Alcohol: how much is too much?

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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.

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 (BAC) 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. Alcohol starts to affect the brain within five minutes of being consumed, and as BAC increases, so does impairment from intoxication, 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.

Drinking excessively over a period of years increases a person’s risk for any number of serious health conditions like reducing the size of brain cells, which may affect motor coordination, temperature regulation, sleep, mood and various cognitive functions, including learning and memory. There is also an increased risk of liver or heart disease, which can result in high blood pressure, stroke and cardiac arrhythmia, an abnormality of the heart rate or a weakening of the heart muscle which often results in heart failure.

In addition to damaging these major organs 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 include risky drinking, and alcohol abuse or dependence. If you think you or a friend or family member might have one of these drinking problems, help is available. A Military OneSource consultant (800-342-9647) can work with you to assess the problem, review options for getting help, provide appropriate referrals or simply get more information.