What is a Standard Drink?

By David Joel Miller.

The taste may change but the alcohol stays the same.

Alcohol

What is a standard drink?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Only one kind of alcohol, ethanol, is drinkable. Ethanol or ethyl alcohol is made from fermenting a liquid made from fruit, grains or similar vegetative products. Sometimes this chemical is called grain alcohol. While chemically similar, all the types of alcohol other than Ethanol can do significant harm, including cause blindness or death, when consumed. From here on, when I say alcohol, I am talking exclusively about the ethanol type.

The folk-lore of drinking contains lots of myths about what to drink and how to drink it. People may think that if they only drink beer or wine then they can’t become alcoholics. Some people give up “the hard stuff” thinking this will prevent them having a problem with alcohol. Most of this belief that one alcoholic drink is better or worse than another is based on misconceptions about the content of alcoholic drinks.

No matter what we call an alcoholic beverage, what it is made from or what flavorings and additives are included, the pure alcohol part of alcoholic beverages is the same. All drinkable alcoholic beverages contain ethanol. Ethanol is the component that gets you drunk and withdrawal from ethanol, no matter the source, is what causes a hangover.

In order to compare the amount of pure alcohol contained in various beverages we use a concept called a “standard drink.” That standard drink is the amount of a beverage that contains one-half an ounce of pure ethanol.

In some places, alcohol content is calculated by weight and in other places, it is calculated by volume. Depending on whether the alcohol is measured by weight or by volume and depending on who does the measuring we can get slightly different numbers here. Either way, the results of alcohol are pretty much the same.

Beer has the smallest percentage of alcohol.

Beers can vary between three and seven percent alcohol. Most of the major commercial beers in the U. S. are at the low end, close to 3 % and a twelve ounce beer is considered a standard drink. Many people believe that because beer has a lower alcohol content it is safer and less likely to lead to problems. Unfortunately, that turns out to not be true. Because beer has a lower alcohol content per standard drink most people just drink more volume of beer than they would if drinking another alcoholic beverage. More than half the pure alcohol consumed every year here in the U. S. comes from beer.

Wine is a little stronger and can vary more.

Typical wines come in at eight to fourteen percent alcohol. The various textbooks I consulted gave between four and five oz. of wine as a standard drink. A wine can be fortified by adding alcohol distilled from some other alcoholic beverage. By fortifying a wine it can be pushed up to as much as twenty-two percent ethyl alcohol.

Spirits or Hard Liquor are the result of distillation.

As the fermentation progresses the alcohol begins to prevent the yeast from working so the process of fermentation stops. To get stronger alcoholic beverages some manipulation is required. If the liquid is heated, the alcohol evaporates faster than the water and other components. Catch this steam which is largely alcohol, condense it, and you get a beverage with a higher concentration of alcohol. We call this product with the concentrated levels of alcohol, spirits or hard liquor.

A standard drink containing spirits is about one “shot” of an 86 proof liquor. Proof numbers are twice the percentage numbers so this shot contains about half an ounce of pure alcohol.

Glass size and proof matter.

In trying to compare the amount of alcohol in one drink with another it is important to keep in mind that a glass of wine is defined as a 4 to 5-ounce glass size.  Pouring the wine into a 32-ounce tumbler does not mean a tumbler full is still one standard drink.

When the “proof” changes so should the size of the drink. Stronger spirits should be served in smaller glasses. In practice, people still pour more than one standard drink into their glass resulting in some drinks that contain way more than “one standard drink.” Even beer can become deceptively intoxicating if served in a mug that holds more than 12 ounces.

The problem with counting standard drinks.

The whole idea of standard drinks was to predict the effects of drinking a glass of a particular alcoholic beverage. In practice, most people are taking in more alcohol than they realize and the heavy or binge drinkers are drinking way more drinks than they planned.

If you are having a problem with controlling your drinking the answer is not in measuring standard drinks. If when you drink you consume more than intended or bad things happen to you, there is a good chance that you have an Alcohol Use Disorder. Stop trying to find a way to beat the game and drink more but not get drunk and get some help from a support group like A. A. or a professional counselor.

For more on this topic see:  Alcoholism       Drug Use, Abuse, and Addiction

Terms and their meaning can differ with the profession using them. The literature from the Rehab or AOD (Alcohol and Other Drug) field may be very different from that in the mental health field. There is still a large gap between recovery programs and AOD professionals and the terms and descriptions used in the DSM.

FYI These “What is” sometimes “What are” posts are my efforts to explain terms commonly used in Mental Health, Clinical Counseling, Substance Use Disorder Counseling, Psychology, Life Coaching and related disciplines in a plain language way. Many are based on the new DSM-5; some of the older posts were based on the DSM-IV-TR, both published by the APA. For the more technical versions please consult the DSM or other appropriate references.

See Recommended Books.     More “What is” posts will be found at “What is.”

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

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.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

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

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

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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.

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What is binge drinking?

By David Joel Miller

Why binge drinking matters.

Binge Drinking

Binge Drinking
Photo courtesy of Flickr (stopalcoholdeaths)

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:

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

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

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.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

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

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

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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.

Which alcoholic beverage causes the most hangovers, DUI’s and damage to the body?

By David Joel Miller.

Standard drinks and why they matter.

Alcohol

Alcohol.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

There are more urban myths and legends around alcoholic beverages than you would find in most children’s storybooks.

People believe that one particular alcoholic beverage is safer or less likely to get you drunk than another. Does drinking shots get you drunk faster? Is wine safer than beer? Can you avoid becoming an alcoholic by sticking to beer and avoiding the hard stuff? Let’s look at the facts behind these beliefs.

All alcoholic beverages share one most significant ingredient – ethanol. Alcohol is produced by the action of yeast fermenting something. Fermenting grains and berries produces ethyl alcohol, which is the only alcohol that can be drunk by humans without fatal results. Wood can be fermented and produces methyl alcohol, but if it is drunk it can be fatal, producing blindness and brain damage before death.

All alcoholic beverages contain ethyl alcohol. When it comes to intoxication – alcohol is alcohol. What varies is the amount of alcohol and the various additives and flavorings. Make no mistake. The more ethyl alcohol you consume the drunker you will get.

To compare one alcoholic beverage with another we have created the concept of a “standard drink.” Correctly served, a standard drink of beer, wine or a shot or hard liquor all contains precisely the same amount of alcohol.

Beer.

A standard drink of beer is a twelve-ounce bottle.  One small can of beer contains one standard drink. People mislead themselves into thinking that drinking beer is safer because it requires drinking more volume than other drinks to get the same blood alcohol level.

More than once a client has said: “I only had a couple of beers but I got a DUI anyway.” It makes a lot of difference if the beers were 12 ounces or 40 ounces. One beer should produce a blood alcohol level of about .02. Two 40 ounce beers are equal to almost 7 of the little ones and will produce a blood alcohol level of around 0.14.  That is past the point of legally drunk in most any place I know of.

It is also worth noting that in the United States of America more than half of all the alcohol (pure ethyl alcohol) consumed comes from beer. Lite Beers may be as bad or even worse.

Also for the record, your liver may develop tolerance to alcohol but the liver only has one speed. No matter how high the blood alcohol level goes the liver can only detoxify one standard drink of ethyl alcohol an hour and the liver only starts to work once the alcohol is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. This explains why someone can drink a couple of 40-ounce beers, feel fine and then suddenly feel drunk an hour to an hour and a half later after the alcohol gets absorbed into the bloodstream.

Malt liquor will get the drinker even higher blood alcohol numbers, up to half again the numbers for beer.

Wine.

A standard drink of wine is one – five-ounce glass of 12 % wine. This number will vary from text to text. Some places measure alcohol by volume and other countries measure by weight. So don’t be surprised if you read elsewhere that a standard drink is 4 ounces of wine.

If you like “fortified wines” as in sherry or port the size of the glass needs to be smaller. A standard drink of port is a 3.5-ounce glass.

It does not count if you open a bottle of wine, pour one glass and then continue to refill the glass all evening. If you finish off the whole bottle of wine, regardless of the number of glasses you use, you will have consumed 5 standard drinks. Five standard drinks on one occasion for a man or four standard drinks for a woman is binge drinking and does a lot more damage to your body. This is an even bigger problem if you are a binge drinking senior citizen.

Shots – Hard Liquor.

A standard drink of hard liquor is one and one-half ounces of 40% alcohol. Since proof numbers are exactly double percentages that would mean a standard drink of 86 proof liquor should be just shy of 1 ½ oz.

So a person drinking 3 ounces of hard liquor in a small glass gets two standard drinks.

Question?

A beer drinker consumes a forty-ounce bottle of beer; his buddy drinks only one glass with three ounces of 86 proof tequila, who is drunker?

Easy – the beer drinker consumed like three and a half standard drinks, the tequila drinker only consumed two standard drinks, the beer drinker will be way more intoxicated come an hour later when the drink is absorbed into the bloodstream.

See how easy it is to fool yourselves saying you had only one drink when in fact there was a whole lot more alcohol in that one drink than you thought?

In this discussion, we have left out the effects of “tolerance” and “withdrawal” which complicate the math but not the legally drunk part. We also have not talked about drinking something stronger like “151” or “191” and how much closer that could take you to the .60 blood alcohol level where you black out, organs stop working and you get pronounced legally dead.

Also, you need to know that if every time you drink, you end up drunk, that has less to do with the kind of drink you consumed and more to do with your having counteracted a disease called alcoholism.

So the results of this exercise tell us, it really doesn’t matter if you drink beer, wine or a hard liquor, what matters is how much ethyl alcohol is in that drink and what happens to you when you put ethyl alcohol in your bloodstream.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

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.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

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

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

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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.