Are You a Heavy Drinker? The Answer Might Surprise You

Does this sound like you? Once or twice a week you finish work and head to a local bar to meet friends for dinner and two or three drinks. Other nights you just go home and have a couple of cocktails before dinner. Nothing wrong with two or three drinks every day after work, right?

Many people are rethinking that mindset, following the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the dangers of excessive alcohol use. According to the CDC’s definition, heavy drinking is defined as 15 or more drinks a week for men, and eight or more drinks a week for women In essence, that’s about two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women. For “older” men 65 and above, that threshold drops to one drink per day; older women should limit themselves to a couple of drinks per week. The definition of a drink is 1 ounce or jigger of hard alcohol, a 12-ounce beer, or one 6-ounce glass of wine. Binge drinking is defined as more than three drinks on one occasion. Therefore, it is possible to be a heavy-drinking binge drinker.

Many people who have long considered themselves moderate or “social” drinkers were very surprised to learn that the CDC actually defines them as a “heavy drinker.” This is not just an exercise in semantics, because the CDC report detailed the devastating toll caused by heavy drinking in the U.S. According to the CDC, excessive drinking results in one in 10 deaths of adults ages 20-64. That’s almost 88,000 deaths per year. The CDC admits that is likely an underestimate, and I suspect that the number is actually much higher than that since I do not believe the numbers reported include all alcohol-related deaths from traffic accidents, domestic violence and many homicides and suicides.

Beyond that, millions of people suffer from debilitating and chronic alcohol-related illnesses. Many people are well aware of the obvious health threats posed by excessive alcohol use, including an increased risk of liver disease, many types of cancer, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Of course, ask any emergency room worker about the accident victims from their last shift, and chances are many, if not most, involved alcohol. Yet excessive alcohol use can affect your body in many other ways. Heavy drinking has been linked to cognitive dysfunction and an increased risk of dementia, neuropathy, myopathy, gait instability, sexual dysfunction, arthritis, osteoporosis and pancreatitis. More insidious side effects include depression, anxiety, insomnia, bone marrow suppression, with resultant anemia and low platelet and white blood cell counts, damaged family relationships, poor job performance … you get the picture.

Perhaps one of the most common and reversible causes of the epidemic of obesity in our country is alcohol overuse. The weight gain is not only due to the excess calories from the alcohol ingested, but due to elevated insulin levels that result from the alcohol intake. The insulin secreted then drops sugar levels, resulting in middle-of-the-night hypoglycemia that may awaken the patient causing disturbed sleep, which also results in weight gain and health problems. Alcohol is also an appetite stimulant and tends to cause fluid retention and bloating.

I don’t want to be a killjoy about drinking. There are occasions worth celebrating with a few drinks. There’s nothing wrong with a drink or two after work now and then. But if you find yourself drinking several days a week, drinking two, three — or more — drinks on each occasion, it might be time to rethink your lifestyle. Alcohol overuse may be difficult to diagnose since sometimes the amount of alcohol consumed does not matter so much as what occurs when one consumes alcohol. If you have ever had a blackout, lost a job or relationship, or received a DWI or other legal complication due to your drinking, you may have a problem with alcohol. Chronic insomnia and fatigue may also be associated with alcohol overuse.

There are several questionnaires designed to help determine if you may have an alcohol use problem. A simple one is the “CAGE” Questionnaire:

  1. Have you ever felt like you should Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have other people ever been Annoyed by your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt Guilty about your drinking?
  4. Have you ever had an “Eye opener” or drink in the morning to calm your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

If you answer “Yes” to two or more of these questions, then you may have an alcohol overuse problem and should consult with your physician. Another excellent resource is Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that has successfully helped millions of people stop drinking.