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More than 85 percent of Americans drink alcohol at some point during their lifetime, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). We sip champagne at weddings, swill beer at ballgames, and down shots of tequila with our tacos. The burning, bubbly sensation of alcohol follows us everywhere.
But some of us drink more in one sitting than we should.
Drinking with the express intention of getting drunk is bingeing. And if you do it too often, it could be a sign that you need help with an alcohol use disorder.
What Does Binge Drinking Look Like?
We all know what it’s like to sip alcohol. But when does a sip turn into a deluge? Experts developed a definition that can help you understand if you’re bingeing when you drink.
Each sip you take raises the level of alcohol in your blood. That rising ratio is responsible for the sedation, euphoria, and relaxation you get from alcoholic beverages. While you’re drinking, your body tries to undo the damage by pushing your blood through filters in your organs.
When you drink more than your body can clean, drunkenness sets in. When you set out to get drunk, you’re bingeing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking by sex:
- Men: five or more drinks in two hours
- Women: four or more drinks in two hours
If you binge drink, you might:
- Drink alone at home. You might buy a bottle of wine or a case of beer and down the whole thing yourself while you watch television.
- Drink alone in public. You might head to a restaurant, sit at the bar, and order multiple shots or cocktails.
- Drink in party situations with others. You might set up shots at a wedding and encourage others to down them with you.
- Drink with others in public. You might have a close friend or partner who binges with you. Together, you choose a venue and egg one another on.
- Feel unable to stop drinking once you start. You may set limits on how many drinks you can have, but you always blow past the guideline.
Binge Drinking Is Common
Tune into a rom-com, and you’ll see just how often people binge drink. A relationship goes wrong, someone says something stupid, or they have a tough day, and they climb into a bottle for the next 30 minutes of hilarity. The more programs like this we watch, the more we think everyone binges. Unfortunately, we might be right.
Check out these statistics:
- NIAAA says nearly 30 percent of people 30 and older binge drink monthly.
- NIAAA also reports that about 13 percent of people ages 12 to 20 binge drink.
- Since 2009, the percentage of binge drinkers in the United States has risen by close to 9 percent, researchers
- Rates of women binge drinkers rose 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2012, researchers
It’s not clear why so many people drink like this. Intoxication isn’t always pleasant. You can fall down, get into fights, hurt others with your car, get arrested, and more. None of these consequences could hit you if you’d stop after the first sip.
Drinking like this can also be a sign of an alcohol use disorder.
Binge Drinking and Alcoholism
Many people who binge don’t show signs of alcoholism. They don’t feel the need to keep drinking every day, and their alcohol use doesn’t transform into cravings in sobriety. But there are times when binge drinking can and does turn into something sinister.
NIAAA defines “heavy drinking” as bingeing five times or more in the month prior. Drinking like this can change your brain.
Alcohol works by suppressing electrical activity in your brain. Signals can’t zip from one cell to another. Reflexes slow, so you can’t react with speed. Your brain responds by suppressing some chemicals and tweaking others.
Drink too often, and your brain will stay in this sluggish, slow state. Try to get sober, and it’s a bit like plugging in a lamp. Suddenly, all of the suppression disappears, and your brain panics. You could develop:
- Rapid heart rate
In severe cases, you could develop seizures. Without treatment, those can become life-threatening.
No one knows how often you must drink to make those terrible symptoms happen. It could be dozens of times. It could be thousands. But each time you binge, you are changing your brain. If you don’t give cells time to recover between drinks, you could end up with problems that inhibit your lasting sobriety.
How Can You Help?
Authorities have ideas about how to stem the wave of binge drinking. They could make alcohol more expensive, cut back hours when booze is sold, or go after bartenders and retailers that sell drinks to intoxicated people. These are all great ideas, but there’s something you can do at the grassroots level to help.
If you or someone you know has an alcohol use disorder, you’ll notice:
- Shifting priorities. Alcohol becomes the most important thing in the person’s life, ahead of work, family, and friends.
- Increasing consequences. Financial distress, legal action, and loss of employment can all stem from drinking too much. But that might not keep you from picking up the next glass.
- Overwhelming cravings. At 10 in the morning, you tell yourself you won’t drink today. By 6 in the evening, your resolve crumbles.
- Constant drinking. Kicking off the day with a drink becomes routine or even expected.
There’s no shame in admitting to an alcohol abuse issue. Doing that could save your life or the life of someone you love.
In a detox program, doctors make sure you can get sober in a safe and controlled manner. If you’re experiencing hallucinations or seizures, doctors might check out your other organs, like your liver. Withdrawal symptoms suggest that you’ve drunk enough to cause internal damage, experts say.
Severe symptoms are treated with fluids, monitoring, and medications. When you feel stronger in sobriety, you’re ready to move onto the next phase of treatment. In rehab, you’ll learn more about why you started drinking, and you’ll pick up skills that can help you stay sober.
How to Get Started
If you think you need help, ask for it. If you think someone else needs help, start a conversation.
You don’t need to confront someone with an alcohol problem in a nasty, combative way. Instead, talk about:
- Use language like “I feel” or “I see,” rather than “you are” or “you always.”
- Name dates and times when binge drinking was a problem.
- It’s scary to struggle with alcohol. Make sure the person knows you care.
- Make sure the person knows treatment works.
Whether you’re asking for help for yourself or someone else, teams can help to ease distress and make the path to recovery clear. Soon, you’ll be bingeing on recovery, not alcohol.