Binge drinking is the most common and deadly pattern of alcohol abuse in many countries around the world, including the UK. Due to a potential cognitive impairment that occurs with moderate to heavy alcohol consumption, any binge drinking episode can be risky.
For example, any drunken person is considerably more likely to make poor decisions, lose emotional control, and be at a greater risk of being involved in an accident than a sober person. The bigger problem occurs with people who binge drink regularly. If you’re a heavy drinker, you’ll be more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than an occasional drinker.
On its own, binge drinking is not a sufficient reason to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. However, people who binge drink frequently are more likely to suffer from such a disorder than those who don’t. Notably, there is no standard quantity of alcohol consumption that can be measured to determine alcohol use disorder.
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If you often binge drink at parties or other social gatherings, you are at risk of an alcohol overdose or developing a dual diagnosis disorder.
According to the National Health Service (NHS), binge drinking is defined as “drinking large amounts of alcohol within a short period or drinking to become intoxicated”.
Each person is unique in various ways, so it’s difficult to determine how many units of alcohol in a session qualify as binge drinking. However, the Office of National Statistics states that drinking more than six units per session for men and over four for women is considered binge drinking.
There are other definitions for binge drinking, relating to mixing various types of alcohol.
- Consuming four or more different alcoholic beverages at a time (for women) at least one day per month.
- Consuming five or more different alcoholic beverages at a time (for men) at least one day per month.
- Drinking enough alcohol during a single session to raise your blood-alcohol levels to 0.08 – at least once per month – is considered binge drinking. This figure is estimated to be the concentration of alcohol (for men and women) for the number of drinks mentioned above.
Based on the description above, it’s safe to say that a significant majority of the population who consume alcohol have engaged in binge drinking at some point or other. A single occasion -though fraught with risk – may not necessarily be enough to ruin someone’s life. However, habitual binge drinking is a danger that must be avoided.
The development of an alcohol abuse disorder is tantamount to the consequences of a person’s alcohol consumption, its effect on their ability to perform normally and control their alcohol consumption.
Binge Drinking as Alcoholism
‘Alcohol dependence’ is a more objective term than ‘alcoholic’ or ‘alcoholism’, because the person affected may or may not be physiologically dependent on alcohol.
Based on statistics, most binge drinkers are not physically dependent on alcohol. They might exhibit signs or symptoms of psychological dependence – and some may be classified as alcoholics – but their bodies can function essentially without alcohol in the system. Some may even go months between binges.
Another thing to consider is the binge drinker’s pattern of over-drinking when they do consume alcohol. They may be able to stay away from alcohol for some time, but when they do eventually drink, can often find it hard to stop.
Binge drinking and alcoholism are not unconnected, but it’s difficult to define the latter. Though alcoholism may involve heavy drinking, not all heavy drinkers are alcoholics. There are many who are not physically dependent on alcohol but are emotionally dependent. Therefore, they may personally identify as alcoholics. This category is certainly subjective.
However, this is not to diminish the harmfulness of binge drinking or the unhealthy nature of this habit. It’s a disturbing trend and cause for concern. So, if you or someone you know is a binge drinker, it’s advisable to start plans to taper your future alcohol intake.
Reasons for Binge Drinking
Binge drinking is becoming an epidemic in several countries, especially amongst young people aged 20 to 30 years old. Researchers and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have raised the alarm that binge drinking is a gateway to prolonged alcoholic abuse and alcohol dependence if not curtailed in time.
Another concern is the capability of binge drinking to change the drinker’s behaviour. Additionally, it puts other people at risk by causing accidents, violence and health issues, whilst placing pressure on health and emergency services.
So, why do people binge drink? There are many varied reasons. The following list is not exhaustive, but should provide sufficient insight into this behaviour:
People See it as Fun
Alcohol increases the production of dopamine in the brain. During binge drinking, a large dose of dopamine is released, blocking out negative emotions such as stress, fear, anxiety and other insecurities. However, the disadvantage is that depression follows once the alcohol wears off.
To Feel More Confident
Many people are shy in social circles and find it hard to blend in. Alcohol has the innate tendency to diminish an individual’s inhibitions and make them more social at public gatherings. It’s believed that the more they drink, the greater their confidence.
To assert dominance
Younger males tend to binge drink to assert their “machismo”. The ability to hold their liquor is seen as a sign of dominance or masculine strength. Unfortunately, giving in to such peer pressure often leads to harmful binge drinking episodes.
To Forget Their Problems
Stress is one of the leading causes of excessive drinking. People with underlying psychological issues such as financial worries and relationship problems (to name but two) consume alcohol to ‘drown their sorrows’.
In school and university environments, ‘fitting in with the crowd’ often compels people to drink excessively, especially at parties. Drinking alcohol seems like the ‘cool’ thing to do for many young people, so they find themselves bowing to the pressure of binge drinking.
Before long, this practice can cause tolerance and lead to dependence. Recognising the signs early on is critical to preventing dependence.
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Main Signs of a Binge Drinking Problem
People often try to justify their actions by obtaining information that tells them what they want to hear (confirmation bias). For example, someone who binge-drinks will look for the potential benefits of alcohol to justify their heavy drinking habits.
The following are the main signs of a binge drinking problem. You may recognise them in your behaviour or in that of someone you care about.
Ignoring the concerns of loved ones
Do you get angry when people express concern about your drinking? Many drinkers tend to become overly defensive. In some cases, they may lash out violently in anger.
Drinking excessively on weekends or holidays
Despite what many people think, binge drinkers might not drink every day. However, a major red flag is the large quantities of alcohol they drink on weekends or during the holidays. You may find yourself justifying it by saying, “I only drink on weekends, so it’s not a problem”, but it can be.
Unwittingly drinking more alcohol than originally planned
A potential sign of binge drinking behaviour is when you start with the intention of having just one or two drinks, only to discover later that you’ve had more than five.
Doing risky things whilst under the influence of alcohol
Binge drinkers tend to combine their habits with other risky ventures. For example, driving, gambling recklessly, getting into physical fights or committing crimes.
Inability to perform your usual responsibilities
The day after a binge-drinking episode usually leaves you tired and too hungover to function at optimal levels. As such, you may find it hard to attend classes or deliver productively at work. Even adhering to your children’s welfare can feel like a difficult chore.
If you wake up in the morning without any recollection of the previous night’s events, it could be a sign that you drank excessively. If you recognise some of these signs, take an alcohol assessment test and plan to cut down your alcohol consumption.
Binge Drinking: Facts and Statistics
In 2014, the UK was listed by the World Health Organisation as one of the worst offenders in the world for alcohol intake. The research surveyed up to 196 countries, with the UK, ranked 13th highest for heavy drinking. It surpassed nations like Ukraine, Estonia, Hungary and Belarus.
Overall, about 28% of Britons were said to have had a binge-drinking episode in the past month – almost double the global average of 16%. Britain was the 25th highest ranked
country for total alcohol consumption and was a lot higher than the worldwide average. Researchers also analysed the occurrence of ‘heavy episodic drinking’, which was described as consuming more than six units of alcohol (or three pints of lager) in a single sitting. The research revealed that in the UK, 35.5% of men and 20.9% of women had consumed 60 grams of alcohol (or six units) on at least one occasion in the past month.
The country with the highest overall consumption of alcohol is Belarus. According to the report, 17.5 units of pure alcohol was drunk per individual every year, followed by Republic of Moldova, Lithuania and Russia.
Austria had the highest record for binge-drinking, with 40.5% of the population having drunk at least six units of alcohol on one occasion. Ireland came second with 39% and Czech Republic third with 38.9%.
The Relationship Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism
Some binge drinkers may be able to quit the habit and drink only on social occasions. One of the reasons they can do this is because their pre-frontal cortex (in the brain) has not been severely damaged. Therefore, it might be assumed that they’re not genetically inclined to become habitual consumers of alcohol.
Binge drinking amongst adolescents can progress well into later adulthood if they don’t do something about it. People who binge drink may find it hard to stop at any time during a session. Binge drinking could be a sign of alcoholism, but it is not necessarily a causal factor.
Younger binge drinkers who continue with the habit are more predisposed to become problem drinkers in the future. While alcohol is a known addictive substance, many experts in the treatment and medical fields don’t think binge drinking creates alcoholism.
The typical behaviour shown by binge drinkers may be displayed in people who don’t binge drink, yet become alcoholics.
Therefore, the answer lies in that some binge drinkers are alcohol-dependent, while others are not. Young people who keep up their binge drinking habits usually display the early signs of problem drinking. It is possible to quit binge drinking whilst in university or high school, but you’ll need the help of a professional if you’re struggling. Fortunately, you can easily find an expert in your area.
Short-term Effects of Binge Drinking Include
It’s fairly normal to have a drink and relax after a long day, but for some people, one or two drinks are never enough; they just don’t know when to stop. If your alcohol-drinking habit is beginning to affect important aspects of your life, strive to act quickly.
Here are ten research-backed facts you should know about alcohol:
Alcohol consumption reduces the quality of sleep A recent controlled experiment showed that alcohol causes poor sleep patterns because it interferes with the gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) system, which is responsible for calming the brain.
Drinking too much alcohol exposes you to risk of various diseases The body’s immune system is developed when you sleep. People with poor sleep patterns are exposed to the dangers of a weakened immunity. Since drinking too much alcohol causes insomnia, it indirectly exposes you to various diseases.
Alcohol is responsible for impaired memory When you sleep, the brain processes information from the past few days. If you suffer alcohol-induced insomnia, the brain does not have enough time to process and retain information obtained during the day. This automatically leads to amnesia. In worse cases, you could experience mental health disturbances.
Drinking alcohol leads to poor physical health Alcohol can impact various systems in the body. For example, excess drinking can affect the liver, where alcohol is metabolised. Stressing the liver can lead to cirrhosis and other associated problems. Other conditions include hormonal imbalances and accumulation of fat in specific parts of the body.
Alcohol Causes Low productivity at work Alcohol is well-known for impairing cognition and reducing productive value. When you combine excessive drinking and insomnia, it affects the quality of work or service you deliver.
Higher risk of mental health problems One of the withdrawal symptoms of alcohol is psychological disturbances such as anxiety, paranoia and hallucination. Delirium tremens is another common symptom of alcohol-dependence and it can lead to dual diagnostic disorders like schizophrenia or psychosis.
Alcohol increases the risk of accidents Intoxication is a common reason for several hospital emergencies. From overdosing to road accidents, several minor and fatal incidents can be traced back to alcohol.
Alcohol causes behavioural problems Drinking alcohol may be responsible for your sudden behavioural changes. It gives one a false sense of wellbeing, forcing a person to make unwise decisions. For example, being more antagonistic and aggressive to people around you is a common trait of intoxication.
It increases crime rate In the UK, alcohol consumption has been linked to the high spate of crime in various areas. Because it fuels people with a false sense of security, would-be thieves might feel motivated to rob someone or burgle a house. Sexual opportunists also take advantage of intoxicated victims and assault them.
Alcohol consumption causes depression People who binge-drink for prolonged periods can develop dependence. While drinking alcohol may offer temporary satisfaction, it can cause mental disturbances such as depression and anxiety when the effect wears off.
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Binge Drinking: Know the Dangers and Risks Involved
Binge drinking is a dangerous pattern of heavy alcohol consumption. After an episode of heavy drinking, your blood-alcohol concentration will typically rise to 0.08 or higher. Because it impairs your brain’s normal functions, binge drinking is accompanied bya range of dangerous side-effects.
The dangers can be classified into short-term and long-term effects. Short-term effects of binge drinking include
- Poor muscle coordination
- Memory impairment
- Poor judgement
Drinking excessively exposes you to a number of health and societal risks. For example, alcohol can cause delayed reaction times and put you and other road users in danger. In addition, alcohol causes poor decision making that may lead to domestic violence, sexual assault or alcohol overdose.
In the long-term, a personal history of alcohol abuse creates several vulnerabilities in your body as you get older, including:
- Brain damage
- Liver cirrhosis
- Heart complication
The risks associated with binge drinking usually depend on the quantity of alcohol you drink, how quickly you consume it, your body mass index (BMI), gender combined drugs and general medical history.
Gender is an important factor because our body constitution differs. Women naturally have less body water, they attain a higher blood-alcohol concentration level faster than men. It, therefore, takes less for women to experience the pleasurable ‘high’ or ‘merry’ feelings associated with alcohol.
Binge Drinking and the Brain
Previous studies have demonstrated how alcohol-dependent individuals experience significant changes in their brain resting activity. Another more recent study shows that similar changes have been observed in the brains of non-alcohol-dependent students who binge drink.
Researchers at the University of Minho, Portugal, set out to study the measurable differences in the brains of heavy drinkers at a time when they were not preparing for any tests. Under the supervision of Lead Researcher, Eduardo Lopez, their findings revealed plenty of insightful material on the binge-drinkers brain.
The study took cognizance of the fact that university students were frequent drinkers. Participants were divided into two groups:
- Those who had never been involved in binge drinking
- Those who had binge-drank at least once in the past month
Neither participants in each group were alcoholics. Electrodes were attached to their brains to assess the electrical activity of its various regions.
Measurable differences were observed in the brains of both groups. There was a significant increase in beta and theta oscillations of the right temporal lobe – specifically the fusiform and parahippocampal gyri – and the occipital cortex.
The para-hippocampal gyri are thought to play a role in coding and retrieving memories, while the fusiform gyrus does not have a clear-cut role, but appears to be responsible for recognition. The occipital cortex processes visual information.
The increased neural activity observed in the brains of binge-drinkers was identical to those seen in the brain of long-term alcoholics. According to the researchers, the changes in brain activity may be the onset of alcohol-induced brain damage.
The alterations observed in these parts may represent a reduction in the brain’s ability to respond to stimuli which hinders information processing. Since younger brains are still developing, the researchers concluded that they were more susceptible to alcohol damage.
How Binge Drinking Affects Children’s Health
In a recent study published by the Mail Online, one binge during pregnancy can “harm the child years later”, suggesting that the children were more likely to be very naughty.
It’s common knowledge that binge drinking whilst pregnant is bad for the baby. However, while some media stated that researchers found high levels of hyperactivity in seven-year-old children born to women who binge-drank, the NHS believed that the effect was not strong enough to produce such consequences.
However, they went on to state that pregnant women should avoid drinking alcohol altogether to reduce other developmental risks. The World Health Organisation strongly advises women against getting drunk whilst pregnant. Common risks include birth defects, birth complications and foetal intoxication.
How Binge Drinking Affects Men’s Health
Research has shown that men are more likely to binge-drink than women and are therefore at greater risk of suffering alcohol-related problems.
In a survey carried out by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), 62% of men admitted to drinking alcohol in the previous month. From this sample, 47% reported that they binge-drank at least one that month. In addition, the average man takes part in roughly 12.5 binge-drinking episodes per year. This means at least once a month, compared to 2.7 for the average woman.
If you regularly binge drink, you may be putting your body at risk. Conditions include stomach ulcer, cardiac arrest, liver complications or mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety.
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How Binge Drinking Affects Women’s Health
Although the figures are lower in comparison with those of men, binge-drinking still presents a general cause for concern, especially among adolescents and young adults. In this group, women are at risk of being victims of sexual assault, physical abuse and other forms of molestation.
Common health risks associated with heavy-drinking include increased appetite (obesity), oxidative stress (which affects the DNA), fatigue, elevated blood pressure, mood swings, insomnia and foetal complications. Women who drink heavily whilst pregnant put themselves and their baby at risk of birth defects. Alcohol also impairs cognitive functions and can affect decision-making, which can often lead to serious regrets.
Binge Drinking and Pregnancy
According to another CDC study, more than one in ten pregnant women reported drinking alcohol in the past month, while one in 33 admitted at least one binge-drinking episode.
In the US, health officials have set a goal to eliminate all cases of pregnant binge-drinking by 2020, whilst reducing the prevalence of general drinking habits to 2%. However, the results so far have been poor.
Researchers revealed in the survey that unmarried women were more likely to drink whilst pregnant (12.9%) than married women who are pregnant (7.9%). Likewise, employed pregnant women (12%) when compared with pregnant women without jobs (8.1%).
If consuming alcohol during pregnancy is bad, binge-drinking is worse. Alcohol easily passes to the baby through the umbilical cord. Common side-effects include:
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Birth defects (heart and hearing problems)
The child is also at risk of developing mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
Adolescents and Binge Drinking
According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking is becoming a serious issue amongst teenagers. Young drinkers are not simply sipping alcohol, but gulping it. Secondary /high school students tend to binge drink whenever they consume alcohol. Approximately 90% of alcohol drank by secondary school students is done so via bingeing.
The reason is quite simple; during this time, many teenagers are experiencing changes in themselves – physically, psychologically and emotionally. The transition from adolescence to adulthood comes with a desire for independence. Because of this, many teens find themselves taking risks and experimenting with various addictive substances- particularly alcohol.
Since they are not familiar with the consequences of heavy drinking, adolescents tend to go overboard. They usually end up drinking more than is healthy for them. If you have teenagers, discuss with them the dangers of alcohol and binge-drinking to avoid the risks involved.
How Alcohol Affects You, Drink by Drink
Specifically what occurs in your body when you drink is somewhat complicated. At what time do you realise you’ve had too much? This is a summary of what happens to your body and brain when you begin (and continue) drinking.
If you’re trying to measure the quantity of alcohol you’ve drunk, it’s important to remember that researchers have quantified a standard drink to be 1 ½ ounce shots of spirits (80-proof, which consists of your typical gins, whiskies, vodkas, rums and tequilas).
When you drink an alcoholic beverage, it is immediately absorbed into your bloodstream, partly from your stomach and more actively via the small intestine. If you drink water whilst taking alcohol, it will dilute the alcohol in your stomach and slow-down absorption. If you eat at the same time, it will also slow down alcohol intake.
Most people who consume alcohol do so to enhance pleasure. Unfortunately, there are those who drink excessively. A repeated pattern of binge drinking is bad for your health.
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How to Reduce Your Risk of Alcohol
The following list is a helpful guide to reducing alcohol-related risks when drinking:
- Set limits for yourself and ensure you abide by them
- Proceed with non-alcoholic drinks, then switch to alcoholic beverages
- Drink slowly
- Seek out low content alcoholic beverages
- Eat before or whilst drinking
- When engaged in a round of drinks, including some non-alcoholic beverages
Binge Drinking Treatment
If you feel you have had too much to drink, stop immediately. Find a well-ventilated area, or if you can, take a cold shower. Drink plenty of water to dilute the alcohol. It’s advisable to have someone stay with you until the intoxication wears off. Don’t drive under any circumstances.
Treatment requires talking to a professional counsellor. You’ll be tested for alcoholism and referred to a good rehabilitation centre. If your alcohol assessment suggests detoxification, you will be treated accordingly. This means you’ll likely experience withdrawal symptoms. After detox, you’ll undergo rehabilitation therapy for full recovery and support building.
Like binge drinking, you will be advised to see an addiction physician. Treatment for alcoholism is more comprehensive, as withdrawal can be difficult. To reduce the pain, you will be weaned off alcohol by tapering consumption. The doctor will also administer medication to help you bear the discomfort of physical dependence.
An inpatient rehab centre is the best solution for treatment because you’ll have access to 24-hour medical attention. You will also get to discuss the possible underlying causes of the addiction with a therapist.
Rehab therapy may include one on one sessions or group therapy with other patients. Some facilities offer alternative healing methods, such as meditation therapy, acupuncture or fitness therapy. During rehab, you will learn to build support networks to help you when re-entering society.
Many rehabilitation programmes offer aftercare treatment for ongoing care. You’ll also be taught to resist cravings and abstain from future alcohol abuse.
Why Accurate Diagnosis Matters
Before you start treatment, it’s important to determine your level of dependence on alcohol. Many addiction centres offer alcoholic assessment tests. From CAGE to AUDIT and MAST tests; these preliminary analyses should guide a physician towards administering a proper screening test (blood/urine) for final diagnosis.
Accuracy is important because it is useful in preparing you for detox and the potential issues to expect during withdrawal. The higher your level of dependence, the more demanding withdrawal will be. People with high alcohol dependence will usually be referred to an inpatient rehabilitation programme.
An addiction physician will use the results of your diagnosis to prepare a detoxification plan. This usually includes a tapering formula, the type of medication to use and the level of care you might need. Without proper diagnosis, unexpected complications may arise during detox. Therefore, you must never detox on your own or without a qualified doctor present.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are binge drinkers alcoholics?
Not necessarily. While binge drinkers may display common signs associated with alcoholism, they may not be physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol. Nevertheless, binge drinking is a problem that should be addressed early on, because it usually forms a gateway to problem drinking in the future.
What is binge drinking?
This is the habit of consuming large quantities of alcohol within a short period of time. For men, taking more than five to six drinks in the space of two hours is considered binge drinking. The limit for women is four drinks within the same timeframe. The blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of a person after a binge drinking episode is normally 0.08g/dl or more.
Is chronic binge drinking the same as alcoholism?
No. Chronic binge-drinking is simply a long-term bout of binge-drinking and may be undertaken by someone who is not an alcoholic. Many non-alcohol-dependent teens indulge in chronic binge-drinking.
Conversely, alcoholism is a case of being dependent on alcohol; this means the individual cannot function normally without alcohol in their bloodstream. An alcoholic binge-drinks over a prolonged period – not for leisure, but because their body needs it.
When does binge drinking become a problem?
People who drink responsibly tend to binge drink only occasionally. According to a survey, it may happen once a month or less. However, it becomes a problem when this occurs weekly or every few days.
Some people may even binge on a daily basis. Binge drinking should be a cause for concern because it opens the door to co-occurring alcohol disorders.
What is alcohol dependence?
Dependence occurs when a person becomes fixated on alcohol. So much so, their body reacts negatively in its absence, as they have become alcohol dependent. Common symptoms of withdrawal include nausea, tremors, elevated blood pressure and mental disturbances.
Why is binge drinking riskier than normal drinking?
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol in a short time brings dangerous short-term effects. For example, the risk of alcohol poisoning is higher, and more accidents are prone to occur. Binge drinking also creates room for harmful alcoholic disorders, as well as alcoholism.
What are the effects of binge drinking?
Binge drinking is harmful to both teens and adults. Common side effects include intoxication, memory impairment, health complications, insomnia, exposure to crime, poor motor coordination, dehydration, blackouts, birth defects (in pregnant women), and low productivity.
How can you tell if you are a binge drinker?
If you frequently consume four to six drinks within any drinking session, you are most likely a binge drinker. High tolerance for alcohol is also a good gauge for determining binge drinking.
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