Can Binge Drinking Lead to Alcoholism?
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Binge drinking, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), is when a person brings their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to 0.08 g/dL, which is considered the legal limit for driving under the influence in all 50 American states.
Usually, a man can bring his BAC up to binge drinking levels when he drinks five drinks in a two-hour timespan; for a woman, it generally takes four drinks consumed in the same amount of time. Factors like food consumption, metabolism, race, body mass, and other genetic, biological, and environmental aspects can contribute to how quickly a person can raise their BAC and how much alcohol it will take to do so.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that within the United States, binge drinking is considered the most deadly, expensive, and frequent pattern of excessive alcohol use. Nearly one-third of American adults reported past-month binge drinking in 2015, according to NIAAA. The CDC reports that one out of every six adults in the United States binge drinks around four times a month, drinking as many as eight drinks in a sitting.
What Is Binge Drinking: Risks, Symptoms & Treatment
According to its definition, binge drinking consuming five or more alcoholic drinks for men and four or more alcoholic drinks for women during a single occasion.1 It’s a potentially dangerous pattern of alcohol consumption that may lead to alcohol poisoning, various health risks, and an increased risk of developing long-term alcohol use disorder (AUD). Excessive alcohol consumption is, unfortunately, common in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in six adults consumes alcohol excessively, with 25% doing so on a weekly basis.1,2
In terms of demographics, binge drinking is most common among young adults between the ages of 18-34.2 The pattern of alcohol consumption also varies by gender, since males were twice more likely to engage in this type of excessive drinking than females. According to research from 2015, four out of five alcoholic beverages are consumed by males.3 In terms of economic statistics, it’s estimated that excessive alcohol consumption and related consequences cost the U.S. $249 billion in 2010; with approximately 77% of these costs being due to the consequences and effects of binge drinking.2
Overall, it’s clear that binge drinking is a considerable public health concern throughout the United States and should not be taken lightly. With increased awareness and preventative efforts, there may be positive changes to how we view and address this issue moving forward. If you or your loved one are suffering from AUD, professional help is available.1,2
What are the Signs of Binge Drinking?
Excessive consumption of alcohol can have long-lasting effects on the body and mind. It can lead to a number of physical and psychological signs and symptoms that can be indicative of an underlying problem.4
The most common physical signs associated with binge drinking are nausea, vomiting, and headaches. Additional physical symptoms may include:4,10
- Slurred speech
- Dry mouth
- Decreased coordination
- Blurred vision
- Inability to concentrate
Individuals engaging in excessive alcohol consumption may often suffer from dehydration since alcohol is a diuretic and increases urination.5 Hormonal imbalances due to excessive alcohol consumption can also occur, resulting in various complex health issues, particularly in women.6,7
Psychological signs of binge drinking often include:9,10
- Anxiety and stress from guilt or shame associated with the consequences of drinking too much;
- Mood swings or feelings of depression or exhaustion after consuming too much alcohol in one sitting;
- Memory loss or blackouts due to alcohol’s sedative effect on the brain;
- Difficulty sleeping or insomnia due to a disrupted sleep schedule.
It’s important for individuals who suspect they may be engaging in harmful levels of alcohol consumption to look out for these warning signs so that they can take appropriate steps toward treatment if needed. If you’re worried about your own behavior regarding alcohol use, it’s recommended that you speak with a healthcare professional about your concerns so that you can make healthy changes before any further damage has been done.4
How does Binge Drinking Affect the Body?
Excessive alcohol consumption can be highly detrimental to both physical and mental health. In the short term, it can lead to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, poor coordination, impaired judgment, and even death from alcohol overdose. Longer-term effects can range from liver damage to increased risk of cancer and chronic disease.
The immediate effects of binge drinking on the body are usually felt in the central nervous system. It slows down activity in the brain by slowing down the transmission of electrical signals. This leads to slurred speech, clumsiness, confusion, and even blackouts. In addition, it lowers inhibitions making intoxicated individuals more likely to engage in risky behavior such as unprotected intercourse or driving under the influence.4,10
In terms of long-term impact on physical health, there is an increased risk for:8
- High blood pressure
- Fatty liver
- Pancreas cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Breast cancer
- Liver cancer
- Colorectal cancer
Binge drinking can also have severe implications on one’s mental health, increasing the struggling individual’s chances of developing a mental health condition or worsening the symptoms of an existing condition.9 Not only does alcohol act as a depressant but it has been linked with higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts.11 What’s more, individuals who struggle with AUD may often find themselves struggling with social issues due to decreased functioning at work or school, along with potential difficulty in maintaining relationships with family members or friends.4
What are the Common Reasons for Binge Drinking?
Common reasons for binge drinking include:
Social pressure and peer influence
Many individuals may feel pressured to drink more than they normally would because their peers are doing so. This peer pressure can cause struggling individuals to make unwise decisions when it comes to alcohol consumption.12,14
Feeling overwhelmed by stress
When people experience high levels of stress due to work or other obligations, some of them may turn to alcohol as a means of coping with this stress. Unfortunately, this can lead to dangerous levels of alcohol consumption that can have serious consequences both immediately and in the long term.13
Issues with self-esteem or negative body image issues can also be contributing factors when it comes to binge drinking. Struggling individuals who feel insecure may attempt to cope with these feelings through excess alcohol consumption, gaining temporary confidence and relief from their feelings.14
Genetics and a family history of substance abuse
Studies have shown that individuals with a close family member who has struggled with AUD are more likely to engage in problematic drinking behaviors themselves.15 Still, it’s important to note that an individual’s genetic predisposition to AUD doesn’t necessarily mean they will become dependent on alcohol. Rather, this means that these individuals may need to be especially mindful of their drinking habits and the potential risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption.16
Social anxiety is another commonly cited factor when discussing binge drinking. For individuals struggling with social anxiety or another form of mental illness, alcohol can provide a temporary “crutch” during social situations. However, when used excessively or frequently enough, this coping mechanism may spiral out of control into full-blown addiction or habituated excessive consumption.17
Depression is also a significant contributor to excessive alcohol consumption. Individuals suffering from depression often feel helpless and hopeless, which may lead some of them to turn to self-medication through drugs or alcohol as an escape from reality and their symptoms. The outcome of this type of temporary “coping mechanism” is rarely positive. Rather than easing depressive symptoms, it typically leads to increased negative feelings, which can perpetuate the cycle of substance abuse even further.18
Social acceptance and group culture
Finally, some struggling individuals turn to binge drinking because it’s socially accepted and even encouraged in some environments where it may be seen as “normal” behavior by peers and friends. Participation in activities like bar hopping on Saturday nights may seem innocuous enough, especially at a certain age.19
However, after repeatedly engaging in these activities without proper moderation over time, these behaviors can progress to the next stage, become habitual and increase the chance of AUD if left unchecked for too long. Different individuals participating in excessive alcohol consumption should be aware of the potential dangers associated with frequent binge drinking, despite the social context of consumption.19
How to Stop Binge Drinking?
The approach to stopping excessive alcohol consumption depends on whether the struggling individual has developed or is at risk of developing AUD or not. If you’re worried that you or your loved one may be suffering from AUD, the safest choice is to ask for professional help. In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to abstain more easily from excessive alcohol consumption, before or after treatment.20
The first step that may help struggling individuals stop binge drinking is to develop a plan that outlines exactly what the struggling individual needs to do to abstain from alcohol, as well as any tools or resources they may need.20
This plan should include healthy alternatives to drinking, such as exercise and engaging in hobbies, as well as support systems that can keep the struggling individual accountable, such as friends and family who can encourage their sobriety. Developing a plan may also help the struggling individual identify triggers that may lead to compulsive drinking and how to avoid them. This is best done with a trained professional.20
Another important step in stopping excessive alcohol consumption is to identify the underlying reasons why it has become an issue. Some struggling individuals use alcohol to cope with stress or mental health issues, so addressing these issues is key to finding solutions for compulsive drinking.20
Seeking professional help or joining a support group may both be effective methods of finding ways to deal with emotional issues without turning to alcohol abuse. Additionally, establishing boundaries when it comes to social events involving alcohol and being honest about struggles with alcohol may both potentially be powerful preventative measures for future episodes of binge drinking.20
Finally, implementing lifestyle changes and self-care practices can be beneficial for individuals who are looking to stop binge drinking. It’s important to note that these changes may be difficult to implement overnight, meaning that the struggling individual may find it easier to begin practicing some of them when they’re detoxified from substances and feel more stable.20
Establishing healthy routines, connecting with nature on a regular basis, and learning relaxation techniques may prove effective strategies for managing emotions without relying on substance abuse. Additionally, eating healthily and getting enough sleep are both essential for maintaining mental health which may help individuals better manage stressors in their lives, further reducing the likelihood of relapse into compulsive drinking habits.20
Treatment Programs for Binge Drinking
American Addiction Centers (AAC) is an evidence-based, reputable network of treatment centers for recovery from AUD and other substance abuse issues. AAC provides comprehensive programs designed to address all aspects of addiction, including physical, mental and spiritual health.
These programs include individual psychotherapy with experienced therapists, group therapy, educational sessions, 12-step meetings, evidence-supported medication, and more. Compassionate medical professionals with experience in the field of addiction recovery provide precise diagnoses, guidance and support throughout the program, offering individualized care that’s tailored to each struggling individual’s needs, from withdrawal to aftercare.
The educated staff knows that AUD is a complex disease that requires comprehensive treatment, offering multiple levels of care depending on the severity of the addiction. Moreover, they strive to provide education and resources that may aid in relapse prevention while supporting treatment-seeking individuals through each stage of the recovery process.
As for the cost of treatment, some of the facilities in AAC’s network offer a number of payment options such as private insurance and sliding fee scales, which treatment-seeking individuals can discuss with rehab navigators at the assigned hotline. Treatment-seeking individuals can make use of the rehab locator service for choosing a facility, getting additional treatment resources, or aftercare services. AAC’s centers provide an environment conducive to recovery, helping individuals struggling with AUD begin their journey to achieving long-term sobriety.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Recovery and Recovery Support.
The Risks of Binge Drinking
Binge drinking is a risky pattern of alcohol consumption that can cause a wide range of potential issues, including heightened danger for getting into an accident or being the victim of a crime, a host of physical health problems, unsafe sexual practices, increased risk-taking behaviors, memory and learning issues, and social and emotional problems. Binge drinking can also potentially lead to alcohol dependence and addiction.
Binge drinking is considered a high-risk type of alcohol consumption. While not everyone who binge drinks battles alcohol addiction, regular bouts of binge drinking can increase the odds that a person will develop issues with alcohol, including the possibility of alcoholism.
Tolerance and Dependence
Alcoholism is a disease with many contributing factors. For instance, NIAAA reports that genetics may account for around half of the risk for alcohol addiction. Other factors may include biological and environmental aspects, the presence of a co-occurring disorder, polysubstance abuse, and the level of physical dependence to alcohol.
The more a person drinks and the more often they do so, the more likely they are to develop a strong dependence on the mind-altering substance. Therefore, episodes of binge drinking can increase the odds for developing a tolerance to and then dependence on alcohol.
Tolerance occurs when the brain and body get used to certain amounts of alcohol being consumed and adapt to them. It will then take more alcohol for a person to get drunk or feel the effects of alcohol. A person is then likely to drink more to feel the way they want to. Increasing the amount of alcohol consumed each time and bumping up the frequency of drinking episodes can lead to alcohol dependence more quickly.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Alcohol makes changes to the way the brain sends messages throughout the central nervous system, Forbes reports. It increases the presence of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), therefore acting as a depressant. GABA is responsible for suppressing functions of the central nervous system; it lowers blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and anxiety levels while leading to relaxation and drowsiness.
Alcohol also affects levels of excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain, like glutamate. Alcohol inhibits the natural release of glutamate in the brain, one of the chemical messengers responsible for energy levels and brain activity in general. Conversely, alcohol also stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that interacts with the brain’s reward center and is responsible for feelings of pleasure.
What Happens When You Binge Drink?
The more a person drinks, the more the brain is impacted. When binge drinking episodes are repeated regularly, the brain may stop working the way it was meant to. These chemical messengers may not be produced, transmitted, and reabsorbed the way they were designed to be, and the brain may now rely on alcohol to stay “balanced.” Dopamine and GABA levels may then drop without alcohol, and glutamate may spike dangerously high. Withdrawal symptoms may occur when alcohol processes out of the body, and these symptoms can range from uncomfortable to potentially fatal.
Dependence is formed at this point. When a person struggles with alcohol dependence, they may continue to drink in order to avoid the difficult withdrawal symptoms and cravings that can occur without alcohol’s influence. Compulsion to continue drinking may become a factor, and a person may lose their ability to control how much and how often they consume alcohol, leading to addiction.
Alcohol Addiction Defined
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) calls addiction a chronic brain disease that interferes with normal brain function. It is indicated by compulsive behaviors and a lack of control over these behaviors and related actions. Drinking on a regular basis, especially binge or heavy drinking, can lead to alcohol dependence and also potentially alcoholism. Not everyone who binge drinks will suffer from alcoholism; however, the more frequently a person engages in high-risk drinking patterns, the more likely they are to develop problems with alcohol.
The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines the specific criteria that are used to diagnose addiction, as published by NIAAA:
- Spending significant time drinking and recovering from drinking
- Inability to control how much alcohol is consumed at a time and for how long
- Several attempts to stop drinking that are unsuccessful
- Alcohol interfering with regular obligations (e.g., family, work, school, etc.)
- Less interest in activities that do not involve alcohol to the point of giving up previously important events or activities
- Drinking in hazardous situations or conditions
- Needing to drink more each time to feel the effects of alcohol (tolerance)
- Alcohol dependence and withdrawal symptoms when alcohol wears off (can include nausea, headache, dizziness, irregular heart rate, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty thinking straight, memory problems, muscle and stomach aches, sweating, insomnia, tremors, hallucinations, delirium, sedation, seizures, and significant confusion)
- Drinking despite knowing that alcohol is likely to cause physical and emotional health problems
- Continuing to drink even with the knowledge that there will be significant negative social and behavioral consequences
- Cravings for alcohol
A lack of a good support system, high levels of stress, exposure to trauma, being the victim of abuse or violence, family history of alcoholism or addiction, combining alcohol with other substances, co-occurring mental and/or medical disorders, and biological factors can contribute to issues related to alcohol abuse and also to the onset of addiction. Men are more prone to alcoholism than women, NIAAA publishes.
The CDC reports that nearly a quarter of all American adults reported drinking heavily at least one day (five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women) in the year leading up to the 2015 national survey. One episode of binge drinking or heavy drinking is not likely to lead to alcoholism; it is the repeated pattern of excessive drinking that can lead to tolerance, dependence, and even to addiction.
Alcohol addiction often requires specialized treatment and medical detox in the case of severe dependence. Comprehensive treatment programs can help individuals to uncover the root cause of problem and binge drinking patterns and learn how to manage cravings, minimize stress, develop healthy life skills, and reduce instances of relapse for improved overall quality of life.
Frequently Asked Questions