking among young people is linked with a thinning or reduction of areas of the brain that play a key role in the following:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Language
  • Awareness
  • Consciousness

Cut down on your drinking and you may find that you will be able to better distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information, complete tasks more efficiently, spend less effort trying to pay attention, and have less problem completing tasks.

Mood and Cognitive Performance

Research has found that binge drinkers report less-positive moods than non-binge drinkers. Binge drinking is associated with negative and depressive moods.

Sexual Assault

Those who binge drink are much more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior, including not using condoms, and therefore increase their risks for sexually-related problems.

If you avoid binge drinking you can greatly reduce your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, having an unwanted pregnancy, or being sexually assaulted.

Injury and Violence

Heavy drinking also significantly increases your chances of becoming the victim of an injury, both inside and outside the home. Alcohol impairment or intoxication greatly increases your risk of injuring yourself or being injured by others. According to the latest statistics, alcohol is a factor:

  • In 40% of fatal highway crashes, suicides, and fatal falls.
  • In 50% of sexual assaults and trauma injuries.
  • In 60% of all fatal fires, drownings, and homicides.

A large-scale study of emergency room patients revealed that young binge drinkers were more likely to be injured than even long-term, heavy-drinking alcoholics.

Studies have also shown that binge drinking can increase aggression and violence by the drinkers, but research has also shown that binge drinking can increase the chance of young drinkers becoming the victim of violence, whether or not they are violent themselves.

Birth Defects

If you drink heavily during pregnancy (even in the early stages before you know that you are pregnant), you increase the risk of your baby developing a range of disorders known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The most severe effect of prenatal alcohol exposure is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

It is not known if any amount of alcohol is safe to drink while you are pregnant. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, it is recommended that you do not drink at all.

If you drink and it is possible that you could become pregnant, frequent home pregnancy testing can help protect your child from prenatal alcohol exposure.

Financial Consequences

If you stop binge drinking, not only will you save money on alcohol purchases, but in the long run you will miss fewer days of work, pay less for healthcare costs, pay fewer fines and fees, have fewer arrests and accidents, pay less for insurance and be more likely to keep your job, compared to those who continue to binge drink.

Could You Have a Problem?

If you go out with friends or co-workers during the week and drink five or more drinks (four for women) and you also drink heavily one night during the weekend, you may need to reconsider your relationship with alcohol. At this point, you may have even experienced some of the negative effects outlined above.

Your first step may be to try to cut down or quit on your own. If you're having trouble, or experiencing symptoms of withdrawal, don't wait to get help. While there's no cure for an AUD, there are a lot of effective treatments, including medication, behavioral therapy, and online and community-based support groups.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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