What is binge drinking?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Drinking

Binge drinking.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

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 principal 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 of a 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 alcohol’s effect on your body, brain, and your mental health.

Past posts on this topic you may want to look at include:

Dangers of Binge Drinking

Alcohol prevents healing

6 Myths about alcoholism

Blackouts – common or rare?

What is confabulation? Relationship to false memories and Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome 

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos, see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel

Drugs increase false memories

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Memory pieces.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

They may not be lying;

They remember things that never happened.

Drugs suppress true memories but also increase false memories. We have heard a lot about false memories over the last few years. Most of it around questioning techniques that suggested to children they had been abused. As a result, they began to believe these things had happened and then thought they remembered things that turned out to be false memories.

Recent research suggests that drugs and alcohol, as well as certain emotional states, may increase the risk that what people in recovery are remembering did not actually happen despite their memories.

People with certain mental or emotional problems are at increased risk to have false memories even if they never abused substances. Something about the chemistry of the brain regulates not only true memories but also creates false memories. We can get ourselves into trouble when we start believing memories that never happened.

There is a common belief in recovery circles that substance abusers have told stories, lies, so often they begin to believe their own dishonesties. I have seen enough examples of this phenomenon to believe it does happen. But the creation of false memories goes beyond simple lies and the person who told that lie beginning to believe the falsehood.

One group of researchers conducted a study using two commonly used and abused substances and came up with some surprising results (Ballard et al 2012) surprising to me anyway.

The test they used, called the DRM, gives people a list of words, such as bed, rest, awake, tired, dream. What is missing from the list is a word that would be commonly associated with the word list but which was never shown to the research participants. In this case, the word they are looking for was “sleep.”

If you remember the list correctly or are very observant you know that sleep was not on the list. The trick here is to see how many people will swear that the missing word, in this case, sleep, was shown to them. Using a procedure like this the researcher can see if a specific drug or emotional condition will increase the risk of a false memory. In this experiment, they wanted to see how many people would say that the word sleep was shown to them when it had not been a part of the experience.

This simple experiment may not make much difference. Does it matter if I think sleep was on the list of words I read? But if a drug or emotion increases my errors on this test it suggests that I may remember other things that did not happen. Did I remember someone being at the party that was never there? Do you remember being touched inappropriately when what really happened was a handshake or a pat on the back? Those things matter.

Some drugs reduce your ability to remember things that did happen. Alcohol is at the head of the list. Benzodiazepines also impair memory. Some drugs have been called date rape drugs and banned or tightly controlled for the same reason. The big question has been what effect do these drugs have on the creation of false memories? Ballard and group looked at that question.

It would be easy to conclude that depressant drugs like Alcohol and benzodiazepines would reduce memory and therefore give room for more false memories to fill in the gap. There is a related concept called “Confabulation” in which alcoholics brains fill in the gaps in memory that are the result of not having stored memories in the first place. Confabulation plus blackouts leave the memory of Alcoholics suspect.

We would expect that stimulants like caffeine and amphetamines would increase true memories and reduce the chance of false memories. That is not what happens. In Ballard’s study Amphetamines, of the type prescribed for ADHD, increased true memories but also increased false memories. An earlier study by Capek and Guenther (2009) cited by Ballard found the same effects for Caffeine.

It would appear that depressants reduce true memories and allow for false memories and stimulants increase memory formation of both true and false memories.

So what about “All Arounder’s.” (See Inaba & Cohen book Uppers, Downers, and All Arounder’s, 2004.)  Ballard and friends also looked at the effects of Marijuana on memory. While I try to stay out of the whole medical marijuana debate some of you may remember my previous post on the effects of Marijuana on memory. That post was about the effects on storage and retrieval of true memories, what about marijuana’s effect on false memories?

The drug used in Ballard’s study was THC, the most studied active ingredient in Marijuana, given in pill form. While this is not exactly the same as smoking Marijuana it is likely to be very similar and much more specific that studies using drugs of unknown potency. There are other chemicals in smoked Marijuana and the research on those other compounds is very lacking.

They found that Amphetamines had a larger effect in creating false memories than THC and while THC may affect both memory storage and memory retrieval, this study at least did not find a significant increase in false memories for THC users.

There are lots of problems with taking studies done in the lab and translating them to the experiences of people who take drugs in their daily life.

It is worth noting that there was significant individual variation in the effects of both drugs on true and false memory. So the conclusions are for all the people in the study as a group and individual results did vary. This raises questions about what individual differences account for these variations.

In Ballard’s study, as in so many other studies, people with diagnosed mental illnesses or those with a current substance abuse problem are not included in the study. Those are exactly the people for whom the effects of drugs and mood states on false memory may be the most critical.

There are some studies of people with various mental health diagnoses examining the effects of having an emotional issue and the creation of false memories. In a future post, I want to talk about the effects of Depression, Anxiety, and OCD on true and false memories.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos, see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel