At your annual check up, your doctor asks, “Do you drink?” And if you do, you say, “Yes.”
Then your doctor asks, “How much?”
And you respond with some amount – generally in terms of, “now and then” or “a glass of wine with dinner” or “only on the week-ends.” And you wonder… “Is that too much?”
What is considered normal drinking
There is actually a number, now, thanks to recent brain and addiction related research that is helping scientists understand the impacts of alcohol on the brain. In other words, how it is that alcohol chemically changes brain function because of the way alcohol interrupts the brain’s normal communication system (brain cells talking to one another and to and from others throughout the body via the central nervous system). This happens when a person drinks more alcohol than their liver can process (which is about one standard drink/hour). This is because alcohol bypasses the digestive system moving on into the small intestine and from there into the blood stream where it travels to body organs that highly vascularized (lots of blood vessels) and high in water content, such as the brain. When a person drinks more than their liver can metabolize on a timely basis, the alcohol “backs-up,” if you will, and “sits” in these body organs, until it’s metabolized by enzymes in the liver.
Given the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does, it’s alcohol changing brain function that causes a person’s behaviors to change when they drink too much. When their behaviors change – they engage in drinking behaviors, which, in turn, causes secondhand drinking impacts for others. But that’s a different post…
For now, the focus is on what is considered “normal drinking,” aka “low-risk drinking.” Below please find NIAAA’s image that explains the drinking pattern that is considered “normal” or “low-risk” drinking.
Putting this image into words, “low-risk” or “normal” drinking is defined as:
- For women: No more than 7 standard drinks/week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any one day.
- For men: No more than 14 standard drinks/week, with no more than 4 of the 14 on any one day.
Notice the words, “standard drinks.” Because ingredients and distilling processes are so different, the amount of alcohol in various types of alcoholic beverages varies widely. Here are the amounts for a standard drink of various types of alcoholic beverages:
- Wine = 5 ounces
- Regular beer = 12 ounces (so a tall beer = 2 standard drinks)
- Champagne = 3.3 ounce
- Ale or lagers = 8-9 ounces
- 80-proof Hard Liquor (tequila, scotch, vodka, gin, bourbon) = 1.5 ounces
Why these amounts
Notice how the above definition contains a daily limit and a weekly limit. The daily limit of “no more than 3 in one day” for women and “no more than 4 in one day” for men is to help a person avoid binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as 4 or more standard drinks for women and 5 or more for men. It’s been found that binge drinking is what causes a person to lose their ability to think straight and act responsibly. Check out this short video, “How Much is Too Much? “At-Risk” Drinking Explained.”
The weekly limit of “no more than 7 in a week” for women and “no more than 14 in a week” for men is to help people who choose to drink maintain their overall health. This is because each alcoholic beverage contains approximately 100 calories and very little (if any) nutritional value. Thus if a person is consuming 2-3 drinks/day, they are getting 200-300 unnecessary calories/day (in that there is no nutritional value for the calories being consumed).
These numbers are just targets, however
And while these numbers give us a target, you will also note the words, “low-risk.” Even these amounts can be risky for people who are:
New science helps us understand levels of drinking that are considered “low-risk” — meaning low-risk for developing a drinking problem and/or losing control of one’s brain functioning due to alcohol consumption. If you are concerned about your drinking or want to learn more or find tips for cutting down, check out NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website. There is a wealth of information there.
And before I close this post, contrary to popular opinion, not everybody drinks. NIAAA Rethinking Drinking reports that approximately one-third of American adults NEVER drink ANY alcohol — a little-known fact, to be sure! Not only that, but approximately one-third of the American adult population always drinks within “low-risk,” “normal” drinking limits.