Alcohol use is common—nearly 70 percent of Americans have consumed alcohol in the past year. While many of these individuals drink in moderation, more than 14 million struggle with alcohol use disorder. And many more may fall into the gray area—drinking a bit more than they’d like, but unsure if they have a problem.
So, how do you know if it’s time to cut back on how much you drink? Below we’ll offer some standard definitions, and common signs you may need to control your drinking.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, if you feel you’d like to drink less, that’s reason enough to make a change!
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
How much do you have to drink to be considered an alcoholic? There is no precise problem drinking definition, but there are amounts of alcohol that represent a higher risk than others.
Doctors typically recommend drinking no more than one standard drink per day for women or two standard drinks per day for men. A standard drink generally means approximately 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a 1.5 fluid ounce shot of 80-proof spirits—depending on the exact alcohol content.
Most people will not experience problems as long as they stay within these recommended limits.
But problems can arise when you are a heavy drinker, or when you binge drink. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):
- Heavy drinking is more than four drinks per day for men, or more than three drinks per day for women.
- Binge drinking is consuming enough to bring your blood alcohol content to 0.08 percent or higher. This generally means five or more drinks within two hours for men, or four or more drinks within the same period for women.
Heavy drinking on a regular basis can put a lot of stress on your brain, body, and organs, and can be a sign of alcohol use disorder. Binge drinking is also considered unsafe, leading to both short-term problems (accidents, unsafe sex, alcohol poisoning), and long-term health issues (numerous chronic illnesses including liver disease, several types of cancer, and memory problems).
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), binge drinking five or more times per month also qualifies as heavy drinking.
Am I an Alcoholic? Take our Alcohol Use Survey to learn where your drinking falls on the spectrum.
Signs of Drinking Too Much
Aside from the above guidelines, there are some telltale signs that drinking is affecting your life. These may present themselves regardless of the specific amount you drink.
According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), you may have alcohol use disorder if in the past year you’ve experienced at least two of the following:
- Drinking longer, or more than you mean to
- Trying to cut back, and finding it difficult
- Spending a lot of your time either drinking or recovering from it
- Strong drinking urges or cravings
- Noticing your drinking interfering with your job, family, or education
- Continuing to drink after noticing it has a negative effect on your relationships
- Giving up other activities you like in favor of drinking
- More than once finding yourself in a dangerous situation while drinking
- Noticing drinking affecting your mental or physical health, and continuing anyway
- A significant increase in your alcohol tolerance
- Withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) ranges from mild to severe, depending on how many of these criteria you meet.
But you don’t need to have AUD to experience problem drinking. Any negative impact of alcohol on your life is a good enough reason to quit or cut back.
Read More: 18 Signs You Should Cut Back On Drinking
Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism
Many of us grow up believing there are only two types of drinkers: those who drink in moderation, and alcoholics. However, millions of Americans who do not qualify for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder may still have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
One common example is using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Many people drink to loosen themselves up in social situations, to reduce anxiety levels, or to escape from their problems.
There’s nothing wrong with having the occasional glass of wine to wind down after a long day. But if you find yourself relying on alcohol to cope with stress or social discomfort, it’s worth reassessing your drinking patterns. Drinking alcohol to cope can quickly lead to alcohol addiction, and physical dependence, if you find yourself under difficult circumstances.
Binge drinking can also be a problem, even if you only do it once or twice a month. If you find yourself blacking out, making dangerous decisions, or doing things you regret when binge drinking, it may be best to avoid this behavior. At the very least, you may want to find some strategies for limiting your drinking when out with friends.
Even feeling that you’d like to improve your health can be a good reason to cut back or quit drinking. You may find that alcohol is adding extra calories to your diet, or that you simply feel clearer-headed when you drink less. These are perfectly legitimate reasons to change your drinking habits.
How To Get Your Drinking Under Control
If you’d like to drink less alcohol—whether you identify as an alcoholic or not—there are new solutions. Online telehealth programs such as Ria Health now let you cut back or quit drinking on your schedule, from the comfort of home. Treatment is flexible, so you don’t need to fit any specific profile of a “problem drinker” to join. We’ll meet you where you are.