There are “heavy-hitters,” “weekend warriors,” and petite women with ”wooden legs” who can drink burly construction workers under the table. There are also “social drinkers,” who simply enjoy a bottle of good wine with dinner and others who appreciate a few beers after a softball game.
Problem drinkers? Maybe, maybe not. More to the point, maybe a few at risk of becoming problem drinkers. April being Alcohol Awareness Month, it’s a good time to review personal drinking habits, if just to see if there are any warning flags of a potential future problem that can be avoided. It’s worth the time.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) affects 15-18 million adults. It’s a major health issue, but drinking is so ingrained in our society that many people are reluctant to look at their own drinking patterns. This common resistance to self-reflection, along with a lack of information on the risks of abusing alcohol, can be harmful to your health.
For example, having a high tolerance for alcohol, often worn as a badge of pride, is a reason to be wary. People with a high tolerance are likely to drink more and hang out with people who drink more and more often. They are at higher risk for AUD (alcoholism) and serious health problems affecting the liver, heart or brain caused by alcohol abuse. This is not to mention the obvious risks of drinking and driving and other physical harm as the result of impaired judgment.
Just one more example, for those who feel they drink “in moderation.” The NIAAA, which does research on these things, says, for men, more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 per week and for women, more than three drinks on any day or seven per week is “heavy” or “at risk” drinking. A standard drink is defined as one containing .6 fluid ounces of “pure” alcohol, regardless of the liquid - a 12-ounce can of beer or a 1½-ounce shot of some 80-proof liquor are the same.
The agency offers a list of questions to help determine if you have an alcohol abuse problem or are at risk of one:
In the past year, have you:
• Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
• More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn't?
• More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
• Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
• Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
• Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other after-effects?
• Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
• Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
• Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
• More than once gotten arrested, been held at a police station, or had other legal problems because of your drinking?
• Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?
Says the NIAAA: “Depending on the symptoms and their severity, just one or two can be a red flag. The more symptoms you have, the more urgent the need for change. The symptoms toward the top of the list tend to be early signs of potential trouble, whereas the ones further down the list indicate that you have moved further down a risky path.”
If you take the test on the NIAAA website, rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov, it will provide individual feedback. The site is anonymous.
The gauge for determining alcohol abuse is actually simple: Alcohol is a problem when it causes problems in your life - at home, at work, with your health.
Regardless of the results of the test, there are several factors that suggest quitting drinking might be advised:
• You’ve tried to cut down, but can’t.
• You have had some symptoms previously.
• Alcohol affects a physical or mental condition or it interacts with medication.
• You are pregnant.
• You have a family history of alcohol problems or a personal history of alcohol-related injuries.
The NIAAA website offers suggestions for cutting down on drinking if you think it could become a problem. If it already is, seek professional help. It won’t get any better by avoiding it.
Bob Gaydos is a freelance writer (firstname.lastname@example.org).