When Drinking Alcohol Becomes A Binge And The Problems It Causes

A new report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has revealed that nearly 20% adults in the US participate in binge drinking.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also found that more than 17 billion binge drinks are being consumed in a year. This meant that an estimated 1 in 6 adults (or 37 million adults in total) binge drink about once a week with the average binge-drinker consuming seven drinks per binge. 

"This study shows that binge drinkers are consuming a huge number of drinks per year, greatly increasing their chances of harming themselves and others," said co-author Robert Brewer, M.D., M.S.P.H., who is a lead researcher in CDC’s alcohol program.

The study examined self-reported data from the 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. While binge drinking was found to be most common in the 18-34 age group, more than half of all binge drinks were consumed by adults over 35. Drinkers with low levels of income and education significantly consumed more binge drinks than those with high levels of both. 

Binge drinking, typically associated with college culture, means to consume a large quantity of alcohol within a short span of time which brings the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or above. It is defined as five or more drinks for men, or four or more drinks for women, within two hours. 

The human body is unable to clear out so much alcohol within a short period, and this allows the drinker to "get drunk" more quickly and more intensely. This leads to the risk of poor decision-making and injuries, as well as the risk of long-term chronic health problems such as cancer and liver problems. Yet, the practice in itself does not officially qualify as an alcohol addiction. Health professionals suggest it can become a gateway to alcoholism when continued over a long period at high frequency.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease characterized by impaired control over drinking and preoccupation with the drug alcohol, often accompanied by denial over their long-term dependence. When binge drinking becomes chronic, it can be considered an early warning sign for alcohol dependence if not controlled. Chronic binge drinkers can develop a dangerously high tolerance resulting in increased consumption, withdrawal symptoms and even death by alcohol poisoning. 

Thomas G. Brown, the director and principal investigator at McGill University’s Addiction Research Program, refers to binge drinking as "the hidden face of the alcohol problem", explaining that the practice is underestimated in its severity. "When people think ‘alcohol problems’ they typically think about the extreme tail of alcohol use severity, involving dependence and complete social dysfunction. But most problems, like injury, and impaired driving crashes, and so on, come from episodic heavy or binge drinking," Brown said.

Indeed, studies have continued to find associations with health problems such as liver damage, memory problems and disrupted brain development. The more often one engages in binge drinking, the more likely they are to develop alcohol use disorder. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends alcohol in moderation for those above the legal age who wish to drink, defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.