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How Many Drinks Per Week Is Too Much?

how many drinks per week is too much

Many people are under the impression that there are only two kinds of drinkers: alcoholics and non-alcoholics. As we know, issues in life are very seldom black and white and this type of binary logic does not accurately represent the issue of alcohol use. In fact, alcohol researchers argue that—like many other behaviors—alcohol users exist on a spectrum. This means that alcoholism can be black, white, and every shade in-between.

But how do I determine whether I’m drinking too much alcohol?

Just like our fingerprints, the way our bodies individually process alcohol can vary greatly. Because alcohol can affect everyone in a different way, it is incredibly hard to determine how much alcohol is “too much” across the board. This is why we find that alcohol consumption guidelines vary so much. 

Even healthcare professionals provide varying guidelines on daily alcohol consumption. Many suggest limiting alcoholic beverage consumption to three a day while other clinicians may subscribe to the “1-2-3 rule” meaning one drink a day, no more than two at once, and no more than three times a week. The vast majority of healthcare professionals simply state that alcohol should be consumed “in moderation.”

Because everyone is different, drinking in moderation can be a completely relative concept that changes from person to person. Logic dictates that the 280-pound college football player can most likely consume more alcohol than a 100-pound college gymnast without experiencing its intoxifying effects.

The Centers for Disease Control has determined that as many as one in three adults in the United States drink to excess. We know now that “drinking to excess” can be relative and individual to each person so it begs the question:

What is Considered Excessive in a Week's Time?

Alcohol by the Numbers - Health Risk of Excessive Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) does provide some hard data as general consumption guidelines that apply to a vast majority of cases.

First let’s look at what constitutes one alcoholic beverage. The NIAAA has defined that a standard drink is equivalent to:

  • 12 fl oz. of beer (at five percent alcohol content)
  • 8-9 fl oz. of malt liquor (at seven percent alcohol)
  • 5 fl oz. of table wine (at 12 percent alcohol content)
  • 1.5 fl oz. or a shot of 80-proof distilled spirits (at 40 percent alcohol content)

It’s important to have these standard parameters in place when discussing how many drinks are too many.

According to the NIAAA, consuming seven or more drinks per week is considered heavy drinking for women, and 15 drinks or more per week is determined to be excessive or heavy drinking for men. Clearly, there is a substantial difference between recommended alcohol consumption for men and women.

The Biology of Alcohol Consumption

To understand why there’s such a substantial difference in recommended consumption for men and women, we must first understand the differences in how our bodies metabolize alcohol. To simplify things, women’s bodies absorb and metabolize differently than men. As mentioned before, women’s bodies are typically smaller, contain less body water, and have a higher liver-to-lean-body-mass ratio. Of course, this is generalizing the issue as we know that some men are smaller than some women and vice versa. 

The two of these factors work in tandem to allow women to reach peak blood alcohol levels faster than men. Along with this, women also metabolize alcohol faster than men. Both of these reasons lead to the suggested weekly alcohol limit being less than half of that of men.

Research also leads healthcare professionals to believe that women are more vulnerable to alcohol-related organ damage than men. On the flipside, research also suggests that men are more likely than women to become physically and mentally dependent on alcohol.

There are also universal factors among men and women that can affect the rate at which a person’s body metabolizes alcohol:

  • Body Weight: A person’s body weight is directly tied to the amount of alcohol they can consume before reaching dangerous levels. This becomes easy to understand when we take into account that up to 60% of the human body is composed of water. The larger the body, the more water it contains.

More water means more dilution of alcohol in the bloodstream and lower blood alcohol concentration (BAC) than someone who drinks the same amount but weighs less. Think of a drop of food coloring in a gallon of water versus a drop in a quart: one is invariably more noticeable than the other.

  • Other Medications: Prescription and over-the-counter medications may have adverse or unpredictable interactions when alcohol is introduced into the body. This works both ways as some medications can both cull and amplify the perceived effects of alcohol. Even if a medication seems to negate the negative effects of alcohol consumption, your BAC levels can still reach a dangerous high.

For example, some people describe the stimulant effects of cocaine or Adderall® as negating the bad side effects of alcohol. This is a false perception of safety because an elevated BAC level from binge drinking can still cause damage to your body and organs.

  • Eating Before or While You Drink: When someone eats a meal before or while drinking, it acts as a buffer between alcohol consumed and alcohol absorbed. It slows down the body’s ability to process alcohol. When someone drinks on an empty stomach, the alcohol can irritate the digestive system, causing more rapid alcohol absorption.

The Health Risks of Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Anyone who has experienced a hangover can attest that the excessive consumption of alcohol isn’t kind to the body and brain. Drinking too much at once can take a serious toll on a person’s health and habitual over-indulgence only amplifies these risks. Alcohol can have adverse effects on every organ in the body and it is a central nervous system depressant. Logic correctly dictates that the intensity of alcohol’s negative effects directly correlates with the amount of alcohol consumed.

Here are some of the numerous health risks associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol:

Brain Damage

The headache after a night of heavy drinking may be the first sign that alcohol isn’t your brain’s friend. Alcohol can disrupt neurotransmitters in the brain, impairing the way your brain functions. The disruptions in nerve communication pathways can lead to heavily impaired motor skill and unpredictable mood swings, as well as cloud the ability to think clearly.

Heavy drinking over time can cause permanent brain damage and alter the physical structure of the brain.

Liver Damage

Alcohol is metabolized in the liver but it can only process the equivalent of one alcoholic beverage per hour. This leaves an excess of alcohol circulating and saturating the body. Alcohol-related liver damage can lead to fibrosis (liver hardening), cirrhosis (liver scarring), alcoholic hepatitis, and steatosis (fatty liver disease).

Much like damage to the brain, excessive and habitual alcohol consumption can lead to permanent damage to the liver.

Heart Disease

People who consume alcohol in excess can cause permanent damage to their heart as well. These problems may include:

  • Cardiomyopathy (weakening of the heart muscles)
  • Arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat
  • Stroke or heart attack
  • Increased blood pressure

Increased Risk for Certain Cancers

Regular consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to an increased risk of developing certain cancers including mouth, throat, liver, and breast cancers. Since alcohol is mainly consumed orally, all body parts that come into contact with it are at an increased risk of developing cancer. 

When Does Excessive Drinking Become Addiction?

Each person is unique and excessive drinking doesn’t always mean that someone is suffering from an alcohol use disorder. It has been determined that 90% of people who drink to excess don’t meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. It is important to know the risks associated with heavy alcohol use.

Although everyone is different, there are some universal signs to look out for when determining if you or a loved one is suffering from an alcohol use disorder. Look out for the following behaviors:

  • The inability to limit drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite negative effects on relationships and professional life
  • Needing to drink more to obtain the desired effect
  • Wanting to drink so badly that it becomes difficult or impossible to think of anything else

As a rule, drinking becomes a problem when it causes trouble in important aspects of life such as personal relationships, school, social activities, or how a person thinks or feels.

Drinking Too Much FAQs:

How many times a week is it OK to drink?

The safe amount of alcohol consumption varies from person to person but it is important to keep in mind that the liver can only metabolize roughly one drink per hour. Any more than that and you risk damaging vital organs.

How many alcoholic drinks per day is safe?

The acceptable amount of alcohol consumption varies from person to person but it is important to keep in mind that the liver can only metabolize roughly one drink per hour. Any more than that and you risk damaging vital organs.

What is considered a heavy drinker?

According to the NIAAA, consuming seven or more drinks per week is considered heavy drinking for women, and 15 drinks or more per week is determined to be excessive or heavy drinking for men.

The difference between men and women comes down to the issue of body mass. The larger the body, the more the dilution of alcohol in the bloodstream.

How much is too much alcohol weekly?

The amount of alcohol that is considered “too much” can vary from person to person. The liver can only process roughly one drink per hour. If drinking starts to affect your mood, physical state, career, or social life, it may be time to reevaluate your drinking habits.

Addiction Treatment For Men and Women That Are Drinking Too Much

SUN Behavioral Delaware is here to solve any unmet mental health and addiction needs you may have. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol use disorder, our compassionate clinicians are here to help with outpatient treatment.

Call us today at 302-604-5600 to start regaining control of your life.

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