If I drink a lot, does that make me an alcoholic?

Jessica Kennedy, Mental Health America

It depends. What do you think is a lot?

There are a few different guidelines from reputable sources, which makes it confusing and hard to say.

  • The American Heart Association recommends a limit of an average of 1-2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. This is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans developed by the CDC.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as getting your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) to 0.08, which is the legal limit in most states. They say this is about 4 drinks for women or 5 drinks for men in 2 hours. (Weight and food consumption affects this a lot.)
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration defines binge drinking as 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women in one sitting. Note that this refers to standard drinks, which is 12 ounces of regular beer (not Imperial IPAs), 5 ounces of table wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor like vodka or rum (not moonshine). A Long Island Iced Tea is probably closer to 3 or 4 drinks by this measure than one. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

Then there’s heavy alcohol use, which is binge drinking 5 or more days in the past month, according to SAMHSA. Or 15 drinks or more per week for men or 8 drinks or more per week for women, if you go by the American Heart Association and the CDC.

So if you’re drinking more than any of those recommendations, it’s not great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an addiction (what is sometimes called a substance use disorder). Remember you can do damage to your heart, your liver, or your social life by drinking even if you don’t become addicted.

If you feel like you may have a substance use problem, you should talk to someone about it. Here are some signs that it’s time to get help:

  • You tell yourself you’re going to stop after two drinks, but you can’t.
  • You tell yourself you’re going to go several days without drinking, but you can’t.
  • You drink even though you start having problems with friends, family, romantic relationships, and work.
  • You think about drinking a lot.
  • You feel like you need a drink to enjoy specific activities.

If you want to get help, you can start by asking your primary care physician or scheduling an appointment with a counselor or therapist who specializes in alcohol or drug use.

Sometimes it’s hard for you to notice that your life is spinning out of control because of your drinking. This is especially true if you’re in a setting where drinking a lot seems common and a lot of your friends drink. It can be a good idea to check yourself by asking a trusted friend what they think in a quiet, private setting. You want to choose a friend who you think will challenge you a little—not your biggest cheerleader.

Remember that not everyone drinks! Even though 60 percent of college students reported drinking alcohol in the past month, 40 percent of them didn’t.

Additional Resources: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm

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