Alcohol is a part of the American culture — civilian and military. Many of us drink with others to socialize and celebrate important events. Or we sometimes drink alone to relax and unwind from a hard day at work. But along with the good times and good feelings associated with alcohol, there are well-known health risks from drinking too much over a short or a long period of time. The challenge for anyone who drinks alcohol is to manage intake on any given day and over time in order to be a responsible drinker for life.
How much is too much?
Everyone responds differently to alcohol, and it's not possible to say exactly what effect a certain number of drinks will have. However, it's helpful to know what a standard drink is and how many it takes to exceed guidelines for low-risk drinking. A standard drink is:
- Twelve fluid ounces of beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
- Eight to nine fluid ounces of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
- Five fluid ounces of table wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
- One and one-half fluid ounces of hard liquor (about 40 percent alcohol)
If you want to make sure your drinking is low-risk, stay within these amounts recommended by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
- No more than four standard drinks on a given day and no more than 14 per week for men
- No more than three standard drinks on a single day and no more than seven per week for women and anyone over the age of 65
- No drinking at all for women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant and anyone who is taking medication that interacts with alcohol, who has a condition exacerbated by alcohol or who is about to drive or operate machinery
Many factors influence the effects a certain number of drinks can have on different people, such as the amount of food in their stomach and their age, weight and body chemistry. That's why blood alcohol content is the only precise measure of the risk of too much alcohol. Keep in mind that BAC peaks about 30-40 minutes after one standard drink is consumed. Drinking multiple drinks in a short amount of time results in a much higher BAC because the average body can only break down about one standard drink per hour.
Effects of intoxication
Alcohol starts to affect the brain within five minutes of being consumed, and as BAC increases, so does impairment from intoxication. For example:
- With up to 0.05 percent BAC, a person may be more talkative, relaxed and feel more confident.
- With 0.06 percent to 0.15 percent BAC, a person begins to show intoxication, which can include slurred speech, unsteady balance and coordination, slowed reflexes, aggression or other changes in emotional stability and impaired driving skills.
- With 0.16 percent to 0.30 percent BAC, a person is unable to walk without help and may have severely impaired judgment, memory and reaction time. There may be vomiting, loss of bladder control, loss of consciousness and other signs of alcohol poisoning.
- Above 30 percent BAC, there is a significant risk of coma and death.
Intoxication is a health risk, even for people who do not have a pattern of abusing alcohol. Intoxicated individuals are at greater risk for injury and loss of life from vehicle accidents, fires, falls, drowning, victimization by another person and suicide. In addition, they put others at increased risk from child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual assaults and other aggressive behaviors. Intoxication can also cause problems the next day if a person's hangover interferes with work performance.
Effects of long-term heavy drinking on the body
Drinking excessively over a period of years increases a person's risk for any number of serious health conditions. But whether a long-term heavy drinker develops an alcohol-related disease (and which one) can be influenced by many factors, including family history and genetic background, overall state of health and the environment. Common alcohol-related health conditions include:
- Brain changes — While intoxication can have temporary effects on the brain such as problems with memory, coordination and judgment, long-term heavy drinking can permanently alter the brain by reducing the size of brain cells. These changes may affect motor coordination, temperature regulation, sleep, mood and various cognitive functions, including learning and memory.
- Liver disease — The liver plays a vital role in alcohol detoxification, making it especially vulnerable to damage from excessive alcohol. Alcoholic liver disease usually begins as a fat buildup in the liver. The excessive fat makes it more difficult for the liver to operate and leaves it open to developing dangerous inflammations, like alcoholic hepatitis. Continued heavy drinking causes the buildup of scar tissue, a condition known as cirrhosis, which is the final phase of alcoholic liver disease. About one in four heavy drinkers will develop cirrhosis.
- Heart disease — Long-term heavy drinking, as well as binge drinking, can result in high blood pressure, stroke and cardiac arrhythmia, an abnormality of the heart rate. In addition, heavy consumption of alcohol over many years can lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which is a weakening of the heart muscle. It is a seriously disabling condition that often results in heart failure.
In addition to damaging these major organs, excessive drinking can take a toll on the body in many other ways. It has been estimated that 2 to 4 percent of all cancers are related to alcohol. It is most closely associated with cancers of the liver, the upper digestive tract and, in women, the breast. Excessive drinking is also known to depress the immune system and contribute to sexual impotence in men and reduced fertility in women.
For more detailed information on the effects of excessive drinking on the body, see the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's publication, Beyond Hangovers: Alcohol's Impact on Your Health.
Types of drinking problems
When a person has a problem with drinking, it can take different forms and have different consequences. Most drinking problems are of mild to moderate severity and respond well to counseling. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol dependence (alcoholism) affects only a small portion of problem drinkers. These categories represent different types of drinking problems:
- Risky drinking — A risky drinker may not be a regular or daily drinker, but when alcohol is consumed, it is high-volume drinking. Binge drinking is risky drinking. A risky drinker is also someone who drinks knowing that it might exacerbate a health condition or combine dangerously with medication.
- Alcohol abuse — People who continue to drink despite alcohol-related physical, psychological, relationship or job performance problems are abusing alcohol. Alcohol abuse is drinking that leads to significant impairment and distress but is not necessarily a pattern of consistently heavy drinking or dependence.
- Alcohol dependence — People dependent on alcohol have increasing tolerance for its effects and show symptoms of withdrawal if they stop drinking. Alcohol plays a central role in their lives, and they continue drinking despite major alcohol-related problems.
If you think you might have one of these drinking problems, help is available. A Military OneSource consultant (800-342-9647) can work with you to assess your problem, review options for getting help and provide appropriate referrals.