Hate to be a literal buzzkill…
It can be hard to determine how much drinking is too much, given the state of, well, everything. The notion that people are drinking their way through this pandemic is pretty pervasive. You might’ve seen a well-known celebrity chef mix herself a giant cocktail, or several award-winning actors sing in their bathrobes with various bottles of alcohol beside them. And these celebrity bits might not be too far off from what’s happening in your own quarantine corner. Normal coping and stress-management tactics are limited by social distancing, so your nightly skin-care regimen might now feature a few glasses of wine. Or maybe making dinner involves more drink-prep than cooking. Maybe you’ve gotten Zoom drunk a few times already.
Whatever your situation, if you've clicked on this article, there's a chance that your recent drinking habits are giving you pause. That “pause" might be hangover-related (hangovers are the worst). Or maybe you're worried that your newfound drinking ritual is a sign of alcohol use disorder—which the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines as problem drinking that becomes severe. More specifically, it characterizes alcohol use disorder as compulsive drinking, loss of control over how much you’re drinking, or experiencing a strong urge to drink because going without alcohol doesn't feel great.
There are an estimated 15 million people dealing with alcohol use disorder, according to the NIAAA, and the physical and mental health implications from this pandemic could be huge. But more generally, Nielsen data suggests that alcohol sales have increased, and there is some evidence that catastrophic events, like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, lead to increased alcohol consumption and binge-drinking behaviors. So, if you’re wondering exactly how much drinking is too much right now, it’s totally reasonable to reflect a little.
“Several months of heavier and more frequent drinking during the pandemic could certainly lead to increased tolerance [for some],” Kenneth Leonard, Ph.D., director of Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at SUNY University at Buffalo, tells SELF. “For [others], this could lead to increased alcohol dependence, and could remain an issue after the pandemic ends.”
What exactly is “moderate” drinking?
As someone who enjoys a good Merlot (or a supermarket box wine), it pains me to say that drinking alcohol isn’t exactly healthy. Yes, there’s conflicting research on whether or not moderate drinking is associated with health benefits, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not “recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason.” So there’s that. There is also plenty of research showing that excessive drinking is associated with negative health benefits.
If you’re an adult who does partake, you should do so (you guessed it) in moderation. Moderate drinking might seem like it’s open to interpretation—and many people certainly do see it that way—but the Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as no more than one drink a day (if you’re a woman) and two drinks per day (if you’re a man). But that’s not a blanket recommendation. They also suggest some individuals not drink at all, including pregnant people, anyone under 21, people who are recovering from alcohol use disorder, anyone who has certain medical conditions or is taking medications that might interact with alcohol, and anyone planning to drive or participate in other activities that require coordination.
This might lead you to ask: Isn’t “one drink” a relative term? It’s not. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, one alcoholic drink has about 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. So that boils down to 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of liquor. When it comes to mixed drinks and quarantine cocktails, there’s a good chance that one drink will have more than that amount of alcohol, so the NIAAA recommends you figure out how much alcohol is in your cocktail of choice and limit your intake accordingly. The upside? That's easier to do if you're making your own drinks at home.
How much drinking is too much (and when should you be concerned)?
Okay, so now that you know moderate drinking is defined as one or two drinks per day, let’s get into exactly how much drinking is too much. The NIAAA considers high-risk, or excessive, drinking a pattern that includes having four or more drinks a day or more than eight drinks a week for women. For men, the numbers are five or more drinks a day and 15 or more drinks in a week. Binge drinking (also considered excessive) involves four to five drinks (or more) within two hours, the NIAAA says. And then there’s something called heavy alcohol use, which the NIAAA defines as binge drinking during five or more days in the past month.
Comparing these numbers to your daily and weekly habits might be jarring—I get it. Maybe your usual coping strategies are limited (going outside might be a challenge, and human contact might not be possible), maybe you have a lot of free time and a newfound love of cocktail making, or maybe the weird phenomenon of drinking on Zoom calls has left you drunk more than a few times. There are a lot of reasons your drinking might’ve spiked during this pandemic (I’m guilty of a few myself), but it is worth noting that heavy drinking patterns do put you at risk for alcohol use disorder, according to the NIAAA. So if you’re concerned about the amount of alcohol you’re drinking, don’t automatically assume that you’re overreacting.
It’s also completely reasonable to reassess your relationship with alcohol even if you don’t meet the criteria for high-risk drinking. There’s obviously a gap between what’s considered moderate drinking and what’s considered excessive drinking, so any amount of drinking that feels unhealthy or concerning to you is worth looking into.
“In general, any increases in the frequency or amount of one’s alcohol use during the current crisis could be a cause for concern,” George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the NIAAA tells, SELF. “Particularly if the increases stem from an attempt to cope with negative emotions associated with the crisis.” Koob explains that even though alcohol can give you feelings of happiness at the time, hangovers and other aftereffects can exacerbate the emotions you were trying to alleviate.
Leonard agrees that examining your changes is helpful when exploring your drinking habits. “Perhaps the clearest sign would be the gradual increase in the frequency of drinking and the amount of drinking over time,” Leonard explains. “Drinking earlier in the day might also be a sign.”
If you want to cut back on drinking, here’s some advice.
If your drinking meets the criteria for excessive drinking, Koob cautions that cutting back will likely be hard—and potentially dangerous—without appropriate supervision. To find out how to temper it safely, look into telehealth options for getting sober, reach out to your primary care doctor or insurance company, and seek advice from others in the sober community.
If you’re looking to ease up on your quarantini situation, you can start by “monitoring how often and how much you drink,” Leonard suggests. This could mean taking a real, honest look at how much you’re drinking throughout the week and being more mindful of why you’re drinking more, how you feel afterward, and how it’s affecting various areas of your life. Additionally, the NIAAA recommends setting goals and limits for how much you’ll drink, measuring your alcohol before you drink it, and coming up with a plan to resist overdrinking. This might include calling a friend that you can talk to about your decision not to drink, finding substitute activities, or making a pros-and-cons list you can reference when the urge hits you.
“Just as before the pandemic, it is important to develop and maintain a healthy, regular schedule that includes adequate sleep, exercise in some form, proper nutrition, and supportive interactions with family and peers,” Koob says. “While online interactions might not feel the same as face-to-face meetings, they provide important opportunities for maintaining contact with people during isolation.”
And if you need an item for your pros-and-cons list, here’s a freebie: “Drinking too much and too often can weaken your immune system,” Leonard says, “which could be a serious problem if you were to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus.” So it’s probably wise to diversify your at-home leisure activities.
Written by Patia Braithwaite.
This article originally appeared on SELF US.