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It is often considered common knowledge that binge drinking has negative effects, but there may be some confusion in regard to its severity and dangers. While hangovers are uncomfortable, inconvenient, or even painful, they are the least of the possible health concerns when it comes to binge drinking.
In this article, we will go over what binge drinking is, some signs of binge drinking, binge drinking effects on health, and whether binge drinking may be related to alcoholism.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Most people have experienced having a bit too much on a night out with friends – but you may now wonder, “Was that binge drinking?”
Depending on your tolerance, it may have been.
Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as consuming 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for females. While this is considered the bar for binge drinking, the CDC also notes that most people who binge drink won’t stop there and may have 8 or more drinks on an occasion.
They also note that, while this can be dangerous, it is also extremely common. People who have binge drunk have nothing to be ashamed of, but learning more about the health risks of these decisions and how to prevent binge drinking in the future can help keep them safe from the more extreme negative outcomes.
While the CDC defines binge drinking based on the number of drinks consumed, there are other ways of defining it – specifically, based on blood alcohol concentration.
As an example of this type of definition, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism define binge drinking as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 per cent — or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter — or higher. They also note that this is usually reached by drinking 4 or more drinks within 2 hours for females and by drinking 5 or more drinks within 2 hours for men. For young people, however, it may happen with even fewer drinks, with only 3 drinks for females and 3-5 drinks for males, depending on their age and size.
It should be noted that while measuring binge drinking based on blood alcohol concentration may be more helpful for people who metabolise drinks quickly or who prefer drinks with a lower alcoholic content, they may be more difficult to apply on a night out than limiting yourself to 3 or 4 drinks. This is part of why it’s important to know the signs of binge drinking, so you can more accurately evaluate if you or anyone you know is at risk.
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Binge Drinking Signs
If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be showing signs of binge drinking or alcoholism, there’s a simple acronym that may be able to help you evaluate whether it’s time to get help: CAGE. Here’s what it stands for:
- Have you ever felt the need to Cut down on your drinking?
- Have people Annoyed you when they ask questions about or criticise your drinking?
- Have you ever felt Guilty about your drinking?
- Have you ever felt the need to have a drink first thing in the morning, right when your Eyes open?
If the answer to two or more of these questions is yes, it’s a good sign that there may be some alcohol abuse or dependence going on. It’s crucial to approach these issues with kindness and respect for the person struggling – including yourself if it’s you who is struggling – as it is a difficult thing to grapple with and recover from. Reading this article and asking these questions are great first steps toward recovery.
Other signs of binge drinking may include:
- Feeling the need to go all out on the weekends because one or two drinks simply aren’t enough. While this may not immediately impact weekday life, such as managing work or meeting your family’s day-to-day needs, it can become a risk factor.
- Consistently experiencing less-than-adequate sleep. Even if you technically get enough sleep, drinking too much alcohol can have a negative impact on your REM cycle and may make your quality of sleep so low that no matter how many hours you get, you still don’t feel well rested.
- Being unable to stick to the limits you set for yourself on how much you drink. For example, if you go out with friends for “just one drink,” but once you’ve had that one, feel the urge to continue ordering more. It can be easy to slip into, but more than one drink an hour can quickly become a problem, either for your well-being the next morning or for your health long-term.
- Blacking out frequently due to large quantities of alcohol.
- Feeling embarrassed about behaviours that come out after one too many, such as starting fights, making sexually risky decisions that you may not make when sober, or otherwise taking part in behaviours that sober you would not appreciate.
- Experiencing health problems that may be connected to drinking too much, such as shaking hands and ulcers. While some may think it takes years of alcohol abuse to develop these symptoms, everyone’s body responds differently to the overuse of alcohol, and these issues may show up sooner for some people than others. People who use some prescription medications may also find that drinking too much alcohol may interfere with the effectiveness of those medications.
- Being faced with professional or legal problems related to drinking. Some examples of this may include being drunk in charge of a vehicle or being let go from your job due to repeated failure to show up on time or complete your responsibilities due to alcohol consumption.
Whether you’ve seen most of these signs appear in your own life or the life of a loved one, or just one or two, it’s important to take these signs seriously. If any pattern of drinking results in personal distress or other problems with functioning in daily life, it’s important to address it early and effectively to prevent any serious long-term problems.
Is Binge Drinking Considered Alcoholism?
While binge drinking on occasion may not necessarily mean someone is experiencing alcoholism, there is a lot of overlap between alcoholism and binge drinking behaviours. In addition, alcohol use disorder – which was previously known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction – can encompass any long-term pattern of alcohol use that is difficult to control or results in extreme cravings when alcohol is avoided.
Binge drinking certainly qualifies as one of these patterns, as it involves consuming several drinks in a short period of time, especially when people feel unable to stop themselves from having “just one more.” Even just one episode of binge drinking can bring your blood alcohol content (BAC) to dangerous, even life-threatening levels. As a result, you might experience a blackout, vomit, or even pass out. If this is repeated, you may face even more serious health and safety concerns, so it’s important to know the short-term and long-term effects of binge drinking.
What Are the Effects of Binge Drinking?
According to research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there is data that suggests even one episode of binge drinking can compromise the function of the immune system and lead to acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) in individuals with underlying pancreatic damage. Long-term, binge drinking is associated with many health problems, including:
- Injuries related to the lack of coordination and slow response time that often comes with being under the influence of alcohol, such as falls, burns, and vehicle crashes.
- Difficulty remembering things you want to remember or learning new things.
- Sexually transmitted infections due to taking part in more sexually risky behaviours than you otherwise would while under the influence of alcohol.
- Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders impact the children of people who binge drink while pregnant, even if it was so early in the pregnancy that they did not know they were pregnant.
- Violence could have been prevented if everyone involved was sober.
- Chronic diseases such as strokes, high blood pressure, liver disease, and cancer in many parts of the body.
While this is not an exhaustive list of the effects of binge drinking, it is a helpful overview that shows a good range of the problems that may result from binge drinking, either once or twice or as part of a consistent pattern of alcohol abuse.
Why Is Binge Drinking Dangerous? How Can It Affect Your Health
While the immediate dangers of binge drinking, such as risky sexual encounters or participating in violence, are extremely concerning, it’s possible that people who do not experience those risks while binge drinking may feel that there is no reason for them to be concerned. This is absolutely not the case. There are many short- and long-term medical consequences of binge drinking, regardless of the person’s age or gender.
Understanding the Medical Consequences of Binge Drinking
While some health risks of binge drinking behaviours may take a long time to show up, there are some that can appear quite quickly. One example of this that we discussed earlier in the article is the risk of acute pancreatitis, which is extremely dangerous. Even just one night of binge drinking may also cause inflammation and urgent health issues related to the stomach or liver, especially for people who may already have underlying damage or health concerns in those areas.
In addition to those risks, binge drinking may lead to:
- Irregular heartbeat, which can lead to heart failure
- Extreme dehydration due to alcohol being a diuretic
- Infection of the lungs due to alcohol inhibiting the gag reflex, which can lead to things entering the lungs that normally wouldn’t.
- Memory problems can make even relatively simple day-to-day activities more difficult.
All of these have severe short-term consequences, but they aren’t the only effects to be concerned about.
Gastrointestinal Tract, Liver, and Pancreas
One of the main long-term impacts of binge drinking is on various portions of the digestive system. Alcohol consumption has a direct impact on the digestive system, which is usually credited to its direct contact with the mucous membranes, its interference with intestinal flora and overall digestive function, and the absorption and metabolism of ethanol.
Here’s what that means for each portion of the digestive system:
- Mouth and throat: When alcohol enters your body, it can be converted to acetaldehyde, which damages the tissues of the mouth. This damage can dramatically increase the risk of mouth and throat cancers.
- Oesophagus: Once alcohol goes into your oesophagus, it can not only damage your cells and increase your risk of cancer but also can cause acid reflux, further increasing the risk of cell damage and cancer.
- Stomach: This is where alcohol begins to be absorbed by the body. This process can impact acid production, which lowers the ability of your stomach to destroy harmful bacteria before they enter the upper small intestine. Alcohol may also damage mucous cells that usually protect your stomach wall from the acid and digestive enzymes that are necessary for digesting food, which can lead to inflammation and other stomach wall damage.
- Liver: This is where the liver breaks down alcohol and any other toxins that may enter your body. The way the liver breaks down alcohol is by converting it into acetaldehyde, which can cause inflammatory changes in the liver. These inflammatory changes may eventually lead to fatty liver disease, as well as cell and tissue damage.
- Intestines: When food is not able to be digested by the small intestine, it moves forward to the large intestine and eventually leaves your body through faeces or urine. When alcohol reaches your large intestine, it can significantly increase the risk of bowel cancer and colorectal cancer.
While these issues become a more significant risk the more someone drinks and the more frequently they drink, even a relatively small amount of alcohol can increase the risk of all of these conditions. It’s important to be aware of your personal health history, as well as your family health history, in order to evaluate your risks and make decisions accordingly.
Pulmonary Consequences of Binge Drinking
While heart and digestive health may be more front-of-mind when it comes to alcohol abuse and binge drinking, the lungs are also put at risk by these behaviours. In fact, heavy drinking and related behaviours can increase the risk of several serious lung diseases, including but not limited to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). These diseases reduce your total lung capacity, making it difficult to breathe and get as much oxygen into your system as possible with each breath.
Some other lung-related problems that people who abuse alcohol are at a higher risk for include tuberculosis (TB), pneumonia, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Alcohol abuse may also lead to impaired immune responses, thus making people who struggle with alcohol abuse more susceptible to a wide variety of pulmonary and other infections.
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How Does Binge Drinking Affect Mental Health?
In addition to severe physical health consequences on various parts of the body, alcohol abuse and binge drinking can have negative impacts on people’s mental health. Some mental health symptoms that people who binge drink are at increased risk for include:
- Anxiety may lead to self-medication with alcohol, resulting in a dangerous cycle of experiencing anxiety symptoms and attempting to self-medicate with more alcohol rather than seeking treatment from a professional.
- Depression, which may be related to social isolation from alcohol abuse, self-loathing due to an inability to stop binge drinking behaviours, or comedowns after alcohol use. In extreme cases, this may even lead to suicidal feelings or thoughts of suicide.
- Confusion, memory loss, and a lack of concentration may be a result of vitamin B deficiency related to alcohol abuse.
- Hallucinations are primarily a risk for people with severe addiction.
It’s important not to underestimate the long-term mental health effects of binge drinking, but there is hope. There are many treatments available for people who are struggling with these effects, ranging from rehab to reduce alcohol abuse in the future to traditional treatments for mental health, including therapy and medication.
Is It Okay To Binge Drink on Weekends?
While some people may think that only binge drinking on weekends can be a solution to prevent alcohol abuse, weekend binge drinking can be just as harmful as other forms of alcohol abuse. In fact, it may even be worse for overall health than spreading out the same quantity of drinks over the course of a week due to the compounding nature of binge drinking. Although weekend binge drinking may not lead to the same negative impacts on your professional life, it can still lead to interpersonal issues, legal trouble, and all of the same severe health issues that we have described above.
Unfortunately, it can be especially difficult to cut back on weekend drinking due to it usually having a social nature. If you’re looking for ways to cut back on or even eliminate weekend drinking without missing out on social time, here are a few ideas:
- Switch to non-alcoholic versions of your favourite drinks – such as mocktails instead of cocktails or alcohol-free beers and wines – and if possible, plan events around what bars and restaurants offer a variety of non-alcoholic drink options that appeal to you.
- Set a drink and/or spending limit before going out, and consider using strategies like paying for your drinks in advance or asking the people you are going out with to hold you accountable.
- Alternate alcoholic beverages with water or soft drinks.
- Try to schedule activities that don’t involve going to a bar, such as seeing a movie, going for a walk, or playing a sport together.
While these strategies can help a lot to reduce weekend binge drinking, it’s important to know your own limits and abilities. If these strategies won’t work for you or won’t be respected by the people around you, it may be worthwhile to look for outside support to reach your recovery goals.
How Long Does It Take Your Liver To Recover From a Binge?
While the liver is self-healing for the most part, which means some alcohol-related liver damage can be reversed if you stop drinking alcohol to excess quickly enough, long-term liver damage may be irreversible. If you suspect that a loved one or you yourself may be binge drinking or otherwise abusing alcohol, it’s important to pursue treatment as quickly as possible to avoid long-term, irreversible damage.
Is Binge Drinking Worse Than Being an Alcoholic?
Although drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is almost never going to be without negative health impacts, binge drinking one night a week is actually much worse for your body than consuming one drink on a daily basis. There are a few reasons for this, including the higher level of toxicity that the body experiences when binge drinking and difficulty metabolising high amounts of alcohol at once compared to low amounts of alcohol over time.
Whether your primary concern is binge drinking or other forms of alcohol abuse, it’s worthwhile to get an expert opinion on what you’re experiencing and consider what options are available to you for reducing your alcohol consumption, getting treatment or accountability, and otherwise improving your health.
Are 4 Drinks Considered Binge Drinking?
For women, yes, 4 drinks per day are considered binge drinking. For men, 4 drinks on one specific day do not qualify as binge drinking; however, consuming more than 14 drinks per week is considered heavy drinking, which equates to consuming 4 drinks a day on more than 3 days in a week.
How To Stop Binge Drinking
Stopping binge drinking can be extremely difficult, so it’s important to get support during this process. It’s also admirable to take binge drinking seriously and work on reducing it to protect your health and well-being. Some ways to stop binge drinking include:
- Talk to your GP about your drinking behaviour and ask for their recommendations, which may include counselling.
- Recognise your personal triggers, such as work stress or certain social situations, and avoid those triggers going forward if possible. If avoiding your triggers is not possible, it can be helpful to plan in advance for ways to avoid alcohol consumption, such as accountability or using other, safer coping strategies.
- Getting help from a rehab centre can help you manage withdrawal symptoms and develop strategies to avoid alcohol abuse in the future.
Stopping binge drinking isn’t easy, but there are people who are trained in this and ready to help you or your loved one at Castle Craig. A great first step is to contact us or request a free addiction assessment to evaluate whether our rehab or another treatment we offer may be right for you.
How Can Castle Craig Help?
How Do I Pay For Rehab?
One concern we sometimes hear from people is how they will fund their rehab treatment. The cost of rehab varies depending on what kind of accommodation you choose. You can pay for treatment at Castle Craig privately, or through medical insurance, and some people receive funding through the NHS.
How Long Is the Rehab Programme?
Residential rehab treatment starts at four weeks and can go up to 12+ weeks. Research shows us that the longer you stay in rehab and are part of the residential therapy programme, the longer the likelihood of continued abstinence and stable recovery.
Who Will I Speak to When I Call?
When you call you will reach our Help Centre team who will give you all the information you need to help you decide whether to choose treatment at Castle Craig. Once you have decided that you would like to have a free screening assessment you will be put in touch with our admissions case managers who will guide you through the admissions process.
What Happens at the End of My Treatment?
Castle Craig thoroughly prepares patients before departure by creating a personalised continuing care plan which is formulated following discussions with the medical and therapeutic team. We offer an online continuing care programme which runs for 24 weeks after leaving treatment, in order to ensure a smooth transition back into your everyday life. Patients leaving treatment automatically join our Recovery Club where they can stay connected via our annual reunion, events, online workshops and recovery newsletters.