Adults who choose to drink should do so responsibly and in moderation. But what does that mean?
Moderation and Knowing Your Limits
According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, “Adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more. There are some adults who should not drink alcohol, such as women who are pregnant.”1
What is a standard drink? The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines a standard drink as 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer, 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine, and 1.5 ounces of 40% ABV spirits (or 80 proof). The CDC, NIH, SAMHSA, and other government entities recognize this standard drink definition.
So, how many standard drinks are in that can or bottle you are planning to open? Use the “Standard Drink Calculator” to take the guess work out of it.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) explain that “alcohol’s effects vary from person to person, depending on a variety of factors, including:
- How much you drink
- How often you drink
- Your age
- Your health status
- Your family history”
Further, NIH notes that, “as you drink, you increase your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount of alcohol present in your bloodstream. The higher your BAC, the more impaired you become by alcohol’s effects.”
Responsible consumption means ensuring that you are hosting and attending drinking occasions in a responsible manner, understanding how alcohol impacts your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), and arranging for a safe ride home. More information about responsible consumption practices can be found at Responsibility.org.
Curious about how different factors affect your BAC? Check out Responsibility.org’s Virtual Bar – a tool to help you better understand how your gender, height, weight, the food you eat, and other variables can affect your BAC.
Drinking responsibly also means hosting responsibly when serving alcohol, ensuring that guests are not over-served, have ample food, have plenty of non-alcohol beverage choices, and have a safe ride home. For more tips on responsible hosting, visit [ADD LINKS]
Alcohol Misuse, Alcohol Overdose, and Alcohol Use Disorders
An important aspect of responsible alcohol consumption is understanding what harmful alcohol consumption looks like. This includes binge and excessive drinking, alcohol overdose, underage drinking, and alcohol abuse.
Alcohol Misuse and Excessive Drinking
NIAAA defines alcohol misuse as: “Drinking in a manner, situation, amount, or frequency that could cause harm to users or to those around them. For individuals younger than the legal drinking age of 21, or for pregnant females, any alcohol use constitutes alcohol misuse.”
Excessive drinking is a form of alcohol misuse. According to the CDC, “excessive drinking includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.” CDC provides the following definitions for these categories:
- Binge drinking, the most common form of excessive drinking, is defined as consuming:
- For women, 4 or more drinks during a single occasion.
- For men, 5 or more drinks during a single occasion.
- Heavy drinking is defined as consuming:
- For women, 8 or more drinks per week.
- For men, 15 or more drinks per week.2
The CDC states that, within the larger category of excessive drinking “binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States” and that “binge drinking is a harmful risk behavior associated with serious injuries and multiple diseases. It is also associated with an increased risk of alcohol use disorder.”3
However, CDC clarifies that “most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder” and that, “most people who drink excessively are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent” Beyond these definitions, the CDC advises that “drinking is a problem if it causes trouble in your relationships, in school, in social activities, or in how you think and feel.”4
At the extreme, excessive drinking can result in alcohol overdose. Anyone who consumes too much alcohol too quickly may be in danger of an alcohol overdose, according to the NIH. This is especially true for individuals who engage in binge drinking. The NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent—or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter—or higher.5
According to the NIH: “An alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions—such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control—begin to shut down. Symptoms of alcohol overdose include mental confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, vomiting, seizure, trouble breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin, dulled responses such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking), and extremely low body temperature. Alcohol overdose can lead to permanent brain damage or death.”6
The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health provides additional information on alcohol overdose deaths: “Overdose deaths are typically caused by consuming substances at high intensity and/or by consuming combinations of substances such as alcohol, sedatives, tranquilizers, and opioid pain relievers to the point where critical areas in the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and body temperature stop functioning… The CDC reports more than 2,200 alcohol overdose deaths in the United States each year—an average of six deaths every day.44 More than three quarters (76 percent) of alcohol overdose deaths occur among adults between ages 35 and 64, and 76 percent of those who die from alcohol overdose are men.”7
According to the NIAAA, “[t]he developing brain is particularly vulnerable to effects of alcohol. Misuse of alcohol during adolescence and early adulthood can alter the trajectory of brain development, resulting in long-lasting changes in brain structure and function.”8
“Research indicates that alcohol use during the teenage years can interfere with normal adolescent brain development and increase the risk of developing AUD. In addition, underage drinking contributes to a range of acute consequences, such as injuries, sexual assaults, alcohol overdoses, and deaths—including those from motor vehicle crashes . . . Alcohol is a factor in the deaths of thousands of people younger than age 21 in the United States each year.9
Underage drinking is dangerous and, as explained by the CDC, increases the likelihood that youth will experience:
- “School problems, such as higher rates of absences or lower grades.
- Social problems, such as fighting or lack of participation in youth activities.
- Legal problems, such as arrest for driving or physically hurting someone while drunk.
- Physical problems, such as hangovers or illnesses.
- Unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity.
- Disruption of normal growth or sexual development.
- Physical and sexual violence.
- Increased risk of suicide and homicide.
- Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and other unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls, or drowning.
- Memory problems.
- Misuse of other substances.
- Changes in brain development that may have life-long effects.
- Alcohol poisoning.
- In general, the risk of youth experiencing these problems is greater for those who binge drink than for those who do not binge drink.
- Early initiation of drinking is associated with development of an alcohol use disorder later in life.”10
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
The NIAAA provides the following definition:
Alcohol use disorder: A chronic brain disorder marked by compulsive drinking, loss of control over alcohol use, and negative emotions when not drinking. AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Recovery is possible regardless of severity. The DSM-IV, published by the American Psychiatric Association, described two distinct disorders—alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence—with specific criteria for each. The fifth edition, DSM-5, integrates the two DSM-IV disorders into a single disorder called AUD, with mild, moderate, and severe subclassifications.11
The CDC offers additional information about severe AUD: “A severe alcohol use disorder, previously known as alcohol dependence or alcoholism, is a chronic disease. Some of the signs and symptoms of a severe alcohol use disorder could include:
- Inability to limit drinking.
- Continuing to drink despite personal or professional problems.
- Needing to drink more to get the same effect.
- Wanting a drink so badly you can’t think of anything else.”
AUD can affect anyone, and it is critical to talk to your physician about your alcohol consumption.
NIAAA provides the following information about treatment for AUD: “The good news is that no matter how severe the problem may seem, evidence-based treatment with behavioral therapies, mutual-support groups, and/or medications can help people with AUD achieve and maintain recovery.” NIAAA goes on to specify that “several evidence-based treatment approaches are available for AUD. One size does not fit all and a treatment approach that may work for one person may not work for another. Treatment can be outpatient and/or inpatient and be provided by specialty programs, therapists, and doctors.”
Additional resources and services can be found here:
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025
- Alcohol Use and Your Health | CDC
- Binge Drinking | CDC
- Frequently Asked Questions | CDC
- Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) (nih.gov)
- Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview | NIAAA
- The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health
- Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview | NIAAA
- Alcohol Facts and Statistics | NIAAA
- Underage Drinking | CDC
- Alcohol Facts and Statistics