People binge drink for various reasons. It’s payday; you’ve had a hectic month, and you deserve to let your hair down. You drink with mates who drink to get drunk, and you try to keep up with them. You’re sad, anxious or lonely, and drink to numb your feelings.
Whatever the reason, binge drinking is dangerous and can ruin your life. It’s a slippery slope from binge drinking to alcohol tolerance, dependency and addiction.
What is binge drinking?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as “a pattern of consuming alcohol at a rate that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams per deciliter (one-tenth of a litre)”. This equals five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks for women.
Binge drinking is more prevalent in young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 years, and it is described as the “most common, costly and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States”. Binge drinking is a deadly problem in South Africa, and it comes at a considerable cost not only to people’s lives but also to the state.
People who binge drink don’t necessarily have substance use disorder, the formal term for addiction. However, they are at risk of developing a tolerance and dependency on alcohol which will progress to addiction. Young people who frequently binge drink are at high risk of developing substance use disorder in adulthood.
Did you know?
The rule of thumb for moderate, responsible drinking is one alcoholic drink per hour.
What are the risks of binge drinking?
There are significant short-term and long-term risks to binge drinking that affect your physical and mental health. If you do not get binge drinking under control, you are at risk of being seriously hurt, mentally impaired, or developing substance use disorder or a chronic illness that results in hospitalisation, overdose or death.
Short-term effects of binge drinking
- nausea and vomiting
- alcohol poisoning
- serious injury from a car accident, bad fall, violent attack
- sexual assault, gender-based violence
Long-term risks of binge drinking
- hypertension, heart disease, stroke, heart attack
- permanent physical injury, paralysis, loss of limb, brain injury
- cognitive impairment, memory loss, learning problems
- anxiety or mood disorders, including substance use disorder
- organ damage, liver disease
- unemployment, bankruptcy
- divorce, the breakup of relationships
- sexually transmitted diseases
- domestic violence
- unwanted pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, miscarriage or stillbirth
How do you know if you are a binge drinker?
Do you often worry that you drink too much too quickly? Do you tend to “drink to get drunk” and often drink until you blackout or pass out? Do you limit your drinking until you are out with friends or colleagues and then drink in excess? Do you periodically blitz drink on your own to numb feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness or grief?
If you agree with one or more of these scenarios, you likely have a problem with binge drinking. Remember, binge drinking is not the same as alcohol addiction, but you are at risk of developing the disorder if you don’t take action now and get your drinking habits under control.
Here’s a binge drinking checklist. Be honest; how many of these statements apply to yourself or a loved one?
- I only drink on weekends, but when I do, it’s full-on
- I don’t need to drink during the week, but Friday is all-fall-down party time
- I can easily finish a bottle of wine at home on my own
- I promise myself I’ll only have two or three drinks, but I never stick to the deal
- I always take two bottles of wine to a party, in case I finish the first one quickly
- I often drink so much, and then can’t remember how the evening ended
- My friends often have to help me get home or put me to bed at the end of a big drinking session
- I wake up from a drinking session feeling dehydrated, nauseous, exhausted and irritable
- When I drink, I embarrass myself and others
- I don’t need to drink all the time, but I can’t stop drinking when I start
- After a big night out, I feel guilty or worried I made a fool of myself
- I’m starting to feel the effects of binge drinking; it’s starting to affect my health
- It’s all or nothing for me; I either drink nothing, or I drink excessively
- My family and friends are beginning to worry about my drinking habits
- My relationships with my partner, family or friends are starting to suffer because of my drinking habits
- I often get into trouble with the law when I drink too much
- I’ve lost my job or came close to losing my job after one too many all-fall-down drinking sessions
- I often miss college classes, bunk school or miss assignment deadlines because I’m hungover
- I get very aggressive when I drink excessively; I go looking for trouble and get into fights
How binge drinking affects your brain
Long-term binge drinking can cause brain damage. You may think it’s harmless, but your ‘party until you drop’ habit can cause irreparable damage to parts of your brain responsible for high executive and cognitive functioning.
Binge drinking is hazardous among teenagers and young adults because their frontal cortex and hippocampus are still developing. Excessive underage drinking can impair brain function, affecting motor skills, coordination, concentration, learning and memory.
How binge drinking affects your physical health
Binge drinking can severely damage your health in various ways. The biggest problem is early-stage alcoholic liver disease, including liver inflammation, cirrhosis and hepatic encephalopathy. Binge drinking also increases your risk of developing hypertension, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, heart disease and cardiac failure. It is also linked to several cancers, including liver, colon, mouth, throat, voice box, oesophagus and rectum cancer.
Another area of risk is irreparable damage to your intestinal microbiome. Your gut comprises a community of micro-organisms that control digestion and ensures you have a properly functioning immune system. When you have an unhealthy, unbalanced gut microbiome, you are at risk of developing diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol.
Poor gut health has a knock-on effect on the rest of your health, putting you at risk of developing various cancers, irritable bowel syndrome, an autoimmune disease, and bone and muscle development problems.
Binge drinkers are at risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis, which causes inflammation of the liver. The liver is responsible for filtering out toxins, and when an alcohol-damaged liver starts to fail, excess toxins flood the brain. A buildup of toxins in your brain causes hepatic encephalopathy, a chronic liver disease.
Symptoms of chronic liver disease include shaking hands and arms, lack of coordination, disorientation, forgetfulness, slurred speech, poor concentration, anxiety and depression.
How binge drinking affects your brain
The short-term effects of binge drinking on your mental health include depression, anxiety and mood swings. The long-term effects of binge drinking are irreversible structural changes to your brain chemistry.
The neural pathways in your brain’s pleasure centre are thrown out of balance and are eventually destroyed. There is no easy way to reverse alcohol-induced brain changes, and you face a lifelong struggle with addictive behaviour, recovery and relapse.
Alcohol is a depressant substance, and prolonged use can disrupt the balance of brain chemicals and how you function. Alcohol affects two neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in your brain responsible for sending signals from one neuron to another and messages to other parts of your body.
- Alcohol increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your central nervous system. GABA is a naturally occurring amino acid and an essential neurotransmitter that works as an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
GABA normally reduces energy levels and helps keep you in a normal state of calm, in much the same way Valium and Xanax are used to reduce stress and anxiety levels. When GABA is stimulated and surges in your central nervous system, your levels of stress, fear and anxiety surge.
- Alcohol suppresses glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate is found in over 90 percent of your brain synapses and is responsible for sending signals to other cells in your central nervous system. It plays a vital role in maintaining normal brain functioning.
Glutamate normally increases energy levels and brain activity. Suppressing this neurotransmitter slows down the flow of brain chemicals, which causes you to become sluggish and disorientated, slows down your reactions, impairs coordination, and creates brain fog.
To accommodate excess alcohol in your system, your brain has to reduce or shut down neurotransmitters. To get the same effect, you drink more alcohol more often. This sets off a vicious cycle of adaption and tolerance that leads to alcohol dependency and addiction, known as substance use disorder.
There is no straightforward cure for substance use disorder. It is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease and treated with an integrated treatment programme, including medical detox, medication and psychotherapy.
How binge drinking causes ‘wet brain’
Binge drinking can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), otherwise known as ‘wet brain’. This alcohol-related condition is triggered by malnutrition, where poor diet is often a side-effect of excessive alcohol consumption. Wet brain occurs because alcohol blocks your body’s ability to absorb thiamine (vitamin B1) and leads to a nutrient deficiency that causes brain damage.
Symptoms of wet brain (WKS) include poor muscle coordination, eye muscle paralysis, confusion (similar to dementia), memory loss or forgetfulness, and impaired learning ability. The other term for it is brain fog.
Apart from everything else, binge drinkers are at serious risk of severe injuries or death from car accidents, falls, gender-based violence, robbery, or physical attacks. When impulse control, coordination, and ability to think clearly are impaired, you can seriously harm yourself or others. Worse, it can result in death.
How binge drinking affects your sexual health
Long-term binge drinking can reduce a man’s sex drive and impair fertility in both women and men. Binge drinking is a serious problem while pregnant, as it can affect the health of an unborn baby and lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. This syndrome is directly linked to excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs during pregnancy and is characterised by mental retardation and poor physical development, particularly of the face and skull.
Youngsters who frequently binge drink and black out are at risk of being sexually assaulted or contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). STDs can lead to cervical cancer, pelvic inflammatory diseases, perinatal or congenital infections in infants, and infertility, tubal or ectopic pregnancies.
Why do you blackout when you binge drink?
Blackouts are a common sign of binge drinking. They occur when you become so intoxicated that memory consolidation in the hippocampus fails. Excess alcohol temporarily blocks the transfer of short-term memory to long-term storage, leaving you with a complete blank of what happened ‘the night before’.
Blackouts occur when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.16 percent or higher. That’s twice the legal driving limit. At this stage, your cognitive abilities are severely impaired. Your concentration, impulse control, decision-making and judgement are out of whack, and you are a massive danger to yourself and others.
What happens with blackouts is the alcohol enters your bloodstream too quickly, it cannot be processed fast enough, and your BAC rises rapidly. Things get a whole lot worse if you drink on an empty stomach or if you’re taking illegal or prescription drugs. Women are more at risk of alcohol-related blackouts because they typically weigh less than men and store less water in their bodies.
You get different types of alcohol-related blackouts. The most common is a fragmentary blackout, where you have holes in your memory and can’t recall parts of the day or night you spent binge drinking. This type of blackout is also called a grayout (meaning grey matter) or a brownout.
Then you get complete amnesia, which is a severe form that lasts a few hours or even days. You have absolutely no memory of the day or night you spent binge drinking. This form of alcohol-induced memory loss is called anterograde The alcohol prevents your brain from creating new memories while you are intoxicated, but it doesn’t wipe out memories formed before you started binge drinking.
Did you know?
There is a difference between passing out and a blackout.
Passing out means you fall asleep or lose consciousness when you drink too much too quickly. When you blackout, you are still awake, but your brain temporarily stops creating new memories. Binge drinkers typically blackout before they pass out.
We’re here to help.
Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our highly-trained mental health and addiction care professionals at White River Manor in South Africa.