How Much Alcohol Is Too Much — And How Can I Cut Back?

Knowledge is power, and April is Alcohol Awareness Month. What better time to learn how to be clear-eyed about your consumption? A few tips

April 1, 2023
Toasting over coffee

One in five. That’s the number of deaths among Americans aged 20 to 49 attributable to excessive alcohol use, according to a 2022 study.

Look, this isn’t meant to be a “scared straight” article. The most recent data from the National Institutes of Health indicates that more than half (52%) of American adults reported alcohol use in the past month. Humans, or human ancestors, have consumed alcohol in some form for 10 million years, research suggests, long before homo sapiens even appeared on the scene.

But. Alcohol is also, very often, dangerous. Understanding where “safe” alcohol use tips over into “excessive” can be difficult. Even scientists are still evaluating what exactly constitutes “safe” consumption, so you can be forgiven if the line isn’t so obvious to you.

April is National Alcohol Awareness Month. What better time to up your awareness? If you’re rethinking your alcohol use and trying to be more conscious of your behaviors and patterns, we’ve pulled together some information that can help you better understand your relationship with alcohol and cut back on any habits that may concern you.

And if you’re already at the point where you feel like your alcohol use is hurting you, there’s help for that too.

What Is ‘Safe’ Alcohol Use?

Everyone knows alcohol is widespread in many cultures. (Though it is by no means a requirement for life!) It’s the most legal and visible drug out there, by far.

But when alcohol seems like such a common part of society and culture, it can be easy to lose track of your own consumption. It’s certainly possible to become accustomed to excessive alcohol use before you have a chance to stop and think about it.

When you learn the difference between safe and excessive alcohol use, exercising self-control can be easier, if you choose to partake.

A “safe” drinker will usually do the following things:

  • Eat beforehand to prevent rapid alcohol absorption
  • Avoid using alcohol as a solution to seemingly unmanageable stress
  • Avoid mixing alcohol with other substances
  • Know whether any prescription medications can interact with alcohol, and cut back or abstain from alcohol accordingly
  • Avoid driving under the influence
  • Know personal limits

Someone who uses alcohol safely is mindful of its effects. They know how to pay attention to their mind and body so that they know when they’ve had enough. A person who carefully consumes alcohol is responsible and self-aware. Being mindful when consuming alcohol enables you to stay in control of your intake and of alcohol’s effects on your mind and body.

Bringing self-awareness into social settings where you may use alcohol is a great way to ensure that you stay ahead of alcohol’s adverse effects, such as blacking out, vomiting or hangovers.

A last word on “safe” alcohol use: We’re not prohibitionists here, but it’s worth being realistic if you choose to partake. Ethanol — the form of alcohol people consume — is toxic to the human body. Last year, researchers published findings from a study of 36,000 adults indicating that just one drink per day was linked with reduced brain size. Four drinks per day effectively “ages” the brain 10 years.

What Is Not Safe? What Does Excessive Alcohol Use Look Like?

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderation as two drinks per day or fewer for men and one drink per day for women. The more often you go beyond that, the greater your risk of short- or long-term problems.

If you find yourself crossing that threshold all the time, you might consider bringing it up with a doctor, counselor or other health care pro. It is possible to get help without having to worry about judgment or stigma. In other words, there’s no reason to lie to your doctor about your alcohol use. (Many people do!)

A doctor can’t and won’t force you to change your lifestyle, but they can certainly give you some guidance if you want to do so.

Some Signs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Some of these are more common, others are more extreme. They’re all worth watching out for:

  • Frequently becoming intoxicated
  • Using alcohol to cope with stress or pain
  • Having personal and social issues related to alcohol use
  • Driving while intoxicated/driving under the influence
  • Missing obligations and opportunities due to intoxication
  • Going to work intoxicated or using alcohol on the job
  • Lying about alcohol use
  • Impaired judgment that could result in legal trouble, harm to self or others, or other consequences
  • Getting injured or harming someone else while under the influence
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as mood, sleep and appetite changes, sweating, tremors and anxiety

There are many signs that someone is struggling with alcohol consumption, and — this is crucial — it’s OK to want to address your alcohol use even if you don’t have “serious” problems or consequences. Actually, it’s great! If alcohol has begun to encroach upon your personality, behaviors or general well-being, it’s worth thinking about trying a new approach.

And Some Long-Term Consequences of Excessive Alcohol Consumption

The human body is resilient, but long-term, high-volume alcohol use can have a host of adverse effects on the mind and body. These may not be on your radar now, but it’s worthwhile to be in the know about this stuff:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer of the throat, stomach, breast and esophagus
  • Emotional dysregulation, such as severe mood swings
  • Exacerbation of other mental health issues
  • Impaired brain function, such as poor memory recall or even long-term slurred speech and loss of coordination
  • Liver disease
  • Weakened immune system

In the long term, alcohol can affect virtually every part of the body, and the physical and mental toll can be brutal. Taking an honest look at your habits early on can save your life.

OK, I’m Sober Curious. What Are Some Healthy Alternatives to Alcohol?

Some people enjoy the taste and the rituals; others use alcohol to take the edge off. If you’re in the latter group, you can always try some healthier ways to cope with life’s challenges and stressors. If you’re having a bear of a time managing stress, there are tons of self-help and collaborative coping mechanisms you can explore, like …

When you make it a requirement to take care of yourself, it becomes more difficult for stress to weigh you down. Prioritizing your needs and growth makes it possible to live a healthy and happy life. Getting in touch with yourself makes everything else in life more worthwhile. Many of these practices also help us develop self-awareness skills which unlock the potential for us to truly thrive.

I’m Looking To Cut Back. How Can I Manage My Alcohol Intake?

Once you’re aware of your habits and goals for your relationship with alcohol, managing alcohol intake can be fairly straightforward. Your commitment and a strong and supportive team will lead you to a happier and healthier life.

If you need professional support with managing your alcohol intake, resources for counseling and treatment are available. The right level of consumption might turn out to be “none,” and we’re of the strong opinion that it’s more than possible to lead a highly fulfilling life sober as well!

To address and manage your alcohol intake, consider the following:

  • Keeping track of your alcohol use habits
  • Having a trustworthy person to help you monitor your consumption
  • Going over your situation with a doctor, counselor, treatment professional or other health care provider

Keeping a journal or documenting your alcohol use can help you track your overall consumption. It can also be helpful to write down thoughts and feelings when you’re doing so, to get a sense of your patterns and behaviors.

Having supportive and genuine friends can make it easier to remain mindful and hold yourself accountable. Finally, seeking professional care when necessary can help you dive into any deeper concerns and questions you may have.

At the root of safe and mindful alcohol use is self-awareness. Practicing self-awareness helps you to stay present so that you can be proactive and smart about your decision-making.

And if you don’t like how things are going between you and alcohol, why not talk it out with a trusted confidante, and then take the sober life for a spin? It costs nothing and you miss out on nothing by giving it a shot. You might even be surprised by how much you gain.

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