Binge drinking is a serious but avoidable public health issue. Also known as “high-intensity drinking,” binging is defined as drinking a large quantity of alcohol in a short time. What is considered a large volume depends on each individual, but in general, adults are considered to have binged on alcohol if they have consumed more than four drinks over the course of two hours. Even one or two drinks can cause physical and psychological impairment in most people. Factors that influence your level of intoxication include:
- Your body size and composition
- What you’ve had to eat or drink
- Your ethnicity and gender
- Your general health
- What medications you are taking
- Your co-occurring drug usage
While we often associate binge drinking with college students and party culture, the truth is that anyone is susceptible to being a binge drinker. Most binge drinkers are 18-34 years old, but the overconsumption of alcohol affects people of all ages across the country. No one is immune.
While the legal age to consume alcohol in the US is 21 years old, many people begin drinking illegally at a much younger age. The CDC reports that “one in six US adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about seven drinks per binge.” While rates of binge drinking are decreasing in populations aged 12-22, they are actually increasing among older adults. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out the dangers of older adults engaging in binge drinking. For example, they are more likely to take medications that could negatively interact with alcohol.
Because we often connect binge drinking with young people, there is a common misconception that over drinking is “just something college kids do” or not something to take too seriously. In fact, binge drinking is a dangerous activity that has short and long-term consequences.
Why Do We Binge Drink?
Researchers are looking at the connection to dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates emotions and behaviors, to better understand why some people binge drink. Alcohol raises dopamine levels in the brain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA), making us feel calmer and more relaxed. Alcohol can cause feelings of euphoria and lower our inhibitions. In social situations where we may be uncomfortable or feel shy, alcohol acts as a form of self-medication. This can lead many down the dangerous path of too much drinking and risky changes in behavior.
Why are some people able to drink with moderation, while others can’t stop until they are at the point of falling over or passing out? Researchers are still looking for concrete answers to this problem, but we have some clues. In addition to factors like home environment, socio-economic status, and mental health disorders, Dr. Frances Wang of the University of Pittsburgh argues that genetic factors are also at play. In a 2018 study, Dr. Wang and her colleagues studied serotonin and alcohol. They found that “genetic risk of poor serotonin function predicted depression and aggression or antisociality, and that the conduct issues, in turn, predicted alcohol use.”
Another study, conducted by researchers at the Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics in Chicago, identified KCNK13 as a channel in the VTA. This channel can become blocked by alcohol, causing an even more significant increase in dopamine levels. The study showed that mice who had lower levels of the KCNK13 channel had “drank 20–30 per cent more alcohol than the normal mice.” Scientists speculate that the mice with less KCNK13 needed more alcohol to achieve the same effect as the control group. This may help explain a genetic link between those who have low levels of KCNK13 and binge drink.
Scientists agree that social acceptance, and sometimes even social pressure, are leading causes of the overconsumption of alcohol. In addition to genetic risk, Dr. Wang’s study also discovered that teens were more likely to binge drink when their peers were also binge drinking. When alcohol consumption was viewed positively by the peer group, the rate of reported binge drinking increased.
Binge Drinking and the Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning
Binge drinkers consume enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 percent or higher, the legal limit for driving after drinking in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Those who drink to intoxication often do so in social settings, such as college parties with drinking games, but you don’t need to be around other people to binge.
Binge drinkers are at risk of many different health issues, including alcohol poisoning, brain damage, and sometimes even death. The younger you are when you begin drinking, the more likely you will have long-term adverse effects. Consequences of binge drinking include:
- Blacking out and overdosing
- Damage to the immune system
- Fetal alcohol syndrome and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure and stroke
- Higher risk of DUI/DWI and car accidents
- Increased risk of cancers
- Increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder
- Issues retaining information/memory loss
- Live disease
- Participating in risky sexual behavior and increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases
The CDC reports that excessive drinking claims 95,000 lives per year, despite it being a preventable public health issue.
A Plan For Recovery
To prevent binge drinking, it’s critical to have self-awareness and set personal limits. While excessive alcohol is considered to be more than four drinks for women and five drinks for men in a single session, even low levels of alcohol consumption can be dangerous. You need to be aware of your level of tolerance to avoid intoxication. If you do consume alcohol, do so responsibly and in moderation.
Create a strategy to avoid binge drinking. A drink is defined as a 12-ounce beer with 5% ABV, a 5-ounce wine with 12% ABV, or 1.5 ounce of distilled spirits. It’s essential to understand what constitutes a standard drink so that you can set a limit before you start drinking and stick to it. Be aware of your own limits and don’t exceed them. Because peer pressure encourages binge drinking, it’s important that you surround yourself with friends and family who don’t drink alcohol excessively, if at all.
It can be difficult to recognize that binge drinking is causing problems in your life, especially if your social group encourages the behavior. Binge drinking is considered unhealthy alcohol use, but if left unchecked, it can quickly spiral into an alcohol use disorder. If you notice a pattern of problems or disruptions caused by your alcohol consumption, it’s time to seek professional assistance.
At Lake Avenue Recovery, we provide a variety of programs to assist those who are struggling with unhealthy alcohol use. Our staff is here to help you in selecting the best course of treatment, and our supportive environment allows you to heal physically, mentally, and emotionally.