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How Much Drinking Is Too Much?

Baseball fans had a shocking lesson about drinking and driving in Colorado when the Colorado Rockies’ celebrated first baseman Todd Helton was arrested for drunken driving in February. The veteran sports figure, about to embark on his final season in professional baseball before retiring, has offered an apology to his community, his team, and his fans.

There are too many successful professional men and women who descend into alcoholism but fool themselves about their level of use. Many people drink on a daily basis, get into alcohol-fueled arguments with loved ones and coworkers, and suffer from physical ailments because of alcohol, but they say they are not alcoholics and they can quit drinking at any time. Once someone experiences an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, the odds are pretty good that the drinking has gotten out of hand.

It’s true that many doctors ask their patients during a physical, as part of the social evaluation, if they have more than two drinks per week. Yet doctors, along with other professionals including lawyers, professors, and professional athletes like Helton, think nothing of going home and tossing back two cocktails—or cold ones—after a hard day’s work.  Does that automatically classify someone as an alcoholic?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) spells out acceptable levels of drinking for men and women. The NIAAA reports that a man can have four or fewer drinks in any given day as well as fourteen or fewer drinks within the entire week. For women, that drops to three or fewer drinks per day limited to seven or fewer drinks per week.  Once a person reaches his mid to late sixties, he or she should cut back a little from those levels.

Why should women drink less than men? The obvious reason is because they weigh less than men, in general. However, women’s bodies contain a lesser amount of water than men’s bodies, and so whatever alcohol they consume results in a higher concentration in the blood.

Even if you stay within those limits, you may be at risk for problem drinking if you consume your beverages too quickly or if you drink when you know you really shouldn’t—for example, if you’re taking prescription medication or if you know you will be driving. Overall, the NIAAA wants you to consider how much you drink and also how often, your age, your health, and your family history.

All of this information tells us that there is no cut-and-dried formula to indicate that someone is a problem drinker or an alcoholic. But ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you typically drink two drinks within a half hour?
  • When you’re not drinking, do you experience a craving for your favorite adult beverage?
  • Once you begin to drink, are you able to stop?
  • Do you hide your alcohol, or do you lie about drinking?
  • Do you drink alone?
  • Have you developed a tolerance for alcohol—meaning that it takes more to get a buzz?

Ultimately, when a person’s drinking puts himself or others at risk—as Helton’s did, drinking and driving in Colorado on the eve of his final season in baseball—it’s time to put a stop to it. Feeling a mixture of emotions about a decision to stop is normal.  Once you’ve made the decision, finding the right place to help you stop can make all the difference in the world.  The next step is yours.

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