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What is Considered a Standard Drink?

Moderate alcohol consumption is common. Many people will have a drink or two during a social outing or just to enjoy themselves. But heavy drinking and consuming too much alcohol can be dangerous and even deadly.

More than 85 percent of people who are 18 years or older report having drunk alcohol at some point in their lives. Some 69.5 percent report drinking in the last year, and 54.9 percent report drinking in the past month. 

Unfortunately, while not all of these people have drinking problems, some develop alcohol use disorder (AUD). In 2019, 25.8 percent of people ages 18 and up reported engaging in binge drinking in the past month. Another 6.3 percent said that they’d engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month. About 14.1 million adults in the country have AUD.

There could be a slippery slope between drinking alcohol for pleasure and overdoing it. Sticking to a standard drink or two is the safest way to drink.

In the United States, a standard drink has about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This is found in 12 ounces of regular beer, about five ounces of wine, and about 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

For most people, enjoying a standard drink here and there does not have significant health consequences. For others, crossing the line is easy.

What is Moderate Drinking?

Moderate drinking generally refers to about one standard drink a day for women and about two standard drinks a day for men. For example, a woman may drink one glass of wine or beer a day. And a man might enjoy two glasses of wine or two beers a day.

The key is to keep it to a minimum while still enjoying yourself. Because once you become drunk (or too drunk), health and safety hazards come into play.

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How Much Alcohol is Too Much in One Night?

How much alcohol is too much alcohol depends on the person and a number of other factors. In most states, the legal driving limit (and the general definition of “drunk”) for your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .08 g/dL. This refers to the percentage of ethanol (in grams) in 100 milliliters of your blood.

Several factors can affect your BAC. These include, but are not limited to: 

  • Your food intake
  • Any medications you may be taking
  • How hydrated you are
  • How much alcohol you consume
  • Your weight
  • Your age
  • Your gender

For example, if you haven’t eaten a lot of food that day, you’ll likely get drunk faster. You may also get drunk faster than a friend who weighs more than you or is older than you.

If/when your BAC level rises above .08 g/dL, you’ll likely start experiencing some negative side effects of being drunk. At this level, you move beyond the euphoric effects of alcohol and into the “beer goggle” stage. You start to lack judgment, and your motor skills become impaired.

If you are driving, however much alcohol it takes for you to reach the legal limit of .08 g/dL is too much alcohol. However, even if you are not driving, too high of a BAC can make you a danger to yourself and others.

It’s too much alcohol when you start to lose your inhibitions and lack control. Not only does alcohol take a toll on your health. But you also become a safety hazard to yourself and those around you. For example, many car crashes (including fatal ones) and assaults often result from too much alcohol.

Additionally, having seven or more drinks per week is considered heavy or excessive drinking for women. For men, it's 15 or more drinks per week.

How Much Beer is Too Much?

Regular beer is typically 5 percent alcohol. Some light beers may have a 4.2 percent alcohol content. Too much beer depends on the various factors that can affect how quickly your BAC rises.

It’s considered safe for men to drink about two beers and women to drink about one beer per day. While some people may be able to drink more beer without significant impairment, others cannot.

How Much Wine is Too Much?

About five ounces of most wines is about 12 percent alcohol. Again, how much wine is too much wine depends on a number of those same factors. But, as with beer, about two standard glasses of wine for men and one standard glass of wine for women is considered okay.

How Much Vodka is Too Much?

Because vodka (and other distilled spirits) is much stronger than beer and wine, you have to be careful not to drink too much. It’s easy to find out the hard way how much vodka is too much vodka. 

About 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits like vodka is about 40 percent alcohol. Like always, pay attention to the factors that can affect your BAC.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Body?

Alcohol affects everyone differently. When you consume alcohol, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase in your liver breaks it down. It metabolizes it to acetaldehyde. Then it further breaks down to acetate.

If you drink too much too fast, you can get drunk because your body can’t break down the ethanol at the same pace. 

Alcohol affects your body in a multitude of ways. You may experience the following signs and symptoms of being drunk:

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty seeing straight
  • Lost balance
  • Exaggerated behaviors (speaking loudly, acting boldly, etc.)
  • Lost sense of judgment and inhibitions
  • Changes to body temperature
  • Lightheadedness
  • Feeling more outgoing and less shy
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Passing out/unconsciousness
  • Lapses in memory
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Factors that Affect Alcohol Metabolism

Every person metabolizes alcohol differently. Several factors affect alcohol metabolism. These include:

  • Body Weight: People who weigh more have lower blood alcohol concentration levels. This is because a person's body weight determines the amount of space alcohol has to diffuse within it.
  • Gender: Women reaches peak blood alcohol levels faster than men. They also break down alcohol much faster. This is because a woman's body is typically smaller, with less body water content. Their liver-to-lean-body-mass ratio is also higher. All of these factors explain why women have a lower alcohol limit than men.
  • Food Consumption: Alcohol metabolism is also affected by whether or not a person ate before drinking or they're eating while drinking. Having food in the stomach slows down the body's ability to process and metabolize alcohol. Drinking on an empty stomach irritates the digestive tract, causing faster alcohol absorption.
  • Other Medications: Certain medications increases or enhances the effects of alcohol. These include high blood pressured meds, sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, and medications for anxiety, pain, and diabetes. Talk to your doctor if you're taking these drugs and drinking alcohol because the drug-alcohol interaction may cause severe side effects.

Risks of Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Drinking too much alcohol can be hazardous to your health. Excessive drinking carries both short-term and long-term risks.

Excessive alcohol consumption has led to approximately 95,000 deaths in the United States. Furthermore, 1 in 10 working-age adults aged 20-64 died due to excessive drinking.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Short-Term Risks

Short-term risks of drinking alcohol include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Impaired judgment 
  • Impaired motor skills

Long-Term Risks

Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a lot of harmful health conditions and health risks. These include the following:

  • Cardiovascular disease and complications (like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, etc.)
  • Liver disease
  • Digestive issues
  • Increased risk of some cancers (like breast cancer, mouth cancer, throat cancer, esophagus cancer, liver cancer, and colon cancer)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Memory problems
  • Mental health issues (like depression and anxiety)
  • Social problems
  • Financial issues
  • Addiction
  • Death

Drinking too many alcoholic beverages can kill you. In fact, an estimated 95,000 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related reasons every year.

Who Should Not Drink Alcohol?

You should not drink alcohol if you identify with any of the following statements:

  • I have a history of addiction.
  • My family has a history of alcoholism.
  • I suffer from alcohol intolerance.
  • I have health problems that make drinking alcohol even riskier.
  • I have medical conditions that make drinking alcohol dangerous.

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder (Addiction)

Alcohol use disorder affects more people than you may think. Some signs of alcohol use disorder include:

  • An inability to limit your drinking
  • The consumption of more and more alcohol
  • A high tolerance for alcohol that requires you to drink more and more to achieve the same effect
  • Neglection of self-care, like your hygiene or nutrition
  • Drinking alone
  • Letting your obligations and responsibilities like work, school, and family fall to the wayside
  • Lying or making excuses about your drinking habits
  • Continuing to consume alcohol despite alcohol-induced issues
  • Cravings for alcohol
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, irritability, or tremors

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

The journey to sobriety can be tough to do on your own. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe, so you must seek medical help for addiction treatment. Fortunately, alcohol addiction treatment is readily available to help you along the road to recovery.

Reach out to your local inpatient or outpatient rehab center, or contact support groups in your area. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may also benefit you by helping you to unpack any triggers.

Resources

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Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Alcohol in Moderation: How Many Drinks Is That?Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 26 Oct. 2019.

Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018

Blood Alcohol Content and YOU.” Student Health Services - Blood Alcohol Content and YOU.

Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 June 2020

Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Jan. 2021.

Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized.” Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education

The Science of the Sauce: What Happens to Your Brain When You Drink Alcohol? - Brain Health, Health Topics, Neuroscience.” Hackensack Meridian Health, 26 Mar. 2019

What Is A Standard Drink?National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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