How Much Wine Is Too Much?

How Much Wine Is Too Much?

A "standard" drink might be smaller than you think.

Reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day? You’re not alone. According to the Wine Institute, Americans drank 949 million gallons of wine in 2016. You’ve no doubt also seen headlines about the health benefits of wine. So, if a little might be good, more is better, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As a physician, I can tell you that when it comes to wine, too much can have disastrous health consequences.

The challenge is knowing the difference. Here's what you should know before pouring your next glass.

What’s the right amount?
"Moderate" drinking is defined as up to one drink a day for women and up to two for men, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Men who consume 15 or more drinks per week are considered heavy drinkers. Women with the same title sip eight or more weekly drinks.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks, within about two hours, on a single occasion. For women it’s four or more drinks. 

So, what's a “drink”?
While one person’s “standard” drink may be another’s shot-glass, a single drink in the US contains 14 grams of alcohol. That's the equivalent to a12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of table wine or 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor, like vodka, tequila or gin.

If you typically sip malt liquor—about 7 percent alcohol—a standard drink is between 8 and 9 ounces. Sherry and port wine drinkers should fill their glasses with just 3 or 4 ounces of the stuff; cordial and liqueur drinkers should stop after 2 or 3 ounces.

What are the risks of heavy drinking?
For one, harmful alcohol use—including drinking in excess—is responsible for more than 3 million global deaths each year—that's 1 in every 20. You already know the risks of driving while intoxicated, but it can be tough to gauge impairment before getting behind the wheel. In one study that simulated driving after giving participants alcohol, the higher the blood alcohol level, the better the participants thought they were at driving.

Additional consequences of excessive alcohol ingestion include:

  • Drowning
  • Alcohol dependency
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Some cancers, including breast, mouth and colon

What are the potential benefits of wine?
I’m sure you’ve heard or read that wine isn’t all bad—studies suggest a moderate amount can, in fact, be beneficial. So, how much do you need to drink to reap the potential benefits? While no data has declared a “safe” amount, research suggests people who have up to one drink a day tend to have lower rates of heart disease and stroke, compared to those who drink more or abstain altogether. 

However, more recent research suggests the risks of drinking—even in moderation—may outweigh the apparent heart benefits. There's more: Experts aren’t certain the heart benefits are real—people who have an occasional glass of wine tend to be healthier in other ways.

Am I drinking too much?
Signs of alcohol dependence include:

  • Drinking more than you intend
  • Needing to drink more and more to feel an effect
  • Losing jobs, friends or family or getting arrested due to alcohol
  • Unable to stop drinking or cut back consumption despite trying  

As an ER doctor, I know alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs. Not only does consuming too much have severe risks, but its withdrawal symptoms can be equally life-threatening. So, if you or someone you love is dependent on alcohol, it’s crucial that you not try to detox alone. Instead, go to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, where you can get immediate help or find local resources.

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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