Binge drinking -- How much is too much?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Alison Helmkamp
  • 22nd Medical Group medical staff chief
If you're like half the population of this country, you've had an alcoholic drink within the past month.

Research has shown that for some people, generally men over the age of 40 and post-menopausal women, having one to two drinks a day may be beneficial, so how much is too much?

There has recently been a great amount of research into "binge drinking," which is defined as having five drinks (four for women) in a day. Interestingly, 5 percent of current drinkers are classified as "heavy," or regular, drinkers, while a 15 percent are binge drinkers.

Many young adults will think nothing of going out and having four to five drinks. They think, "What's the harm, if I'm not driving?"

As it turns out, the potential for harm is significant. In the first place, binge drinkers are 14 times more likely to drive impaired than light or non-drinkers. Did these "bingers" picture themselves driving drunk when they were getting ready to go out?

That decision was more than likely made when they were already impaired. We are all, hopefully, well aware of the cost in career terms of driving while under the influence. Have you thought about the cost to you personally if you're the drunk driver who kills a policeman/father of two coming off shift on Thanksgiving. This happened recently in New Jersey. What if you kill an 8-year-old girl driving with her family to see her grandma for Christmas. This happened two weeks ago in Arkansas. The girl was killed by a 31-year-old drunk driver.

Other health consequences of binge drinking are numerous. Intentional and unintentional injuries are common; falls and other physical injuries are common when drunk. Domestic violence and sexual assault are also more likely to occur when alcohol is involved.

Binge drinkers are much more likely to take unaccustomed risks sexually resulting in a higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies, not to mention damage to pre-existing relationships, This is highest among drinkers.

Medically speaking, alcohol poisoning deaths (drinking enough to cause suppression of breathing, cardiac arrest, choking on vomit, etc) occur all the time, and liver and neurological diseases can result from chronic alcohol overuse of any sort. Alcoholic beverages have plenty of empty calories, so weight can go up, and existing diabetes can go out of control. In fact, people who binge drink in their youth are statistically more likely to develop diabetes later in life. Finally, heavy or binge drinking can lead to strokes, heart attacks and deaths from irregular heart rhythms.

Alcohol abuse/overuse is the third leading cause of lifestyle related deaths in the U.S., and healthcare and criminal justice expenses (as well as worker productivity lost) related to alcohol abuse costs the American taxpayer $185 billion dollars a year.

So, who are these "bingers?"

Men are more likely to binge drink than women, and 90 percent of underage drinkers have had four to five or more drinks in one sitting. However, it's not just the youngsters. Seventy-five percent of alcoholic drinks consumed by adults is during a "binge," and 70 percent of binges occurred in folks over 26 years of age.

What is a responsible Airman to do with this information? First, make a plan before you go out and stick to it. That plan should include how you will get home and with whom, and also know what your limit is volume-wise. Secondly, remember the best Wingmen do their utmost to protect their fellow Airmen from making foolish decisions. If you care for your friends, don't be afraid to speak up to prevent stupid behaviors.

For more information on this and other health topics, consult with your provider or check out the Centers for Disease control website at