It can be hard to know how much alcohol is too much, especially when you keep hearing all those anecdotes about a regular drink being good for your health.
The truth is, there’s a spectrum when it comes to “too much.” How any amount of alcohol will affect your body over time also depends on the individual drinking it.
Let’s dive into the official recommendations on alcohol use, what too much drinking can look like, and the benefits of living alcohol-free if you’re sober curious.
Recommended Alcohol Intake
Whether you’re worried about your alcohol intake or are just curious about the guidelines already out there, there are clear recommendations that define moderate alcohol consumption.
When you reach levels beyond moderate drinking, the health consequences can be serious, as can the effects on your wallet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define moderate drinking for Americans as:
- One alcoholic drink per day for women
- Two alcoholic drinks per day for men
But what exactly is in one drink? The standard drink size for alcoholic beverages in those guidelines is:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces of a distilled spirit, like gin, rum, or vodka (40% alcohol content)
Beers with higher alcohol content, fortified wines, and other high-alcohol beverages should be consumed in lower quantities.
How Much Alcohol Should You Drink?
Generally speaking, the CDC suggests that drinking less is better for your health. How often you should drink alcohol depends on more than those guidelines, too. You may have health conditions or a predisposition to alcohol dependence that would put you in a group that should abstain from drinking alcohol altogether.
Drinking less is also better for the economy — in 2010 alone, excessive drinking cost the U.S. economy $249 billion in reduced workplace productivity, healthcare costs, and more. That number looks like it will only continue to grow.
What is excessive alcohol consumption? Excessive alcohol consumption, or binge drinking, is defined as 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men in a single sitting.
The CDC also includes heavy drinking in its definition of excessive alcohol consumption. For women, heavy drinking is 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men.
Drinking involving pregnant women or anyone below the legal drinking age is always considered excessive alcohol consumption by the CDC.
Genetics, Gender, And Other Factors
Alcohol affects some of us differently than others. One primary difference: Men and women metabolize alcohol differently. Some enzymes that break down alcohol are only found in men, and hormonal differences are only found in women. Body size affects alcohol metabolism, too.
What is the recommended number of drinks per week for women? The recommended number of drinks per week for women is no more than 7, according to the CDC and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
That doesn’t mean those groups are telling women to have 7 drinks per week. That’s just the upper maximum for what is considered moderate drinking.
There are other ways alcohol may hit differently outside of gender, too:
- Body weight: Typically, the more you weigh, the higher your tolerance for alcohol. Someone who weighs 180 pounds will have lower blood alcohol levels than someone who weighs 150 pounds after the same amount of alcohol.
- Medications: There are medications that you should not mix with alcohol, as they can amplify the effects of alcohol, make your medications ineffective, or worse.
- Genetics: There is evidence linking a higher risk of alcoholism for those with addiction in their family history, but genetics can also play a part in your tolerance for alcohol. Researchers have found that some people just don’t metabolize alcohol as well as others.
- Health conditions: Certain health conditions may make it harder for your body to metabolize alcohol. Seek medical advice if you think you should cut back on drinking because of any pre-existing conditions.
- What you eat: Drinking on an empty stomach will get you drunk faster. It can also irritate your digestive system, which won’t be fun to deal with if you’re at a social event.
- Drinking speed: The more alcohol you drink in a shorter period of time, the less time your body has to metabolize alcohol. Sipping over time instead of drinking at a fast pace reduces the effects of alcohol in your body.
What Happens If You Keep Drinking Too Much Alcohol?
Drinking too much over the years can have devastating consequences on your health and well-being.
What are the effects of excessive alcohol consumption? The effects of excessive alcohol consumption include long-term health risks, like a higher incidence rate of chronic diseases, even cancer.
Various cancers, cardiovascular problems, even mental health problems are all connected to excessive drinking. Here’s how alcohol affects various aspects of your health.
Increased Cancer Risk
Excessive drinking increases the chance that you’ll develop several different cancers. These include colon cancer, liver cancer, cancers of the esophagus, mouth, and throat in both men and women, and breast cancer in women.
Researchers suspect heavy alcohol use can also put you at risk for pancreatic and lung cancer, but the research is still emerging.
Some research seems to indicate that reducing alcohol use even after a heart disease diagnosis can dramatically improve your outcome.
Brain and Behavioral Changes
You’re likely well aware of the immediate effects of alcohol use: slurred speech, slowed reaction times, even blackouts where you can’t remember the night before.
Drinking heavily can also lead to long-term effects on your brain. Alcohol abuse has been linked to memory loss, loss of coordination, and sleep disorders. Even longer-term, it can put you in a high-risk category for earlier cognitive decline.
Binge drinking is also damaging to your overall mental health, especially if it’s used as a coping mechanism. Mood changes, depression, and anxiety are all possible with long-term alcohol abuse.
Weakened Immune System
The morning-after hangover is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the damage alcohol does on your immune system long-term. Excessive drinking can make it harder for your body to fight off everything from the common cold to more severe conditions like pneumonia.
Researchers think that’s because heavy drinkers have a lower number of lymphocytes. Those are white blood cells that ward off infections and attack invading viruses and bacteria.
Alcohol can do quite a bit of damage to your stomach and intestines, putting you at risk for ulcers, stomach pain, and unpleasant symptoms like bloating and diarrhea.
Over time, it can become harder for your intestines to absorb all of the good stuff — vitamins and minerals — that keep any digestive problems at bay. Worsening gut problems can make their way to your liver, too.
Liver damage is a classic condition in people who have been drinking too much for too long. It’s your liver, after all, that helps metabolize the ethanol in any alcohol that you consume, but it can only do so much.
Fatty liver disease is usually the first sign that your liver has been working too hard. The condition can affect your liver function in the short term and lead to more serious liver disease or cirrhosis down the line if you don’t make changes to your alcohol use.
Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Heavy drinking can result in an alcohol use disorder whether you have alcoholism in your family or not.
How many drinks a day is considered an alcoholic? Four drinks per day or more than 15 per week for men and 3 drinks per day and more than 8 per week for women is considered heavy drinking.
Alcoholism is about more than the quantity of alcohol you’re consuming, though. Withdrawal symptoms after periods without alcohol are also a red flag that you may have an alcohol use disorder.
The symptoms of an alcohol use disorder include:
- Irritability and mood changes
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Shakes and tremors
On top of the health effects, alcohol abuse can affect your relationships and productivity, putting you in dangerous situations where you’re risking the safety of yourself and others.
Who Should Abstain Completely From Alcohol?
There are recommendations out there around who should abstain entirely from alcohol. Those groups include:
- Women who are pregnant or might become pregnant
- Those planning to drive or participate in activities that require full use of their faculties
- Anyone under the legal drinking age
- Anyone with medical conditions that could worsen with alcohol
- Those taking medications that may interact with alcohol
- Anyone who has difficulty stopping themselves from drinking
- Anyone with a history of alcohol abuse or alcoholism, or at risk for both
How much alcohol a day is too much? Too much alcohol in a day is defined as 3 drinks per day for women and 4 drinks per day for men — the CDC definition for high-risk or heavy drinking.it
If you can’t stop drinking or are worried about your drinking habits, there is help out there. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) on their National Helpline at 800-662-4357 if you need help with alcohol abuse.
Is there an alternative?
If you’re a teetotaler because you want to be healthier or are tired of alcohol, there are options out there for you for tasty beverages, even a glass of wine, without the booze. You’d be joining a long list of sober celebrities, too, living a healthy (but still fun) life without alcohol.
Those looking for low-risk drinking or alternatives to alcohol should try:
If that last option sparked some interest, Surely has sparkling non-alcoholic rosé and sparkling white wine options to get you started. Not sure how to store the wine you didn't finish? Check out our complete guide.
Summing It Up
Drinking too much alcohol isn’t good for anyone, and for some, drinking at all can become a problem. If you feel like you’ve been overdoing it or love the taste of wine but not the effects, you can still have a good time. Your tastebuds can join the party, too!
You can still have fun with your friends without worrying if you’ve had too much alcohol or wondering what your wine night s doing to your long-term health. The solution may be as simple as Surely. Try a glass (or a can) of our bubbly wines to see what we mean!
- Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol
- Differential effects of alcohol drinking pattern on liver enzymes in men and women
- Alcohol and genetics: new models
- Genetics and genomics of alcohol sensitivity
- Alcohol and cancer
- Alcohol use disorders and the heart
- Alcohol intake and risk of stroke: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies
- Alcohol and the sleeping brain
- Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders
- Opposing effects of alcohol on the immune system
- Effect of alcohol consumption on the gut
- Alcoholic disease: liver and beyond