It seems like everyone has a drink now and then. From social drinks at the bar to popping a top after work, alcohol is a major part of our culture. But how much is too much? And, when should we question our drinking habits?
Mike Homan, a licensed clinical social worker with OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony’s Health Center, answers these questions.
“There is a paradoxical aspect to alcohol in our culture. While alcohol is used safely by more people than any other mood altering substance, it also kills more people than any other mood altering substance,” Mike said. “And while some moderate drinking may have modest health benefits, heavy drinking has significant health risks.”
What is normal?
The challenge lies in determining what is normal, and, more importantly, what is a safe drinking frequency and amount. However, it can be difficult to acknowledge or understand our intake because we typically drink with friends who have the same consumption patterns.
“There are different recommendations, but a male should not drink more than two drinks a day. A woman should go by one drink a day,” Mike said. “But that is only a consumption guide for health reasons. You should not consume alcohol and get behind the wheel or operate equipment.”
Mike also warns that you should never drink to deal with things like stress, sleep issues or grief. Alcohol consumption for coping reasons often leads to bigger alcohol issues.
“Some people use alcohol as a tool for dealing with negative things in their life, and that can lead to alcohol abuse,” Mike said. “The difference – alcohol abuse is drinking too much, too often. The next level, alcohol dependence or alcoholism, is not having the ability to quit.”
Why do some people develop alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a brain disease. And while coping reasons are a major factor in increased alcohol consumption, a whole host of environmental, social and genetic factors can also play a role in a person becoming an alcoholic.
“The issue is the brain’s wiring. Once a person crosses their unique threshold, alcohol hijacks their brain,” Mike said. “The brain becomes desensitized and loses its ability to deal with stress, make decisions and control base mood. They feel the only relief is to drink more alcohol, which creates a circle of dependency.”
Questions to ask
The brain is a complex organ that is constantly adapting to ensure our survival. Ironically, that adaptability contributes to addiction. Alcohol changes the brain’s natural balance and that can make it difficult to see the problem. Mike recommends asking yourself these basic questions:
- Do you find yourself drinking too much and too often?
- Do you use alcohol as a major way to handle stress or relax?
- Do you drink so that you can sleep at times?
“If you are drinking more than what is recommended, you may want to cut back or even stop drinking for a period of time,” Mike said. “Ask for help from friends and family or seek short-term counseling. If you can’t take an extended break, you need to seek professional help.
“Talk to your doctor, seek counseling and find a support group. Because alcohol alters the brain, typically, people need help for true and sustained changes. Successful recovery is possible.”
Learn more about the effects of abusing alcohol by taking this quiz, based on information from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).