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Does My Binge Drinking Mean I’m an Alcoholic?

Answers to this and other key questions about problem drinking.

Key points

  • Binge drinking is when you bring your blood alcohol concentration up to .08 percent.
  • A recent study showed that drinking patterns trumped drinking amounts regarding the risk of alcohol problems.
  • Be honest with yourself, look at things as clearly as possible, and seek help if you suspect the bingeing is a sign of something.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed something alarming about people who binge on alcohol. And notably, the study subjects were all over 30, so not the spring break crowd normally associated with bingeing.

The University of Texas research team found that among moderate drinkers—i.e., those who had an average of two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women—bingeing increased their risk of alcohol-related problems even though overall intake remained moderate.

In other words, drinking patterns trumped drinking amounts regarding the risk of alcohol problems.

The binge drinkers saw an increased risk of:

  • Emotional and psychological problems from alcohol.
  • An irresistible desire to use alcohol.
  • Requiring more alcohol to get the same effect.
  • Using alcohol in situations with a higher risk of getting hurt.

Given these troubling findings, it seems a good time to revisit some key questions on binge drinking.

Q: How do you define binge drinking?

A: Binge drinking is when you bring your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to .08 percent. This means consuming four or more drinks for a woman, or five or more drinks for a man, in about two hours.

Keep in mind that one drink equates to a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or a mixed drink that contains 1.5 ounces of alcohol. Note: In many states, .08 percent BAC is the legal driving limit.

Q: Does my binge drinking mean I’m an alcoholic?

A: No, it doesn’t. But it could be a warning sign. You need to closely and honestly monitor your drinking behavior to figure out what’s going on. A little context: The majority of bingeing happens among college-age adults simply because it can. At this age, young adults often don’t have regular schedules, many are not working nine to five, and the hard reality of needing to make a living often hasn’t kicked in yet.

In no way am I condoning binge drinking among this age group. I’m just explaining why it is more common during this time. For most people, binge drinking goes way down or stops altogether as they move into their mid and late 20s and have more responsibilities and more defined schedules.

Q: How do I know if my binge drinking does mean I have a drinking problem?

A: Bingeing can certainly be a sign of alcohol use disorder (AUD). To determine if that’s the case, you have to look at other risk factors of alcohol addiction, including:

  • A genetic predisposition for AUD.
  • A family history of alcohol overuse.
  • A history of trauma.
  • Depression, anxiety disorder, or other mental health issues.

If one or more of these is present along with regular binge episodes, it’s probably time to seek help regarding your alcohol intake.

The key question is: Is alcohol use affecting your life? For example, is it causing relationship issues? Is it hurting school or work performance? Is it causing legal or financial troubles?

If your alcohol use is doing any of those things, you likely have a serious drinking issue that needs to be dealt with. At the very least, check with your doctor or therapist, or visit urgent care and lay out your symptoms. Bottom line: It’s time to get some medical advice.

Q: But what about people who refuse to see—or are unable to see—that alcohol use and bingeing are affecting their lives in ways that may be obvious to others?

A: Many times, a person with a serious drinking or drug problem is the last person to realize it. That’s when it’s so important for that person to try and look at things through other people’s eyes.

This reminds me of the impact statements we have friends and family members write when they come for patient visits or family workshops at the addiction treatment center where I serve as a chief medical officer. In those statements, people will often say things like:

  • You missed my birthday party again.
  • Mom, you never come to my soccer games.
  • You were so drunk at my wedding reception.
  • You spent the money on partying that we were saving for a down payment on a car.

These details can be very powerful for our patients to hear. And they’re exactly the things people need to be aware of and consider when trying to assess if they have a drinking problem beyond the occasional binge. If so, it’s time to get help.

Q: Are there other problems that binge drinking can cause?

A: Yes. Binge drinking can be fatal. It can land you in the ER with alcohol poisoning. It’s incredibly dangerous if you’re driving and leads to many DUIs. A binge episode also makes someone more apt to commit assault—or be assaulted.

On that last point: Statistics show that women who binge are more likely to be sexually assaulted than women who don’t binge. Please know I am not blaming the victim here. I’m simply saying that when you’re impaired by alcohol—whether you’re male or female—you’re more likely to get hurt.

This leads to some practical advice: For women especially, if you plan on a night of heavy drinking, be smart about it. If you’re going out, go with friends, stick together, don’t leave anyone behind, and ensure everyone leaves the venue together.

Also, because of body size and composition, hormonal differences, and other factors, women tend to get drunker faster than men. So please be careful. Try not to ever lose your head.

Q: Is it safer and healthier to binge on beer than on hard alcohol like gin or vodka?

A: No on both counts. It is not safer or healthier! The one caveat is that it usually takes longer to binge your way to inebriation on beer than on the hard stuff because beer has a lower alcohol content. But you can still get there easily enough.

As for your health specifically, let me put it this way: As a medical doctor in the addiction treatment field, I’ve seen plenty of people in liver failure who only drink beer.

Q: Are there proven ways I can control or cut back on my bingeing?

A: First of all, for those with AUD who are addicted to alcohol, trying to cut back almost never works. Alcohol use has rewired your brain chemistry and structure to the point where sobriety is the only answer in the vast majority of cases. Course corrections are no longer possible if AUD is present.

But for those who binge and don’t have AUD, some strategies can work. At the very least, they’ll keep you safer.

These include:

  • Don’t drink alone.
  • Eat food while you’re drinking.
  • Space your drinks out, waiting at least 15 minutes between them.
  • Drink water while you’re taking in alcohol.
  • Count drinks along the way.
  • Know that in the “upsized” world of bar and restaurant portions, the alcohol content of beer, wine, or mixed drinks can be higher than the average.

Q: Any final thoughts or advice on binge drinking?

A: Yes, three things. First, as I mentioned earlier, occasional bingeing does not mean someone is an alcoholic. A warning sign, yes, but no proof of anything. Yet AUD is not the only danger associated with binge drinking—there are many others. It’s a serious risk to your health and the health and safety of those around you.

Second, if you plan to keep bingeing—which I wholeheartedly recommend against—please try to be safe about it. Don’t drive, drink water and eat food while drinking, stick to a reasonable limit, and drink slowly (please, no chugging). Also, try to cut back on the frequency of these binge incidents.

Lastly, binge drinking could be a clue that something is going on in your life that you’re unhappy about or isn’t going well. Relationship issues. Job or school stress. Financial or legal problems. Maybe something you’re trying to numb yourself to or escape from.

With all those instances, bingeing is never the answer. In fact, as with drug or alcohol overuse, it often worsens things.

So be honest with yourself, look at things as clearly as possible, and seek help if you suspect the bingeing is a sign of something. A trained clinician or therapist may spot a problem you can address immediately. This can put you on the road to a healthier, happier life.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Holahan, Holahan, & Moos (June 2022). Binge Drinking and Alcohol Problems Among Moderate Average-Level Drinkers. American Journal of Preventive Medicine

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