To many people, there are only two kinds of drinkers, those who drink in moderation and alcoholics. However, this is not an accurate representation. According to alcohol researchers, there is a broad spectrum of alcohol abuse.
Because alcohol can affect each individual differently, it can be hard to define what “too much alcohol” is for the general population, hence the widely varied guidelines for recommended alcohol consumption.
Even clinicians may give their patients staggeringly different rules of thumb when it comes to how much alcohol they should consume. Some suggest limiting alcohol intake to three glasses a day. Others advise the 1-2-3 rule (one drink a day, no more than two at once, no more than three times a week), while some may merely state to consume alcohol “in moderation.”
One person’s definition of moderate alcohol consumption may be very different from others, and as many as one in three American adults drink excessively, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So, how much alcohol is too much to drink in a week’s time?
Consuming seven or more drinks per week is considered excessive or heavy drinking for women, and 15 drinks or more per week is deemed to be excessive or heavy drinking for men.
A standard drink, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), is equivalent to:
- 12 fl oz. of beer (at five percent alcohol content)
- 8-9 fl oz. of malt liquor (at seven percent alcohol content)
- 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)
Why Alcohol Affects Men And Women Differently
Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently than men. Women’s bodies are typically smaller, so they have less body water and a higher liver-to-lean-body-mass ratio. These two factors allow them to reach peak blood alcohol levels faster and to break down alcohol at a faster rate than most men, which is why their weekly alcohol limit is so much lower.
Research also suggests that women may be more vulnerable to alcohol-related organ damage than men. However, men are more likely to become dependent on alcohol than women.
Other factors which can affect the rate at which someone’s body processes alcohol can include:
- Body Weight: An individual’s body weight determines the amount of space alcohol has to diffuse within their body. In general, the more someone weighs, the lower his or her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level will be, compared to individuals who weigh less but drink the same amount.
- Other Medications: Other drugs and medications may have adverse effects or unpredictable interactions when combined with alcohol. In some cases, other substances may increase the effects of alcohol or cause fatal interactions.
- Eating Before Or While They Drink: When someone eats before or while they drink alcohol it can slow down their body’s ability to process alcohol. When someone drinks on an empty stomach, alcohol can irritate the digestive system and cause more rapid alcohol absorption.
Health Risks Associated With Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Drinking too much, whether on a single occasion or every week, can take a serious toll on someone’s overall health. Alcohol can affect every organ in the body. It is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that is rapidly absorbed by the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. The intensity of the effects of alcohol on the body is directly related to the amount consumed.
There are many health risks associated with excess alcohol consumption, which can include:
Liver And Pancreas Damage:
Heavy drinking can cause a lot of potential damage to the liver because this is where alcohol is metabolized. However, the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, leaving excess alcohol to circulate throughout the body. Alcohol-related liver damage can lead to steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis (liver inflammation), fibrosis, and cirrhosis (liver scarring).
Alcohol consumption can also cause the pancreas to produce toxic substances that may eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
Alcohol can disrupt the communication pathways in the brain and can affect the way the brain functions. The disruptions to the communication pathways in the brain may result in sudden changes in mood or behavior, and make it harder to think clearly or move with coordination.
Over time, drinking too much on a weekly basis may cause permanent damage or changes to the physical structures in the brain.
Individuals who consume more than the recommended amount of alcohol per week can damage their heart, causing problems such as:
- cardiomyopathy (stretching and drooping of heart muscles)
- arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
- high blood pressure
Increased Risk For Certain Cancers:
Regularly consuming large amounts of alcohol can also increase an individual’s risk of developing certain cancers, including mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast cancers. Because the most common way to consume alcohol is to drink it, the parts of the body the alcohol comes into contact with most are often the most susceptible.
Immune System Failure:
Excessive weekly drinking can weaken an individual’s immune system, making their body much more susceptible to other diseases. Chronic drinking is more likely to expose people to diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, compared to people who abstain from drinking. Even drinking a lot on a single occasion can slow the body’s ability to ward off infections—up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
When Does Drinking Too Much Become An Addiction?
Excessive drinking does not always mean someone has a severe alcohol use disorder (AUD). In fact, about 90 percent of people who drink excessively would not likely meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
Severe alcohol use disorders, also known as alcohol dependence or alcoholism, is a chronic disease. Some signs of a severe alcohol use disorder can include:
- inability to limit drinking
- continuing to drink despite personal loss or professional problems
- needing to drink more to get the same effect
- wanting to drink so badly that it becomes impossible to think of anything else
Drinking is a problem if it causes trouble in personal relationships, school, social activities, or in how an individual thinks and feels. If someone is believed to have developed a drinking problem, it is best to consult a primary care provider or addiction specialist for more information.
Treatment Options For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
There are many treatment options for alcohol abuse and addiction. Individuals who struggle with alcohol may be able to stop on their own if they have not yet become dependent on the substance. However, those who have developed a dependence on alcohol will likely need professional help to stop drinking.
Inpatient drug and alcohol rehab centers combine medication-assisted treatments, such as naltrexone(Vivitrol) or disulfiram (Antabuse), and behavioral therapies like dialectical behavioral therapy to help individuals overcome their dependence on alcohol. These programs teach individuals about their addiction and how to recognize their triggers so they will be ready for life after treatment.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Drinking Levels Defined
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions