Alcohol Consumption: The Fine Line Between Casual and Dependent

Published on March 15, 2017 by Dr. NavNirat Nibber

We don’t want to be the Debbie Downer of St. Patrick’s Day weekend, especially considering we’re coming up on the end of Spring Break for many university students, but we do want to remind you the implications of irresponsible alcohol consumption.

As young adults we are often peer pressured into binge drinking (defined as consuming five or more drinks on an occasion) when we give into those pressures and really push our bodies to the limit of alcohol consumption. There are some pretty serious health implications that occur when we have one drink too many.

For example, short term results from over alcohol consumption are: abuse (physical, sexual and emotional), violence, motor vehicle accidents, injury and accidents, and acute alcohol toxicity. While long term effects include: alcohol dependence, increased cancer risk, GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) and digestive complaints, liver cirrhosis and other liver diseases, and even increased susceptibility to infection.

When we dig deeper into how different demographics consume and are impacted by excessive drinking the numbers are pretty jarring, take a look:

Alcohol Consumption by the Numbers

Age:

  • Adults in Canada (age 25+) report more risky drinking behaviour than adolescent drinkers
  • High risk drinking in adolescents is more likely to occur with a comorbid (the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions) conduct disorder

Gender:

  • Canadian men who consume alcohol, 32.2% exhibit signs of risky behaviour  
  • Canadian women who consume alcohol, 18.5% exhibit signs of risky behaviour
  • The lifetime risk of alcohol dependence in men is 9.6% in the U.S.
  • The lifetime risk of alcohol dependence in women is 3.2% in the U.S.
  • Women are more susceptible to health-related consequences (both psychological and physiological) from heavy drinking than men, and these consequences occur earlier in women than in men

Ethnicity and Genetics:

  • Certain ethnic groups have exhibited a lower tolerance to alcohol based on deficiencies in enzymes related to alcohol metabolism
  • Native Americans and a number of Asian populations have been identified as lacking particular enzyme
  • Age of onset and disease progression are partially genetically mediated
  • Individuals with a 1st degree relative with alcohol dependence are 3-4 times more likely to develop a dependency themself
  • The highest rates of problem drinking are reported in North and Northwest Europe, and lower rates in Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, and Asia

So when we talk about “risky behaviour” and “alcohol dependency” what do we mean? According to the Canadian Center for Substance Abuse guidelines “risky behaviour” is defined as:

  • Men: Less than or equal to 3 drinks/day or 15 drinks/week; with no more than 4 drinks on a single occasion
  • Women: Less than or equal to 2 drinks/day or 10 drinks/week; with no more than 3 drinks on a single occasion

Alcohol dependency is an illness defined by a “preoccupation with drinking and an inability to control usage.” Some warning signs to look out for would be:

  • Psychologic dependence- individuals truly believe they NEED alcohol to get through daily activities, alleviate stress, and cope with problems
  • Physiologic adaptation- tolerance, withdrawal, craving responses
  • Behavioral changes- preoccupation with drinking, concealing consumption, and inability to stop when started
  • Disregard the physical, mental, social, occupational, or legal consequences

Alcohol abuse is defined by “repeated use causing social, legal, or interpersonal problems and difficulty fulfilling obligations.” Warning signs include:

  • Symptoms and severity are less than those associated with alcohol dependence
  • Relationship with alcohol is inappropriate ie. individuals may binge drink, or their drinking may result in legal, financial, or interpersonal problems
  • Compulsion is still present

You’re probably thinking “well how can I make sure I’m not falling into either of those categories?” Depending on your drink of choice, being aware of how much you are consuming is key. There are three levels of alcohol content: low, medium high.

  • Low /moderate alcohol content = 5% alcohol
    • Beer, ciders, and coolers a drink is about 341mL ( 12oz)
  • Medium alcohol content = 12% alcohol
    • An average serving of wine amounts to 142mL (5oz)
  • High alcohol content = 40% alcohol or above
    • A serving size of hard liquors such as rum, gin, and vodka is 43mL (1.5oz)

Again, we are solely advocating for drinking responsibly. Being aware that alcohol is not a requirement to have a good time with friends will ensure that you have a healthy and safe St. Patty’s Day and any other occasion throughout the year.