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How much alcohol do you typically consume?  The definition of a heavy drinker may come as a surprise — along with the damage that even a single alcohol binge can do.

Women are considered heavy drinkers if they have eight or more drinks per week; for men, the tipping point is 15 or more drinks per week, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And overindulging carries grim risks:  An alarming one in 10 deaths among working-age adults (20-64 years old) is due to chronic heavy drinking and binge drinking, the CDC report says.

“Excessive alcohol use shortened the lives of those who died by about 30 years,” says Dafna Kanny, PhD, a CDC senior scientist and co-author of the study, published in the journal “Preventing Chronic Disease” (June, 2014).

Dangers of Binge Drinking

The term “heavy drinker” may evoke the image of a ruddy-faced alcoholic who is rarely sober, but there are many ways to die from alcohol, the CDC report indicates.

Binge drinking – defined as having four or more drinks on one occasion for women, and five or more drinks on one occasion for men – is responsible for over half of deaths due to excessive drinking, Kanny says.

It’s a problem that extends beyond college campuses.  Although students commonly binge drink in college, an overwhelming 70 percent of binge drinking episodes involve adults ages 26 years and older, according to CDC surveys.  One in six U.S. adults reports binge drinking about four times a month (consuming about eight drinks per binge).

While chronic heavy drinking can lead to liver failure, heart disease and breast cancer, binge drinkers are at increased risk of acute alcohol-related deaths.  They’re more likely to die from motor vehicle crashes, accidental falls, violence or alcohol poisoning, the CDC  says.  Binge drinking is also associated with numerous health problems including high blood pressure and heart disease, injuries, neurological damage and sexually transmitted diseases.

Even one episode of binge drinking can jeopardize a person’s health, according to a new study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Adults who were monitored after a single drinking binge showed a rapid increase of bacterial toxins in their blood, according to the NIAAA study, published in the journal “PLOS ONE” (May 2014).  These bacterial toxins, known as endotoxins, had a negative affect on the immune system, as the body produced more immune cells involved in fever, inflammation and tissue destruction.

The findings suggest that even one alcohol binge is more dangerous than previously thought, says Dr. Gyongi Szabo, who led the study and is Professor and Vice Chair of Medicine and Associate Dean for Clinical and Translational Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“In chronic alcohol use, it has been shown in humans and animal models that these endotoxins majorly contribute to liver damage and alcoholic liver disease,” Szabo says.  “The novelty of our finding is that even on one occasion, binge drinking can result in a similar increase in endotoxin levels and likely induce inflammation.  If the binging happens frequently enough, it might result in chronic inflammation and damage.”

Alcohol’s Gender Gap

Excessive alcohol use accounted for an estimated 88,000 deaths annually from 2006-2010, according to the CDC, and 71 percent of those deaths affected men.  This likely reflects the higher prevalence, frequency and intensity of binge drinking among men, the CDC notes.

Men and women also respond differently to alcohol, and research shows that women can have negative health effects at lower drinking levels.

Since women tend to weigh less than men, it takes less alcohol for them to become intoxicated.  Women have less body water than men, so drinking the same amount of alcohol may result in higher blood alcohol concentrations.  And women tend to break down or metabolize less alcohol than men, so they may achieve a higher blood alcohol level at the same consumption level.

Thinking of a Change?

How to cut back or quit drinking

If you’re concerned about your drinking, you can boost your health by making some positive lifestyle changes.

“Tell somebody and ask for support,” advises Tonya Wheeler, Executive Director of Advocates for Recovery, a Denver-based nonprofit, and a board member at Faces & Voices of Recovery, a national advocacy group.  “The makeup of addiction, regardless of the drug, is around keeping it secret.  To come out of that secret, to be able to share with somebody and say, ‘I’m concerned about my drinking,’ can be very healing in itself.”

Wheeler is one of 23 million Americans in long-term recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.  She began using alcohol at age 12, engaged in heavy binge drinking for the next decade (10-20 drinks at a time) and at 18 years old, became addicted to methamphetamine.

“I think there’s a lot of belief in our society that because alcohol is legal, that it’s harmless,” Wheeler says, noting that in her case and many others, alcohol is a precursor to illicit drug use.

“My addiction was going to kill me, so I went to treatment and had amazing support from my parents,” says Wheeler.  “I was 22 years old when I got sober, and I think that speaks to the ability for young people to recover.”  Wheeler, now 46, has been sober since 1990.  “It’s critical that those of us with successful long-term recovery stand up and show the world and our communities that recovery does happen.”

If a person decides to cut back on alcohol – switching from a heavy drinker to a moderate drinker, for example – Wheeler says it’s important to attune to the brain’s signals.

“If I decide that when I drink I’m only going to have two glasses of wine, the question then becomes, ‘Can I truly stop at two glasses?’” Wheeler says.  “If you find yourself struggling at being able to stop there, that’s the indication of an alcohol problem. . . .when I introduce alcohol into my system, my brain continues to say, ‘I need another drink.’”

Wheeler also recommends getting connected to a local recovery community if you want to change a pattern of excess drinking.  There’s a growing network of organizations that support people in recovery, including Wheeler’s non-profit in Denver.

“We had a big, sober Super Bowl party,” Wheeler says of her Advocates for Recovery group.  “We had a great day and everybody was sober, cheering for the Broncos and sharing food and support with each other.”

To find the nearest recovery community in your area, click here: http://www.facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/action/rco

These are some additional resources to help you cut back or eliminate alcohol use:

  • Preventing binge drinking and underage drinking is the focus of this government website.  Included are strategies and resources that parents can use to address the issue with their children: https://www.stopalcoholabuse.gov/
  • If you’re seeking professional help for you or a loved one, there are more options available today – including newer medications such as naltrexone to help reduce heavy drinking/prevent alcohol relapse, and practical psychotherapy treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is well-proven to help people with substance abuse disorders.

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