Excessive alcohol use, either in the form of binge drinking or heavy drinking, led to approximately 88,000 deaths annually in the United States from 2006 – 2010. (Source: CDC>Excessive Drinking, accessed 8/11/17) This is equal to 241 deaths per day.
In view of these statistics, which I find staggering, as is the fact they’re not widely known by the general public, I offer the following suggestions to answer the question, “What can WE do to stop this?” Because it’s going to take the “WE.”
Understand Excessive Alcohol Use
“I only had a couple of drinks,” or “We each had a drink and then split a bottle of wine.” These kinds of statements are common when someone gets into trouble as a result of how much they’ve had to drink. Sometimes the speaker is absolutely baffled at being pulled over for a DUI or having a hangover in the morning because they are sure they’d only had a few.
So understanding what’s considered “low-risk” drinking can help a person avoid excessive alcohol use.
According to the NIAAA>RethinkingDrinking website,
- women should not exceed 7 standard drinks/week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any day
- men should not exceed 14 standard drinks/week, with no more than 4 of the 14 on any day.
These limits are to help a person avoid the excessive drinking (binge drinking/heavy drinking) that lead to the 88,000 deaths per year in the U.S. reported in my opening statement. Binge drinking is defined as drinking 5 or more standard drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women. Heavy drinking is defined as drinking 15 or more standard drinks per week for men or 8 or more drinks per week for women. Most people who drink excessively are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent. (Source: CDC>Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health, accessed 8/11/17) In fact, according to the CDC, more than half of these 88,000 deaths were due to binge drinking. (Source: CDC>Excessive Drinking, accessed 8/11/17)
As for “standard drinks,” in the U.S. a “standard” drink is any drink that contains about 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of “pure” alcohol. And it’s the “pure” alcohol that’s the concern as it contains the ethyl alcohol chemicals that interrupt the brain’s cell-to-cell communication, and it’s this cell-to-cell communication that controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does. Some common standard drink sizes are 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 8-9 ounces of the IPA kinds of beer, 1.5 ounces of “hard” liquor (vodka, scotch, bourbon, tequila).
Often common drinks or beverage containers people serve and/or consume at parties or restaurants contain more than one standard drink as listed below. Not understanding this can cause a person to drink more than they’d planned.
- a margarita = 2-3 standard drinks
- a martini = 1.5-2 standard drinks
- a “stiff” scotch on the rocks = 2-3 standard drinks
- a bottle of table wine = 5 standard drinks.
Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol
Why is this so important to understand? Because alcohol (the ethyl alcohol chemicals in alcoholic drinks) is not processed like other foods and liquids. It is metabolized (processed) by enzymes in the liver. It takes the liver about one hour (often up to two depending on other variables, such as weight, gender, having eaten, stage of brain development or medications) to metabolize the ethyl alcohol in one standard drink. So if a person consumes 3-4 drinks, it’ll be roughly 3-4 hours before their body is clear of all alcohol. While alcohol waits its turn to be processed by the liver, it is “sitting” in body organs, like the brain. It’s this sitting in the brain that changes how a person thinks and behaves because the ethyl alcohol chemicals in the alcohol beverages consumed interrupt neural networks and therefore normal brain functioning.
Assess Your Drinking Pattern
NIAAA Rethinking Drinking’s website has an anonymous, online, 2-question drinking pattern assessment that can be found here. Another assessment is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Test) by the World Heath Organization.
Know that Alcohol Works Differently in the Teen Brain
Little did we know until the Decade of the Brain (1990s) and the Decade of Discovery (2000s) that the brain could take until the average age of 24 for boys and 22 for girls to fully develop. Little did we know that the kinds of brain developmental activities that occur from ages 12 – early 20s, often through 25, explain why teens do the things they do (seek risks, not consider potentially negative outcomes, for example) and why excessive drinking can be so problematic for young people’s brains.
In my fourteen+ years of studying brain research and writing on brain development and the brain disease of addiction, understanding the whole story about puberty and the brain’s evolution [see Image 2 in article linked below] gave me the pieces that finally completed the puzzle on how/why teens do the things they do and how/why their peers are so influential and why all of this is so instrumental in the development of a more serious drinking problem.
To explain why it’s so important we understand puberty and what it does in the brain, check out my posts, Want to Get Through to Teens, Talk to Their Brains, and Give Their Brains a Break – Underage Drinking Prevention.
And by the way, the Europeans don’t have this whole underage drinking issue figured out, either. In fact it’s a huge problem there, as well. So check out the 2015 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs.
And one more point, here, treating an adolescent with alcoholism is not the same as treating an adult – primarily because of the developmental processes the adolescent brain goes through. For more on this, check out NIDA’s Evidence-Based Approaches to Treating Adolescent Substance Use Disorders.
Understand that People Develop Alcoholism (aka Alcohol Use Disorders)
Thanks to all of this brain research, it’s now understood that addiction (of which alcoholism or alcohol use disorder is one) is a developmental, chronic, relapsing brain disease. People are not born alcoholics, nor do they choose to become one. They develop it and often that’s because of the myths, stigma, misinformation and shame that surrounds the disease of alcoholism. To debunk these myths, please check out my eBook, Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence.
And for more on how alcohol works in the brain and what makes addiction (alcoholism) a brain disease, check out NIDA’s Drugs, Brains and Behaviors: The Science of Addiction. You might also want to check out The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health (released 2016).
Lastly, I’d shared what NIDA recommends for treating adolescent addiction (alcoholism) above, here’s the link to NIDA’s>Principles of Drug [alcohol is considered a drug] Addiction Treatment: a Research-Based Guide for treating adults.
Understand Secondhand Drinking
One last thing for now… it’s important to understand the very real impact of a person’s drinking behaviors on others – especially family members and close friends. And that is secondhand drinking, which affects 90 million Americans. These impacts are related to stress – the stress a person dealing with a loved one’s drinking behaviors experiences. These stress related impacts can include: depression, anxiety, stomach ailments, cardiovascular problems, sleep disorders, muscle aches, skin problems and so much more. To learn more, check out my eBook, Secondhand Drinking: The Phenomenon That Affects Millions.
You might also want to check out my article, What to Say to Someone With a Drinking Problem.
For more information…
Awareness is half the battle, and there are many resources to help reduce excessive alcohol use, so if you have a question or wonder about what I’ve written here, please feel free to call me at 650-362-3026 or email me at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com. I’m happy to talk with you or help you find the answers you need.