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One Too Many: How to Know If You’re Drinking Too Much

Posted 9/19/2016 by UHBlog

Are your drinking habits causing problems for you or your loved ones? Talk to us.

One Too Many: How to Know If You're Drinking Too Much

Binge drinking isn’t just a college campus issue. Many people drink unsafe levels of alcohol, including middle-aged and older people. For some people, they started young and have always been a heavy drinker, while others find they’re drinking more as they age.

What’s binge drinking? It’s considered four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men consumed within two hours. Compare this to the moderate range health experts recommend: one drink per day for women, and two drinks a day for men.

Anything more than that puts you at risk for serious health problems and/or addiction, says psychiatrist John Heather, MD.

“People don’t get addicted to Diet Coke,” Dr. Heather says. “Problem drinkers and alcoholics have trouble clearing alcohol out of their system. It builds up and leads to physical and mental addiction that causes them to crave alcohol and obsess about it.”

Alcohol build-up in your body is toxic, and affects your liver, skin, bones and tissue. Over time, it can lead to health conditions, such as high blood pressure, liver disease and certain cancers, as well as injuries, including falls and car crashes, and poor decision-making.

Even if you’re not consuming at a binge drinker level, you still might be drinking too much, says psychologist Danette Conklin, PhD.

“If you’re drinking a lot more alcohol than is typical for you, it’s important to look more closely at what's going on in your life,” Dr. Conklin says. “Sometimes people begin using alcohol to feel better about their current situation.” For instance, people who have recently divorced or become widowed may begin drinking more to fill a void.

Other times, the problem has continued across your lifespan, starting at a young age and continuing as you grow older. Because of the way alcohol accumulates in your body over time and the aging process – including the medications you take – you may find that fewer drinks affect you far worse.

According to Dr. Conklin and Dr. Heather, there are tip offs that your alcohol usage may be a bigger problem, including:

  • Using alcohol to feel better. If you’re drinking more than is usual, it could be a sign of stress, depression and/or anxiety, Dr. Conklin says.
    “My patients who are in their 40s and 50s find that they’re dealing with a whole host of things that cause them to feel lost in life,” she says. “Alcohol looks like a solution for the emptiness and loneliness they're feeling.”
  • Being a no-show. Do you regularly blow off appointments with your doctor or others? This could be a sign.
  • Not following prescription recommendations. If you're taking medication, be careful about drinking.
    “A person without an alcohol problem will look at the bottle and if it reads ‘do not mix with alcohol,’ they'll take these precautions,” Dr. Heather says. “Problem drinkers drink anyway, despite the risks.”
  • Forgetting things. When you abuse alcohol, you're likely to suffer cognitive impairments and forgetfulness.
    “They don't have as many reserve brain cells,” says Dr. Heather. “Problem drinking can present as possible dementia.”
  • Fighting. Interpersonal problems – such as fights with a partner, family and friends – and legal problems indicate you have a (mild) alcohol use-related problem, Dr. Conklin says.

There are a number of preventive steps to take to help get your drinking in check. But the first step is always self-awareness, Dr. Conklin says.

“My patients will come in and tell me that they're starting to drink every day,” she says. “They're not feeling good about their lives and use alcohol to feel better.”

While there are a number of strategies and tools available to help you cope, depending on your level of dependency, it's important to talk to a health care professional to find the right treatment for you.

“Don’t be afraid to talk to someone about your alcohol usage,” Dr. Heather says. “Alcohol hates it when you shine a light on how it's affecting you.”

Danette Conklin, PhD is a psychologist and director, Midlife Wellness for Women at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

John Heather, MD is a psychiatrist and clinical director, Adult Mood Disorders Program at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

You can request an appointment with Drs. Conklin and Heather or any other doctor online.

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