According to the World Health Organization’s Global status report on alcohol and health 2014, among people who drink alcohol, approximately 16 per cent of those aged 15 or older engage in heavy episodic drinking (defined by the report as “60 or more grams [2.5 ounces] of pure alcohol…on at least one single occasion at least monthly”). What’s more, in 2012, 5.9 per cent of all global deaths were due to alcohol consumption.
The WHO affirms that alcohol can lead to many negative consequences, including dependence and increased risk of more than 200 diseases, violence, and injuries.
Having a few drinks from time to time is usually not dangerous and can even lower your risk of coronary heart disease as was found in this British Medical Journal study. However, drinking can become problematic when we drink alcohol too often or drink too much at once.
What happens to you when you drink too much?
Overconsumption of alcohol affects the body in many ways. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, health consequences can include liver damage such as steatosis and cirrhosis; heart problems like cardiomyopathy, stroke, and high blood pressure; increased risk of developing certain cancers; a weakened immune system; and mood and behavioural changes.
How do you know whether you’re drinking too much?
Consider the following questions and answer, to yourself, honestly. These warning signs that you are drinking too much should be heeded, and not ignored.
- Do you drink enough that the next day you are almost always hung over? If you overdo it on the weekend once in a while, that’s not necessarily something but it is worrisome if you arrive at work every Monday with a hangover. T
- Do you drink in moderation? (up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men)? The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommends that if alcohol is to be consumed, it should be in moderation (up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men). If you’re regularly exceeding this amount, you may be drinking too much.
- Do you drink every day? Drinking alcohol in small quantities from time to time isn’t anything to worry about. However, if you feel you cannot go a day without drinking, you may be dependent on alcohol.
- Can you stop drinking after one or two? If you can’t stop after one or two drinks you may be drinking too much. For people with a dependence on alcohol, it is extremely difficult to suddenly stop drinking.
- When you can’t drink, do you experience withdrawal symptoms (anxiety, sleeplessness, intense craving for alcohol, body tremors, irritability and quick mood changes among others)?
- Do you have gaps in your memory for what happened when you were drinking? If you’ve ever had trouble remembering what happened after a night of heavy drinking, you already know that consuming alcohol in large quantities affects short-term memory.
- Do you feel anxious when you can’t drink? If you suddenly get the urge to drink but cannot (e.g. yo are at work) do you feel anxious or panic? This could mean that you have developed a dependence on alcohol, and you should review your daily intake.
- Do you stash/hide alcohol? You may be drinking too much if you keep a bottle stashed away (e.g. at work, in the car, at home). This is a sign of alcohol dependence and indicates you are probably drinking too much.
- Do you occasionally lose consciousness after drinking? Loss of consciousness is a symptom of alcohol poisoning, and can lead to death. If you sometimes pass out after drinking, it’s critical that you reduce your alcohol consumption so as not to put your life at risk.
- Has anyone expressed concerns about the amounts you drink? You may be drinking too much if someone has confronted you about your alcohol consumption. High-functioning alcoholics often experience a deep level of denial, believing their lives are still manageable.
- Do you frequently drink alone? A glass of wine, a cocktail, or a beer after a long day doesn’t make you an alcoholic. However, if you find yourself drinking more often alone than with friends, you may be drinking too much.
Drinking too much – Where can you go for help if you think you have a drinking problem?
If you think you have a drinking problem, there are many resources you can turn to for help. If you’re concerned about your health, start by seeing your doctor.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) runs a National Helpline, a free and confidential treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The service is available in English and Spanish, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In Canada, there are helplines that provide information on treatment services for every province and territory. Visit the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction for details.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if your alcohol consumption is interfering with your life.
World Health Organization. “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014.” World Health Organization, 2014, http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/msb_gsr_2014_1.pdf?ua=1pdf?ua=1).
World Health Organization. “WHO calls on governments to do more to prevent alcohol-related deaths and diseases.” World Health Organization, 12 May 2014, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/alcohol-related-deaths-prevention/en/.
Rimm, Eric B., Klatsky, Arthur, Grobbee, Diederick, and Stampfer, Meir J. “Review of moderate alcohol consumption and reduced risk of coronary heart disease: is the effect due to beer, wine, or spirits?” BMJ, 1996; 312:731, http://www.bmj.com/content/312/7033/731.short.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s effects on the body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Appendix 9: Alcohol.” 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th edition. December 2015. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-9/
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
Drinkaware. “Alcohol limits and unit guidelines.” Drinkaware, https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/alcoholic-drinks-units/alcohol-limits-unit-guidelines/
MedlinePlus. “Delirium tremens.” Medline Plus, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm
Bhat, Pookala S. et al. “Alcoholic Hallucinosis.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal21.2 (2012): 155–157. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3830167/.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, October 2004. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, October 2015. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcoholoverdosefactsheet/overdosefact.htm
Benton, Sarah A. “Being High-Functioning: Feeding the Alcoholic Denial.” Psychology Today, 10 Feb. 2009, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/200902/being-high-functioning-feeding-the-alcoholic-denial
Bergmann, M M; Schütze, M; Steffen, A; Boeing, H; Halkjaer, J; et al. “The association of lifetime alcohol use with measures of abdominal and general adiposity in a large-scale European cohort.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition; London65.10 (Oct 2011): 1079-87. https://search.proquest.com/openview/4e0ed8321c83048d974af0155ed23b39/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=33883
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
Alcohol Drug Information Service: https://yourroom.health.nsw.gov.au/getting-help/Pages/adis.aspx
Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction: http://www.cclt.ca/Eng/Pages/Addictions-Treatment-Helplines-Canada.aspx