Can Heavy Drinkers Learn to Cut Back?

Last Updated on October 19, 2021

For most healthy people, one drink a day is not going to cause a problem. But those indulging in three, four, or more drinks might want to consider cutting down—or stopping altogether. In this article, we’re going to explore whether heavy drinkers can learn to cut back and moderate their drinking, rather than abstaining. We want to help you make the right decision.

What Is Heavy Drinking?

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Photo by Nadine Shaabana for unsplash

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) men are heavy drinkers if they have 4 or more drinks per day. The NIAAA advises women to aim for a number that is slightly lower: 3 or more drinks.

For perspective, what if you don’t drink that much? In July, The New York Times reported forthcoming changes to the U.S. Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Scientists are now suggesting that both women and men have just one drink per day. This a decrease from the previous recommendation of two drinks for men and one for women.

Heavy Drinking: Genetics Vs. Habits

In a recent blog post, we discussed the role of genetics and alcohol cravings. Heavy drinkers can become so used to a regular influx of alcohol that they lose sight of how the drug has become ingrained in their daily routine. So-called “high-functioning-alcoholics” may not realize exactly how much drinking has taken over their daily lives.

Alcoholism stems from a biological condition in the brain. (And it’s important to realize this, as part of reducing shame and stigma of treatment.) Even extreme alcoholics are often unaware of the triggers that cause them to drink. Further, because alcoholism is rooted in chemistry, biology, and physiology, craving for alcohol should never be seen as a sign of weakness, or personal failing.

Also, habits are key. If someone is used to drinking at a certain time of daysay, early eveninga counselor can help address the craving. Over time, with treatment, that desire eventually passes.

In this 2015 article from The Sober School, Kate Bee notes, “Personally, I found one drink was never really enough. It’s probably because deep down I never actually wanted one – I wanted ten.” Further, she adds, “I think moderation is often mis-sold as an easier option than complete abstinence. In reality, cutting back requires just as much willpower, discipline and control as stopping completely does.”

Precautions for Alcohol Withdrawal

After consuming large amounts of alcohol over time, the body eventually comes to rely on the regular influx. Then the brain directs the body to repeat the experience. Alcoholics’ bodies and brains physically need alcohol, and having a sip can send them into a cycle of abuse and health problems.

At the beginning of the pandemic last March, Pennsylvania was the only state to close all of its liquor stores. Some health officials and addiction specialists were alarmed. They noted that, for heavy drinkers, a sudden halt in alcohol availability could be at best traumatic, or at worst, fatal. (Stores have since reopened.)

People who have grown accustomed to frequent drinking can cut down. But in some cases, reducing alcohol should be done with the guidance of a doctor, to avoid withdrawal symptoms. (In a recent blog post, we have tips for gradually reducing alcohol.) Sometimes, in extreme cases, those symptoms can result in a visit to the emergency room.

Should I Quit Drinking or Learn to Cut Back?

As VeryWellMind notes, “If you try to cut down but find that you cannot stay within the limits that you set for yourself, it may be best to quit instead. One of the main reasons that people decide to quit drinking and seek help to do so is because they find they have lost the ability to control the amount they drink.”

The first step is a personal commitment to change. For most people, this initial move is like moving a rocket launcher into place. Then come doctors and counselors to guide you. And now there are medications that make cutting down on alcohol easier. Think of all of those as the rocket fuel.

Other tools are available to assist you in reaching a goal of moderation, such as Check-up & Choices (formerly Drinkers Check-up) and Moderation Management. And remember, patience is a virtue. As with any major life change, it takes time to “re-educate your body” to function with less alcohol.

For Some People, Zero Alcohol Is the Best

But in more extreme cases, abstinence is mandatory. In a 2015 article for National Public Radio, Allison Aubrey cautions, “People with severe problems, such as those who keep on drinking even after they lose jobs or get DUIs, need treatment to stop drinking completely.”

For some cases, drinking has become so ingrained and habitual that moderation is not an option. While some people can have a glass or two of wine with dinner, or a drink after work, others simply must avoid alcohol altogether. Do not drink alcohol at all if you are:

  • Planning to drive or operate machinery, or participate in activities that require skill, coordination, and alertness
  • Taking certain over-the-counter or prescription medications
  • Living with certain medical conditions
  • Recovering from alcohol use disorder or are unable to control the amount that you drink
  • Younger than age 21
  • Trying to become pregnant, or are pregnant already

How to Get Help

At Ria, we work with members individually. You might be a heavy drinker, realizing things have drifted out of control. Or you might be an occasional drinker who wants to stay that way. In either case, we work with you.

Whether the goal is abstinence, or drinking at a more moderate level, the choice is up to each person. Our goal is to help our members meet their goals. If you’d like to talk with us about how we can get you back in control, get in touch with us.

As a postscript, we realize that COVID-19 has changed the landscape for everyone in the last few months. It may feel daunting to even leave the house. But the good news is: Our method can be done in the comfort of home, without travel, time off work, or engaging with other people in person.

And it works. Most Ria members have changed their relationship to alcohol and reduced their BAC levels by 75% after twelve months. You can, too.

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