WHEN was the last time you woke up the morning after a night out drinking, filled with dread?
“What did I say to my boss? How did I get that bruise? Did I kiss my friend?”
Whether you sank four wines or eight, by definition, you could be a serial binge drinker.
Binge drinking is when you have a lot of alcohol in a short space of time.
It’s not the same as alcohol dependence, but it can be the start of it.
Health officials say it's better to spread your alcohol intake out over a week, for example having one drink a day rather than having several at the end of the week, suggesting the latter is worse for your health.
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But drinking too much every day is problematic in its own right.
We ask the experts what binge drinking is, how dangerous can it be, and the signs you are doing it.
What is binge drinking?
Binge drinking is defined by health officials as consuming more than six (for women) or eight (for men) units of alcohol in one sitting.
That’s the equivalent of three to four pints or three to four medium glasses of wine.
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It means binge drinking can be both a big night out at the weekend, but also half a bottle of wine on the sofa.
Christy Osborne, 40, who went sober in 2020, said she wasn’t aware her daily habit of having three glasses of wine every evening when the kids had gone to bed was classed as “binge drinking”.
She said: “When we think of binge drinking, we think of that person sitting with a brown paper bag on a park bench.
“In reality, it could be like me – a mum sitting at home on the sofa with two kids upstairs, finishing off the bottle of wine, not remembering what she's watching on TV.”
For some, however, having four pints of beer is hardly enough to feel drunk, let alone wasted.
The oversimplified definition of binge drinking contributes to a lack of understanding about what binge drinking really is, and its true prevalence, experts say.
Dr Niall Campbell, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton and a UK alcohol addiction expert, said: “Units are not based on any scientific fact.
“They are just a guideline to make people think about it. But people who are binge drinking aren’t thinking about that.”
Colin Angus, a senior research fellow in the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, said: “The more we understand that, actually, it's a spectrum, and there are people right across the spectrum, the more we can make sense of what's going on.”
What are the signs of binge drinking?
Other than the measurement of units, a number of assessment tools determine if someone has a drinking problem based on their emotions and behaviour.
They ask questions such as;
- How often you’ve felt guilt after boozing
- If you’ve ever gotten yourself or someone else injured
- How often you’ve been unable to remember what happened the night before
Christy, who is now a sobriety coach and founder of Love Life Sober, remembers the moment she realised her drinking was out of control.
She told The Sun: “I lost my mum and I was drinking to handle really hard grief.
“I knew I was drinking too much and numbing out stuff that I didn't want to feel.
“It was also a way to de-stress, to connect with my husband. I thought it made me more fun.
“I was drinking between one and three glasses of wine or more every night.
“On a girl’s night out, when we’d go to a nice restaurant, I would have up to seven drinks.
“On the second anniversary of my mum’s death, in 2020, I was lying in bed with a bad hangover scrolling through my Instagram page.
“I was looking at all these photos of me on all these great holidays and I looked really put together.
“But it just didn’t feel like an authentic representation of me, because I just felt like rubbish.
“I woke up that day and thought, ‘I don't want to do this anymore. I can't feel like this. I just feel awful. I have to try something different.’”
Christy said: “Most of my clients are mums and they're exhausted, they're not sleeping properly, they don't have patience with their kids, and may be fighting with their husband.
“They view alcohol as a reward.
“Maybe they're not showing up to work the way that they want to, and they just realised it's time for a break.”
Is binge drinking worse than daily drinking?
UK Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) advise that to keep the risk from alcohol low, adults should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
They add: “If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it’s best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days.”
Does this mean, therefore, that binge drinking is considered worse than daily drinking?
Angus said: “Some of the health risks of alcohol are associated purely with intoxication, so you're at higher risk of those kinds of immediate acute consequences of your drinking, such as falling down the stairs or getting drunk.”
Binge drinking can lead to accidents and injury, slower reaction times and impaired decision making, which could lead to risky behaviour.
Dr Campbell said: “There are the physical consequences of falling over and having accidents, but what about doing things that you wish you hadn't done?
“Getting into relationships or having sex with people who wish you hadn't? The consequences of that are enormous.”
A hangover may seem standard, but Dr Campbell warned: “We're all familiar with feeling sick, shaky, and sweaty. But also, you're more prone to anxiety attacks.
“People commonly in London [are having] panic attacks on the tube because they’re frightened to go to work.
“Heavily drinking spirits can lead to alcohol poisoning – that's what killed Amy Winehouse.”
Angus said: “Lots of people will argue about whether overall, there's a benefit of drinking or not to your cardiovascular health.
“But what there isn't any argument about is that if you binge drink, it's definitely worse for your heart.”
The long-term health effects of binge drinking – such as whether it leads to alcohol dependence – are harder to prove.
However, Angus said: ”I think what is clear is that dependent drinkers are an extremely diverse group.
“Although you might have an image in your head of what a dependent drinker looks like, actually, they come from all sorts of different walks of life and behave in all sorts of different ways, and drink all kinds of different drinks in different settings.
“There's a lot of different possible pathways [to alcohol dependence].”
How common is binge drinking?
Statistics suggest binge drinking worsened during the Covid pandemic, and there are yet to be improvements.
The Alcohol Toolkit Survey, carried out every month, shows that 11 per cent of people report binge drinking at least once a week, up from eight per cent pre-Covid.
Dr Campbell said: “Working from home has enabled people to be binge drinkers. ‘Thursday is the new Friday’ – and now we can work from home on Friday.”
Other surveys, such as those from Drinkaware, suggest binge drinking has generally decreased over the past five years.
However, Angus said these figures may be driven by a drop in drinking in young people.
On the other hand, those who are in mid-life and older are drinking more heavily.
Estimates suggest one per cent of the adult population is alcohol dependent.
A further four per cent are the heaviest and riskiest drinkers, consuming 35 (women) to 50 (men) units per week.
Angus said: “People don’t recognise that they fall into that group, because they might think, ‘Well, I'm not suffering any immediate health consequences of my drinking, so it can't be a problem’.
“We tend to hang around people who behave similarly to us. So your circle of friends, they'll often be drinking at a similar level to you. And so that seems perfectly normal.”
Drinkaware says its digital tools can help you assess, track and set goals to reduce your drinking.
Christy said: “So often we like to label people as either an alcoholic or a problem drinker, or a normal drinker.
“In reality, if drinking is not making you feel good, but it's become so normalised for you, then you can take a break. It's not a shameful thing.”
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Angus agreed that you don’t need to hit a certain threshold to consider your drinking habits.
He added: “However heavily you're drinking, if you think making a radical change to your life doesn't feel achievable, even just making a small change will be beneficial.”
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