What Is Binge Drinking?

When you’re out with your friends, or having a couple of drinks after a hard day’s work, it can be easy to let two drinks become three or four. This doesn’t make you an alcoholic – it just means you’re in the one-quarter of Americans over the age of 12 who binge drink, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define binge drinking for woman as having four or more drinks on a single occasion, and for men as having five or more drinks on a single occasion. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor. For some people, particularly those with lower body weight, the amount of alcohol it takes to get drunk might be even less.

Who Binge Drinks?

Although binge drinking is widespread, some demographic groups are more likely to binge drink than others. SAMHSA and the CDC have collected the following data:

  • About 61 percent of men and 50 percent of women aged 26 or older binge drank in the past year.
  • Approximately 31 percent of people 18 to 20 binge drank in the past month, compared to 45 percent of people aged 21 to 25, with rates steadily declining after age 25.
  • Among various ethnic groups, 30 percent of Native Americans, 25 percent of multiracial people, 24 percent of Caucasians, 23 percent of Hispanics, 21 percent of African Americans, and 13 percent of Asians binge drank in the past month.
  • About 22 percent of college graduates binge drank in the past month compared to 26 percent of people with some college education.
  • Among people aged 18 to 22, fulltime college students were more likely to binge drink (40 percent) than part-time students or people not in college (35 percent).
  • Approximately 21 percent of people in non-metropolitan areas binge drank in the past month, compared to 23 percent in metropolitan areas.
  • About 29 percent of people who were employed fulltime binge drank in the past month, compared to 32 percent of unemployed people.
  • Approximately 19 percent of binge drinkers also use illicit drugs.
  • Binge drinking rates among underage users vary wildly by region, from nine percent to 46 percent. Most regions where more than 17 percent of underage people drank were in the northern US, says SAMHSA.
  • About one in six adults binge drinks about four times per month, consuming an average of eight drinks each time.
  • Although a higher percentage of young people binge drink, those people aged 65+ who do binge drink do so more often – about five to six times a month.
  • People with a household income of more than $75,000 are more likely to binge drink than people from households with lower incomes.

SAMHSA also reports that a longitudinal study found that adolescent male binge drinkers were twice as likely to binge drink during adulthood, and adolescent female binge drinkers were over three times as likely to binge drink during adulthood.

The Health Effects of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking isn’t harmless. Excessive drinking (which includes both binge and heavy drinking) kills about 88,000 people each year and costs the country about $223.5 billion annually, according to the CDC.

Binge drinking carries a number of immediate risks, including:

    • Memory loss regarding what was done while drunk
    • Hangover, including headache, nausea, shakiness and memory impairments
    • Loss of sexual function
    • Injury, such as from car accidents, falling, drowning or getting burned
    • Violence, such as homicide, suicide, sexual assault and domestic violence
    • Risky sexual behaviors, such as unplanned or unprotected sex
      • These behaviors can increase risk of unintended pregnancy and catching a sexually transmitted infection.
    • Miscarriage, stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders among the children of pregnant women

<li>Alcohol poisoning, which can lead to unconsciousness, coma or death

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A survey of college students published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 47 percent of frequent binge drinkers had experienced five or more of these drinking-related problems since the beginning of the school year.

In the long run, repeatedly putting your body through the stress of getting drunk can also cause lasting effects which might include:

  • Alcohol abuse or alcoholism
  • Cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure or stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Brain damage, especially that related to memory, attention and decision-making
  • Cancer, especially of the digestive tract
  • Mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
  • Weakened immune system

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol consumption weakens the immune system for a full 24 hours after getting drunk.

Why Do People Binge Drink?

A number of factors can influence why people choose to binge drink. A survey of young people conducted by Positive Futures found that 69 percent of respondents who drank said they enjoyed drinking, 29 percent said they liked to get drunk for the sake of it, and 29 percent said they drank to have fun and socialize with friends.

Among adolescents and college students, SAMHSA reports that factors that influence binge drinking include:

  • Favorable attitudes towards drinking
  • Age of getting drunk for the first time (as opposed to age of trying alcohol for the first time)
  • Using alcohol to manage emotional problems
  • Personality traits like impulsivity, novelty-seeking, sensation-seeking and risk-taking
  • Parental tolerance towards or acceptance of drinking
  • Poor social attachments and relationships
  • Peers who drink, especially peers who binge drink
  • Use of other substances, like cigarettes or illegal drugs
  • Difficulty refusing offered drinks or stopping drinking when desired
  • Lack of religious affiliation
  • Family history of alcoholism

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Among adults over the age of 50, according to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, risk factors for binge drinking include:

  • Higher income
  • Being employed
  • Being separated, divorced or widowed
  • Use of tobacco and illicit drugs
  • Nonmedical use of prescription drugs
  • Lower education level

According to the Telegraph, the United Kingdom Department of Health identified nine distinct profiles of heavy drinkers:

  • “De-stress drinkers” use alcohol to soothe stress and anxiety, gaining a sense of control over their emotions.
  • “Conformist drinkers” feel the need to belong to a group and desire a form of structure in their lives.
  • “Boredom drinkers” use alcohol as a way to pass the time.
  • “Depressed drinkers” find that alcohol use gives them a sense of comfort and security. They may be self-medicating underlying depression or another mental health disorder.
  • “Re-bonding drinkers” use social occasions involving alcohol as a way of maintaining their social ties.
  • “Community drinkers” feel the need to belong and tend to drink in large groups.
  • “Hedonistic drinkers” are looking to gain stimulation and lose control.
  • “Macho drinkers” want to stand out from the crowd. They spend most of their spare time in bars.
  • “Border dependents” treat their bar as a home away from home. They may drink at their bar frequently, including on weekdays and during the day.

Genetics also plays a role in determining who will binge drink. A certain set of genes control how the body metabolizes the toxic byproducts of alcohol. People who have weak copies of these genes are unable to process these toxins as efficiently and get sicker from drinking smaller amounts of alcohol, making them less likely to binge drink, according to research in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Another set of genes that regulates how the body handles stress also partially predicts binge drinking, a study in Molecular Psychiatry found.

What Are Signs of Binge Drinking?

Although there are no precise rules, here are some indicators that you or a loved one may be binge drinking:

  • Having more than one drink per hour
  • Drinking more than intended
  • Blacking out from drinking
  • Drinking in order to get drunk

When Does Binge Drinking Become Addiction?

Although binge drinking doesn’t inherently mean a person has an alcohol problem, they are at greater risk for one. SAMHSA also found that people who binge drink in adolescence are three times more likely to develop an alcohol problem than those who do not.

Signs that you or a loved one may have crossed the line into alcohol addiction can include:

  • Feeling unable to control how much alcohol you drink or how often you drink
  • Feeling strong cravings or compulsions to drink
  • Drinking alone to hide your drinking
  • Lying about how much you have been drinking
  • Finding yourself regularly blacking out and being unable to remember what you have done or said while drunk
  • Drinking in order to feel normal
  • Feeling irritable or frustrated when unable to drink
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol such that you need to drink more and more in order to feel the same effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (such as cravings, nausea, shakiness and anxiety) when you don’t drink
  • Spending less time with hobbies or activities you used to enjoy in order to spend more time drinking
  • Experiencing problems with relationships, work, school, finances or the law because of drinking

The Final Criterion

The final criterion is the most important: If you are experiencing problems because of your drinking, even if you don’t think you meet any of the other criteria on the list, then you may be in trouble and need help.

Alcohol use should be safe, responsible, and done in moderation, and if it’s causing problems in your life, then it’s time to cut back.

How Do I Talk to a Loved One About Binge Drinking?

Alcoholism – characterized by dependence and withdrawal – represents a serious situation. Missed work or school due to hangovers, arguments with family and friends about drinking, loss of healthy activities in order to drink more, and legal troubles related to drinking can all be wakeup calls that it’s time to do something about binge drinking.

If you want to talk to a loved one about drinking, here are some ways to start:

  • If you’re worried, act. Trust your instincts. Although the binge drinker may be high-functioning, holding down a job and avoiding getting in legal trouble, if your feelings are telling you that your loved one’s drinking is excessive, you’re probably right. There may be problems below the surface or problems that haven’t yet gotten out of control. By helping your loved one now, you might spare them future difficulties.
  • Time your conversation. A good time to discuss drinking is right after your loved one has experienced a tangible problem related to their drinking, such as experiencing a hangover, getting a DUI, or making a drunken scene in front of friends or family. They may be feeling more aware of their problem and therefore be more receptive to your message. It’s important to make sure that they are sober when you try to have the conversation.
  • Focus on specific problems. Point out concrete examples of times that your love one’s drinking has caused difficulties for them or others. Try to do so in a nonjudgmental way, and avoid lecturing.
  • Be empathetic. Use a supportive tone rather than an accusatory one. You are telling them about these problems because you are concerned for them and want to help them, rather than to assign blame.
  • Be patient. Your loved one may become defensive or angry. Remember that this is a common reaction among people with alcohol problems. Don’t take their comments personally, and avoid raising your voice or fighting back.
  • Offer your support.> Let your loved one know that your goal is to get them help, and that you’ll support them through the difficult process of recovery. Offer your assistance in this process, such as finding them a treatment program or driving them to treatment sessions. It’s easier to start on a recovery journey when you don’t have to go through the process alone.

At Black Bear Lodge, we understand it’s a big step to admit that you have, or a loved one has, a problem with drinking. It’s taken great courage and strength to get this far, and now it’s time to take the next step. Get in touch with us to learn more about how our comprehensive treatment program can help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.