By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Why binge drinking matters.
Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that has been linked to a host of physical, mental and behavioral problems.
In the binge drinking pattern, the drinker consumes a large quantity of alcohol on one drinking occasion. Anyone might experience an occasional episode of heavy drinking but with consistently heavy drinkers or binge drinkers, their typical pattern of consumption is that when they drink the get drunk.
The concept of binge drinking relates more to how high the level of alcohol in the bloodstream goes rather than when or how much the drinker consumed over a unit of time.
So if someone chooses to drink a lot one night why is this of any concern to others? Why should it matter to the drinker if their pattern of drinking is a binge drinking pattern? First the concerns and then some more precise definitions of what qualifies as binge drinking.
There are two principle concerns with binge drinking.
1. Alcohol damages the drinker’s brain and body.
The higher the blood alcohol content (BAC) the more damage to the body. Alcohol and its primary breakdown product, Acetaldehyde, are highly toxic to the body. In small amounts, the body can cope with this foreign substance. Above a certain point, there is damage to the body. A single episode of binge drinking is likely to leave minimal long-term damage. Repeated binge drinking will leave more long-term damage.
At high enough levels many substances can cause death. For alcohol, that point is a blood alcohol content around .60 (point six zero.)
Have one drink per day and it may be healthy, or non-harmful anyway. Save those drinks up and consume them all on one night and the damage may be permanent.
Blood alcohol level is also related to repeated head trauma (Winquist et al., 2008.) Long-term high levels of alcohol damages brain cells in the prefrontal cortex which may decrease by 10% or more. Binge drinking also causes cells surrounding the lateral vertices to shrink resulting in an expansion of this fluid-filled cavity in your brain by about 42%. Alcohol and especially heavy or binge drinking cause these cells in your brain to shrink resulting in more empty, blood-filled spaces in the brain (Wolerock, 2009.)
High blood alcohol levels also result in memory loss and the creation of false memories, a process called confabulation.
2. Intoxicated people hurt themselves and others.
At high blood alcohol levels, there is an increased risk of harming self and others. Most places set strict limits on the legal level of alcohol in the bloodstream you may have and still drive. Those limits are admittedly imprecise. Two people with the same blood alcohol content may not be equally impaired, but the higher the level goes for any given individual the more impaired they become.
Increasing blood alcohol levels reduce coordination, lower inhibitions and impair judgment and memory. Intoxicated people, those who have binge drank on this occasion are 55 times more likely to attempt suicide. They are the major source of serious and fatal car accidents. They are more likely to commit crimes and harm others.
There are exceptions, sober people can do bad things, many intoxicated people do not commit crimes, but the higher the blood alcohol content the more the risks.
There is also a severe risk if the person binge drinking is or becomes pregnant. The unborn fetus does not have a developed liver. So mom-to-be needs to have her liver do the alcohol detox for this unborn child. We used to think a drink or two each day was OK. Now we are convinced that any alcohol during pregnancy is a bad idea and binge drinking is especially risky for mom and unborn child.
What is the definition of binge drinking?
Most definitions of Binge drinking are common sense approximations. Using blood alcohol content would be more precise but all that blood drawing is inconvenient.
The definition of binge drinking we use here in the United States is five or more standard drinks for a man, 4 or more for a woman on any particular drinking occasion. This is roughly the amount of alcohol that will make you legally too drunk to drive.
Standard drinks are calculated so that regardless of what you are drinking you can estimate how much alcohol is in your drink.
Despite what many people think, the alcohol in any alcoholic beverage is the same substance, ethanol. So this “I only drink Beer” I can’t have a drinking problem is nonsense. All those other statements about why one beverage is better than others, nothing to do with the alcohol.
When it comes to blood alcohol content, alcohol is alcohol.
In the U. S. a twelve-ounce beer is one standard drink. A four or five-ounce glass of wine is also a standard drink. If you are drinking whiskey, scotch, vodka, etc., then one ounce of a 90 to 100 proof beverage is a standard drink.
No cheating here
People will try to fool themselves. You know that drinking a tall can or 40-ounce beer is not one standard drink. Right? Neither is drinking 151 (a beverage with 75 ½ % alcohol.)
Alcohol content can vary from state to state or country to country. Outside the U. S., tell me the alcohol content of beers is higher. Pouring more beverage in a glass does not let you count it as one standard drink either.
The amount of alcohol it takes to make one person’s blood alcohol content reach .08 or .10 may vary. Some tell me it’s not fair that others can drink a lot and not get arrested for driving drunk and they ended up in jail after only a few. Why this happens is a subject for another blog post.
Binge drinking is not a moral thing.
Some people have argued that telling people to not binge drink is making a moral judgment. They should be able to tie one on if they choose. Choosing to binge drink, drink till you get legally drunk (or illegally drunk if you prefer that term) does not necessarily make you a bad person.
If you drive 60 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour school zone and a child runs out, your braking distance is a lot longer than if you were driving the prescribed 25. There is more likelihood that you will harm a person’s crossing the street and if you hit them you could mess up the rest of your life also.
Similar case with binge drinking. If you binge drink this can increase the risk that you will damage yourself health-wise or harm others if you drive or are around them. We are just saying there is a warning out on this behavior.
Now if this is your typical pattern of behavior, when you drink you always binge and end up drunk this is a worry. If having developed some problems due to your excessive drinking in the past you continue to binge drink then this is a bigger problem.
If your drinking, binge or otherwise is interfering with your life, consider changing your drinking pattern. If when you try to control your drinking you find you keep losing control, it is time for some professional help.
This blog is largely devoted to the topics of mental health and substance use disorders. Especially those times when people have both issues, which is called co-occurring disorders. Alcohol is one of the top problems in this area. Stay tuned for more on alcohols effect on your body, brain, and your mental health.
Past posts on this topic you may want to look at include:
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.