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Excessive Alcohol Use Responsible for 88,000 US Deaths—Here's How to Cut Back

Excessive Alcohol Use Responsible for 88,000 US Deaths—Here's How to Cut Back

Even people who don't drink daily can get in trouble with alcohol. Overall, about one in six Americans binge drink about four times a month, defined as four or more drinks in about two hours for women or five for men, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For many folks it doesn’t look like a health problem, because their weekly drink tally may still be within a "healthy" range—seven drinks for women and 14 for men. Yet more and more research says this kind of over-consumption can have serious downsides that fly under the radar. Binging, near-binging and having “just one more” are all getting linked to a broad range of health issues.

  • For women, research shows sipping two to three drinks a day on a regular basis increases odds for breast cancer by 20 percent; having five a day regularly raises it an extra 50 percent, compared to women who skip alcohol.
  • For men, a Finnish study found those who drank enough to have a hangover even once a year were at increased risk for stroke. The same researchers found that men who binge-drank had more heart-and brain-threatening plaque build-up in artery walls.
  • Even if you only overdo it on the weekends—and still keep your weekly drink total to a respectable level—those big doses of alcohol can age your immune system, trigger heart rhythm problems and raise levels of LDL cholesterol as much as 40 percent.

If you find yourself overdoing the booze, these steps might help you cut back.

Pour wisely
We've been told women should stick to no more than one drink per day, while men should set their limit at up to two daily drinks. But the definition of one serving may surprise you. A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of table wine or 1.5 ounces (one shot glass) of liquor, like vodka, tequila or gin.

Bartenders, restaurant servers and at-home mixologists that don’t measure their pours run the risk of serving more than the standard cocktail. To avoid this, steer clear of big goblets and short, wide glasses. One study suggests people had a tendency to fill these glasses too much. In fact, they served themselves 20 percent to 30 percent less when using a tall, narrow glass.

Talk to your doctor about disease risks
Moderate drinkers with heart disease risk factors, like diabetes, obesity and hypertension, should talk to their doctors about alcohol consumption. And while research suggests a daily drink or two might decrease overall cardiovascular disease risk, certain conditions can make even that much booze dangerous. A University of Pennsylvania review of 50 studies involving 260,000 people suggests those who drank 17 percent less than the average were less likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease and be overweight.

Women at high risk of breast cancer, and even those concerned about their potential risk, should chat with a healthcare provide.

Don't use alcohol as a reward
In a study that looked at the working hours and drinking habits of more than 300,000 people in 14 countries, researchers found those working more than 48 hours a week were about 12 percent more likely to overdrink than those working 40 hours. Instead, blow off steam with exercise, a date with your spouse, a night at a comedy club or viewing a funny movie.

Kick the smoking habit
There’s a reason smokers are five to ten times more likely to develop a drinking problem: Nicotine turns up the volume on alcohol cravings. The combination activates brain cells that amplify your desire to drink more.

There are helpful quit aids, like gums, patches and lozenges. If you can identify your smoking triggers, you can also develop ways to avoid them. If drinking is a smoking trigger, consider abstaining for a little bit, or if certain bars or locations make you crave a cigarette, replace the time you spend there with a new hobby, like exercise or meditation.

Phone applications, like Sharecare, available for Android and iOS, can also help you kick the habit. It's simple: Download the free app on your mobile device and manually track your smoking habits—this can help you visualize how many cigarettes you're sucking down and help take control of your health.

There's a fine line between enjoying the occasional cocktail and drinking enough to cause real harm to your body—it's important to know the difference. Talk to your doctor about how safe you consumption is, and if it's higher than it should be, use these tips to cut back.

Medically reviewed in January 2018.

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