What is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is a serious, though often underestimated, health issue in the UK and elsewhere across the world.

Binge drinking is a major public health issue because of the short-term danger that it can cause someone, and because of the long-term health implications of regular excessive drinking.

Binge drinking is also often related to alcohol use disorders, including alcoholism.

How is Alcohol Measured in the UK?

Beer

In the UK, alcohol is measured in units.

One unit of alcohol equates to 10ml of pure alcohol in a drink. So, a 500ml bottle of cider that contains 2.3 UK units, contains 23ml of pure alcohol.

However, different types of alcohol have different concentrations of alcohol, and while a bottle of beer might be on the weaker side with around 1.7 units, 500ml of wine can easily have triple the alcoholic contraction of beer or cider.

Units are a useful guide to avoiding binge drinking and sticking within the broader UK alcohol consumption guidelines.

What are the UK Alcohol Consumption Guidelines?

In the UK, the chief medical officer sets the guidance on alcohol consumption based on the most current research and evidence. However, as alcohol is a legal drug, each person ultimately has complete autonomy over how much they do or don’t drink, and whether or not they choose to follow the medical advice.

As it stands, the UK alcohol consumption guidelines recommend that both men and women do not drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. This equates to around 1 and a half bottles of wine, or between 5 and 6 bottles of a drink that isn’t as strong like beer or cider.

The advice also recommends that, if you do drink 14 units a week, you should spread it out across three days or more. In practice, this means that you should drink no more than 4.6 units of alcohol on any given day.

Currently, the advice is that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption for pregnant women that doesn’t carry the risk of short-term complications and long-term health issues.

The Definition of Binge Drinking

Wine

People often have a lot of misconceptions about binge drinking, including what does and doesn’t count. Some people even think that you can only binge drink if you drink a certain type of alcohol, like spirits, and that’s incorrect.

But do you know how binge drinking is actually defined?

In the UK, binge drinking is currently defined slightly differently for men and women, with the consumption of 6 or more units in a single sitting counting as binge drinking for women, and the consumption of 8 or more units in a single sitting counting as binge drinking for men.

So why are they defined differently?

Well, the answer is to do with the biological differences between men and women.

Generally, men are bigger than women with a higher muscle-to-fat ratio. This means that it takes more alcohol to increase the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level and have the same effect on men as it does on women.

On the other hand, women are generally smaller than men with a lower muscle-to-fat ratio, meaning that it takes less alcohol to increase the blood alcohol concentration.

Why do People Binge Drink?

The more alcohol you consume within a short space of time, the more you feel the effects, and the drunker you get.

Lots of people find getting drunk with their social circle to be a fun pastime, because of how it increases our confidence, lowers our inhibitions, and increases the chances that we make risky decisions.

And, there are instances where binge drinking is not indicative of a deeper problem with alcohol, and is instead just perceived as a once in a while chance to have some fun, despite the risks to health.

There are also other reasons why people binge drink, which include:

  • Forgetting problems: alcohol is a depressant and has a relaxing effect, while numbing feelings of concern and worry
  • Testing tolerance: especially among adolescents and young adults, there can be a desire to test your tolerance to alcohol, and prove how much you can drink in a single sitting. In fact, there are many drinking games where this is the whole point.
  • Rebelliousness: binge drinking can also be an outlet for rebelliousness, because of how it reduces your inhibitions and makes you more likely to partake in risky behaviour. Again, this reason is especially relevant when it comes to the drinking habits of younger people.

Is Binge Drinking a Serious Public Health Issue?

In the UK, the cost of alcohol-related illnesses has a huge impact on government finances, and it is estimated that alcohol’s negative effect on public health costs the UK government close to £2 billion a year.

New research is increasingly suggesting that there is no level of alcohol consumption that doesn’t have a negative impact on your health.

However, because the negative impact on health increases with the amount of alcohol that is consumed, if you stay within the recommended limits, you are generally protected from the worst of the negative impacts of alcohol on health.

The negative effect of alcohol on health increases with the length of time that alcohol is consumed, as well as the frequency and quantity. For example, someone who has been drinking well above the recommended limits every week for the past 20 years is at serious risk of the negative impact that alcohol has on health.

What Impact does Binge Drinking have on Health?

Person looking sad

So, what are the exact effects that alcohol, and specifically binge drinking, has on health?

Binge drinking is linked with a wide range of physical and mental health problems. Many of the impacts of binge drinking are short-term, but there are also wide-ranging, long-term consequences too.

Short-term Effects of Binge Drinking on Health

Here is an overview of some of the most common short-term effects of binge drinking:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dehydration
  • Tremors or shakiness
  • Memory loss

Long-term Effects of Binge Drinking on Health

The long-term effects of binge drinking are often overlooked because of how dramatic the short-term effects can be.

Here are the ways in which binge drinking is related to long-term health:

  • Liver damage, liver disease, and liver failure
  • Oral cancers and bowel cancers
  • Heart-related problems like heart disease and high blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Issues with fertility
  • Pancreatic issues

What are the Other Risks Associated with Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is associated with a high level of drunkenness, which generally means that you have less control over your body and your actions, while you are more likely to take risks as your ability to take rational judgements is impaired.

The physical impact of drinking on your coordination and your ability to control your motor functions means that you are much more likely to stumble when walking and lose balance and fall over or collapse. This carries its own risks, and in the worst-case scenario falling over can lead to brain injury and other harms like broken bones.

Because of the impact of drunkenness on decision-making, you can take risks that you wouldn’t normally consider. One way that this happens is by taking risky decisions during sex, which means you might be less likely to use protective sexual tools like condoms which decrease the chance of passing on or receiving a sexually transmitted disease or a sexually transmitted infection.

Your impaired judgement might also mean that you could get into physical fights, which of course carry a high degree of risk, and you might be more inclined to try and drive – which is illegal – and increases the chance of a collision and a fatal car accident.

In short, a lot of the other risks that are associated with binge drinking don’t just impact you, you could be putting other people’s lives and well-being in danger if you lose control of your actions.

What are the Signs of Binge Drinking?

The signs of binge drinking are related to the symptoms, so if you feel worse than usual after an event where you have been drinking, you should reflect on how you feel and consider whether or not you may have taken it too far.

Blackouts, because it is indicative of a level of blood alcohol concentration that is in line with binge drinking.

Additionally, binge drinking is also linked with alcohol poisoning, so if you wake up with the symptoms of alcohol poisoning (which can include rapid heart rate, sweating, and tremors) then you should think about how much you drank, and consider if you were binge drinking.

Which Demographics Binge Drink?

At home support

Research has shown that there are two demographics who are most likely to participate in binge drinking. The first is adolescents and young adults.

Often, young adults and adolescents are in social environments that are conducive to excessive drinking. For example, children in the UK who are in the final years of sixth form, and in the first years of university are often attending lots of parties with easy access to alcohol for the first time.

The amount of alcohol consumed is also linked to social pressure, wanting to fit in, and feeling a need to prove yourself to friends. These factors are heightened when meeting new people in the first years of university, or during sixth form.

Adolescents and young adults are also already more likely to take risky behaviours than older adults because the part of the brain that regulates decision-making isn’t fully formed. This can increase the likelihood of binge drinking because young people might not be as concerned about the risks.

However, young adults and adolescents aren’t actually the demographic that are most likely to binge drink. Instead, that’s people who have developed an addiction to alcohol.

These people who are living with alcoholism make up a substantial group, and within that group, middle-aged men are the most likely to binge drink.

Is Binge Drinking Linked to Alcoholism?

Alcohol addiction

Irregular, inconsistent binge drinking could be an indicator that you could improve your relationship with alcohol, but it is not necessarily a sign that you are living with alcoholism.

However, because binge drinking has a large impact on the brain, it can increase the risk of developing an addiction to alcohol, especially if binge drinking is occurring regularly and becomes a learned behaviour or an ingrained habit.

People who are already living with alcoholism are more likely to binge drink than people who aren’t because they generally are unable to keep a firm control of their alcohol intake and they have strong cravings to drink alcohol.

So, how is binge drinking linked to alcoholism?

People who binge drink regularly are more likely to develop alcohol-related issues including alcoholism. At the same time, people who already have alcoholism are more likely to regularly binge drink.

How to Prevent Binge Drinking?

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Exactly how difficult it will be to stop binge drinking depends on your relationship with alcohol. If you have a largely healthy relationship with alcohol, but sometimes find yourself binge drinking with friends or in the occasional social situation, it shouldn’t be too hard to reign in your binge drinking

Keep a track of exactly how much you are drinking over the course of the week, and then check to see if it fits in with the recommended guidelines.

Are you drinking more than 4.6 units of alcohol on any given day? You should consider trying to bring that down, and spread your drinking out more evenly.

You may still encounter some challenges, however, especially when it comes to social pressure. If your social circle knows that you are still drinking, they will find it easier to try and persuade you to drink more during social events to try and make the experience more fun.

If you don’t want to binge drink, figuring out some ways to say no to this (such as assigning yourself to be the designated driver) can be very useful.

On the other hand, if you find that your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy, and you find that you feel the urge to drink excessive amounts, this could be an indicator that you have developed some form of alcohol use disorder like alcohol dependence. In this case, it will likely be much harder for you to prevent binge drinking.

One of the most effective ways in which you can help yourself is by seeking support. Your first port of call might be your family and friends. Let them know that you’re getting concerned about your alcohol use and you want to cut back, and not binge drink.

If they were a bad influence on you previously, doing things like applying pressure on you to drink, then you may find that that behaviour changes and they become more sensitive to your concerns, and will try to come up with alcohol-free events. They will also support you emotionally, in moments when you’re finding it hard to control your alcohol intake.

Again, keep track of your alcohol intake and compare it to the recommended consumption guidelines. Make it your goal to reduce your intake over a realistic period of time so that your intake fits in with the guidelines.

What Do I Do if Someone I Know is Binge Drinking?

If you see the signs that someone you know is binge drinking, there are a few things you should consider.

How often is the person binge drinking: there is a big difference between binge drinking twice a week, and binge drinking once a year. Binge drinking very infrequently may not be a sign of any significant trouble with alcohol or the relationship with it.

But binge drinking more frequently could be a sign that someone is struggling to control their alcohol intake.

How heavily is the person binge drinking: if you notice that someone is binge drinking to the extent where they are falling unconscious or developing alcohol poisoning, this is a sign that they are struggling to control how much alcohol they are consuming.

If you notice someone binge drinking regularly, or binge drinking to a very dangerous extent, you should think about bringing the issue up with the person.

If you care about their well-being and want them to be more in control of their behaviour, your input could be the first step in them realising that they have a problem, and trying to change their behaviour.

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References

[1] Drinking risk categories: binge drinking

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/delivering-better-oral-health-an-evidence-based-toolkit-for-prevention/chapter-12-alcohol#:~:text=Binge%20drinking%20really%20means%20drinking,an%20increased%20risk%20of%20injury.

[2] The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3307043/