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How Much Alcohol Is Too Much: Understanding Your Limits

Drinking alcohol is associated with celebrating and having fun. Despite the ties to joyous festivities, drinking too much can cause significant health and social consequences. At a certain point, alcohol use becomes abuse, and it infiltrates and affects most aspects of your life. To maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol, you must understand professional guidelines and your personal limits.


Drinking in Moderation: Government Guidelines


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture produce the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Within the guidelines, you will find advice about alcohol moderation. The HHS and USDA explain men should limit their alcohol consumption to two or fewer drinks per day, and women should aim for one or fewer. The Agencies also strongly suggest drinking less is better for your health.

The agencies base guidelines on averages, meaning some people might have higher or lower tolerances. You cannot assume drinking one or two drinks is safe. Alcohol tolerance references the biological responses to ethanol in alcoholic beverages. A person's age, weight, and gender typically play a role in such responses but are not the only factors to consider.


Heavy Drinking: NIAAA Definition


The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as drinking over 14 drinks in a week or over four drinks on a single day for men or over seven drinks a week or three drinks on a single day for women. When heavy alcohol use becomes a pattern, it develops into abuse or the condition known as alcoholism.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests heavy alcohol use is binge drinking on five or more days within the past 30. According to the SAMHSA, binge drinking is drinking five or more drinks within two hours for men or four or more drinks for women within the same period.


Alcohol Use Disorder: Patterns of Drinking


Alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, is a pattern of heavy drinking that develops into dependence on alcohol. Alcohol dependence occurs when symptoms of withdrawal appear when someone does not drink. Dependence is a chronic medical condition affecting the brain and body, making it increasingly difficult to quit alone.


If you or someone you love is experiencing signs of alcohol dependence, contact a medical or recovery professional. Signs of alcohol dependence include a preoccupation with alcohol, continued drinking despite social consequences, isolation, and withdrawal symptoms (restlessness, shaking, sweating, nausea, seizures, heart racing, phantom feelings or auditory hallucinations).


Alcohol Avoidance: People Who Shouldn't Drink


While alcohol, in moderation, is safe, it is not OK for everyone. People with a predisposition to addiction, women who are nursing or pregnant, those taking certain medications or who have certain medical conditions and anyone under the age of 21 should not consume alcohol. Also, anyone who recovered from or is recovering from alcohol use disorder should avoid alcohol at all costs; it does not take much to slip back into addiction.


Drinking between one and two alcoholic beverages per day is OK, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but it is better to drink less. If you or someone you love has a problem with alcoholism, contact a medical or addiction professional for help. You can also look to professional organizations like the NIAAA or SAMHSA.


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