Is Drinking Every Day – Even a Little Bit – Going to Turn You Into an Alcoholic?
There was a time—during Varsity and afterward—when you’d drink on weekends (usually too much) and maybe one or two evenings during the week. But you also took nights off.
For a lot of men, that kind of “weekend warrior” drinking eventually mellows into a more consistent, every-evening pattern of consumption. You drink less but with more regularity, and you may notice skipping alcohol altogether isn’t as easy as it once was.
If that describes your drinking habit, should you be worried?
When it comes to alcohol, there are few hard-and-fast rules. But experts say a nightly drink or two isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
When Nightly Drinking Is OK
With exceptions—and we’ll get to those in a minute—having a drink or two every night isn’t in itself a sign of abuse or an indication that you’re heading for trouble, says Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
“There’s very little data that having one or two drinks has any deleterious health effects in young men or leads to alcohol abuse later,” Koob says.
People in many traditional European cultures tend to drink wine with meals. And a New England Journal of Medicine study found drinking 7-plus glasses of wine each week is one component of the kind of healthy Mediterranean-style eating pattern that lowers a person’s risks for heart disease.
Koob says more research is needed to figure out if alcohol can be considered “healthy.” (For now, he wouldn’t advise a non-drinker or light drinker to up his intake.) But, he adds, there’s nothing to suggest a couple beers or some wine with dinner—or even a cocktail before—is going to grease your slide into mid-life alcoholism.
Related: Can I Booze Before I Go To Bed?
That said, to stay within the “low-risk” zone, you need to be sure your idea of a drink meets the NIAAA’s definitions. “If your glass of wine is a litre, or your cocktail contains three shots, that’s not one drink,” Koob says. (Seriously, check your pours. Research shows most men overserve themselves.)
Also, if you’re slurping four or more drinks a night, or if your total weekly intake exceeds 14 drinks, you’re at elevated risk for an abuse disorder. (The NIAAA offers this helpful questionnaire if you’re not sure how to assess your habit.)
Separating Dependence and Addiction
Even if you find yourself feeling irritable or antsy when you miss your evening drink, that’s not a sign that you’re “addicted,” Koob says.
“Dependence often goes hand in hand with addiction, but they’re not the same things,” he explains. “You can become dependent on almost any substance if it’s part of your daily rhythm, but that doesn’t mean you’re addicted.”
Say you have a beer or cocktail every night after work. Your body and brain are going to become accustomed to that evening ritual, and you may be irritable if you don’t have your hooch. But Koob points out the same would be true if you normally eat dinner at seven but pushed your meal to later in the evening.
When it comes to sleep, eating, and any kind of substance, “anything that disrupts your normal routine is going to put you on edge, but that’s not an indication you have a use disorder,” he adds.
When You Should Worry
If you have a family history of alcoholism, and especially if one or both of your parents has alcohol abuse issues, you need to be wary of booze, and you’re better off restricting your intake, Koob says.
Also, if you’re practically shotgunning that first beer of the day, or you pound your evening cocktail in one or two slugs, that’s more indicative of binge drinking than of a low-risk drinking pattern, he explains.
The same goes if you’re combining a few weeknights of light drinking with weekends of hard partying.
“Generally, we define binge drinking for men as five drinks in a two-hour period,” he says. If that describes your Friday and Saturday nights, AND you’re knocking back a couple drinks every night during the week, you’re firmly in the danger zone.
Other Times to Cut Back
It’s a cliché that men drink when times are tough. But that kind of drinking is far from harmless.
If you use alcohol to cope, a significant life event like a lost job or having a kid could quickly escalate your drinking into the danger zone, says Paul Lavella Jr., a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor at New Jersey- and Massachusetts-based Summit Behavioral Health.
“If one or two drinks is your baseline, but you drink more when you’ve had a rough day or week, that’s something that could become a significant problem when life changes lead to stress,” he explains.
If you have nights when you struggle to control your intake, that’s also a red flag.
“Maybe you went to a party with the intention of staying a few hours and having a few drinks, and then driving home,” Lavella says. “If you end up staying all night and drinking so much that you can’t drive, that’s an example of losing control of a drinking situation where you went in with a plan.”
If you notice that happening regularly, you need to reassess your drinking.
The same is true if you notice your habit is gaining steam. If you used to have a single beer with dinner, but now you’re having a cocktail before you eat and a couple glasses of wine with your food, that’s a problem.
Finally and most importantly, any indication that your social, personal, or professional life is suffering due to alcohol is a sign that you need to make some changes, Lavella says. That’s true regardless of how much you drink.
“There are a lot of genetic and individual factors that change how you feel after a drink,” he says. “But if alcohol is negatively impacting your life or if you’re concerned you may have a problem, you need to take steps to address that.”
Originally published on menshealth.com