Binge Drinking: It’s Not Just for Men
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Binge Drinking: It’s Not Just for Men

Excessive alcohol consumption is on the rise, especially among teens and women.

Written by Beth Phillips

Ordering alcohol at a bar or restaurant can be tricky, because serving sizes are often more than one standard drink.

Ordering alcohol at a bar or restaurant can be tricky, because serving sizes are often more than one standard drink.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlighted binge drinking in high school girls and women as an under recognized problem.

Long known as dangerous, binge drinking had predominantly been classified as problematic mostly in boys and men. Although the problem remains greater in men than women, the new CDC data shows that 20 percent of high school girls and 25 percent of college age women now report binge drinking.

This is a concern because adolescents who drink increase their risk for alcoholism later in life four fold. About 18 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Although not all binge drinkers are alcoholics, the study also shows about 50 percent of all the alcohol consumed by U.S. adults is consumed during a binge drinking session.

Experts from the South Plains Alcohol and Addiction Research Center (SPAARC) agree that most people don’t actually know what binge drinking is, much less understand what constitutes a standard drink, what alcohol levels are considered unhealthy, or that men and women respond differently to alcohol.

SPAARC is a research group that uses a translational, multidisciplinary and collaborative approach to investigate the connection between the genetics of predisposition and the molecular neurobiological consequences of drug and alcohol use to the related cognition, behavior and physiology. They also focus on finding interventions for fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASD).

What is Binge Drinking?

The NIAAA defines high-risk binge drinking as reaching a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08, the legal driving limit in most states. For the average-sized woman or man, this usually occurs after consuming about four or five drinks, respectively, in one sitting.

Consequences of binge drinking can include impaired judgment as well as tissue damage to the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, an increased risk of certain cancers, and a weakened immune system.

The consequences of binge drinking, like liver and brain damage, are often more severe in women than in men.

The consequences of binge drinking, like liver and brain damage, are often more severe in women than in men.

SPAARC Director Peter Syapin, Ph.D., explained that for women, the consequences are often more severe.

“Even if you consider that a boy and a girl or a man and a woman drank exactly the same amount or have exactly the same blood alcohol content, the damage is worse to the brain, liver and other organs for women than it is for men,” Syapin said.

That’s because women process alcohol differently than men and it takes less for females to become intoxicated as they tend to be smaller, according to the CDC study. In addition, aside from the possibility of developing a dependency on alcohol, alcohol abuse can cause fertility issues and other reproductive problems.

“Alcohol can be damaging even when you’re not addicted,” said Susan Bergeson, Ph.D., SPAARC member. “There’s binge drinking or alcohol abuse, FASD and alcoholism.”

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

George Henderson, Ph.D., and Anna-Kate Fowler, Ph.D., FASD researchers at SPAARC, stressed that FASD is the most common preventable birth defect. FASD can cause brain damage leading to a range of developmental, cognitive and behavioral problems, which can appear any time during childhood.

Because no amount of alcohol is known to be safe for the unborn, Henderson said any woman who could possibly become pregnant should abstain from alcohol.

“The fetus can be smaller than the size of a zero on a penny, and serious damage can result even before the woman knows she is pregnant,” Henderson said.

Emerging research also suggests that men who are trying to help their partners conceive should also curb their drinking, Fowler said.

For people who are not trying to have children but would like to drink on occasion, the key may be moderation. Many studies have shown that the most healthy, long-living populations in the world tend to be social, not abstinent drinkers.

In fact, there is also direct evidence to support benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, Syapin said. For example, one standard glass of red wine a day may contribute to heart health, and low levels of alcohol consumption have shown cognitive improvements in older women.

“The caveat is that many people don’t accurately measure four or five ounces of wine or stop at a single drink,” Syapin said. “In addition, women who drink for heart health still increase their risk for breast cancer.”

Drinking Responsibly is Complicated

According to the NIAAA, one standard drink in the U.S. contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in 12 ounces of regular beer, 4 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of liquor. Unfortunately, a standard drink varies by alcohol content and is sometimes difficult to know.

For example, although it is widely understood that one bottle or can of beer is one serving, ordering a cocktail at a restaurant or bar can be tricky. A single mixed drink made with hard liquor can contain one to three or more standard drinks.

In addition, a recent National Public Radio article highlighted a study that suggests the size and shape of a glass may encourage drinkers to overindulge. The study reports that visual cues, like the height of liquid left in a curved glass, can be deceiving.

Pacing oneself while drinking also comes down to timing, Syapin said. How fast you drink and how much you eat while drinking matters; so does a person’s body fat content and previous drinking history. The faster you drink, the higher your blood level will be, but alcohol absorption and elimination are different between individuals.

In general, drinking slowly while eating will allow your body to keep your blood alcohol concentration at a safer level than if you binge in short bouts.

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South Plains Alcohol and Addiction Research Center
SPAARC

The South Plains Alcohol and Addiction Research Center conducts translational, multidisciplinary and collaborative research to better understand the human consequences of alcohol and drug use.

The center aims to become a federally funded NIH Center of Excellence for training and research that contributes to the development of technologically advanced methods of patient care.

TTUHSC
TTUHSC

Beginning in 1969 as Texas Tech University School of Medicine, TTUHSC now is a six-school university with campuses in Abilene, Amarillo, Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, Lubbock, Midland and Odessa.

TTUHSC has trained more than 10,000 health care professionals, and meets the health care needs of more than 2.5 million people in the 108 counties including those in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico.

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