Are you a binge drinker?

Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that binge drinking is actually a bigger problem than anyone realized. Statistics recently reported by the CDC indicate that one in six adults in the U.S. binge drinks an average of four times a month. Yikes! This statistic, in and of itself, is both surprising and concerning.

Binge drinking is defined, for a male, as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks in a short period of time, and, for a female, the number of drinks is four. A night out at the bar or at a party certainly will constitute a short period of time. Surprisingly, the research does not show an association between binge drinking and alcohol dependency or alcoholism, however binge drinking does seem to come with its own set of problems.

The research showed that no demographic seems to be immune to binge drinking. Not surprising is that more than 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is consumed during binge drinking. What is surprising to me is that people 65 years and older are the ones who binge drink most often. Also surprising is that the income group that is made up of the most binge drinkers is the group earning more than $75,000 a year.

Some of the biggest byproducts of binge drinking are increases in certain types of cancers, injuries, diseases including sexually transmitted diseases, as well as increases in car crashes and premature death. The financial consequences of binge drinking are often significant to both the individual involved, as well as the community. It is estimated that binge drinking cost the United States about $223 billion in 2006 or about $746 per person.

I must admit that this is a common factor that comes up in conversations with patients who have recently been diagnosed with an STD, although we don’t formally refer to it as binge drinking. We know that alcohol reduces social inhibitions and impairs judgment. Many of my patients simply say this is exactly what they are seeking – a lack of inhibition.

The alcohol allows them to loosen up, which often leads to a sense of, “I don’t really remember what I did”or, “I really only do that when I am drunk but I need to drink to be able to talk to a guy.” Many seem to feel that a risky behavior that leads them to a trip to an STD clinic is more acceptable or even excusable if they can say, “well, I was just really drunk.” I think that we can all agree that dependency on alcohol in order to meet, talk to or hook up with a guy is a slippery slope and although it doesn’t necessarily lead to alcoholism, it is still a slope that commonly ends up in any of the above consequences.

The real question though is what is the solution to binge drinking? Even the CDC states that there is not an association between binge drinking and alcoholism; therefore it is not an addiction that should seek conventional treatment. Perhaps it is not a recognized disease but it is a behavior that may require some formal intervention in order to prevent it. The CDC recommends that in order to prevent it people can choose not to binge drink and help others to not binge drink as well. Wow, yes that sounds right but c’mon now, that’s all you’ve got?!

I think it is important to look at what makes a person think they need the alcohol impairment in order to interact socially. The next time you go out, count how many drinks you have – if it’s five or more then you technically meet the definition of binge drinking. Then ask yourself, what is it about the alcohol that gives me the confidence or courage to engage with a really cute guy? Is there a better or healthier way for me to get what I want out of my social life?

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