According to the charity Alcohol Change UK, more than a quarter (27%) of people who drink in the UK say that they binge drink on their heaviest days of drinking. Binge drinking refers to downing relatively large amounts of alcohol in a short space of time. But what is the precise definition of binge drinking and how does binge drinking affect your health? Read on to find out…


What is binge drinking?

Taken in moderation, alcohol is not always harmful and some studies suggest it can even be beneficial. Drinking can be good for the heart and circulatory system and potentially provide some protection against type 2 diabetes and gallstones. It doesn’t take much for alcohol consumption to rise though, and you don’t have to be in the grip of full-blown alcohol addiction in order to experience the negative effects of alcohol. You might also be surprised at the levels of drinking that are considered to be potentially harmful and that are classified as binge drinking.

The Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines for both men and women say that you “are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week, to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level”.

Note that the guidelines do not say that drinking under this amount is safe, just that it keeps the health risks lower.

The guidance adds: “If you do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over 3 days or more. If you have one or two heavy drinking sessions, you increase your risks of death from long term illnesses and from accidents and injuries.”

The NHS says that binge drinking is when you drink more than 8 units in a single session for men, and 6 units for women. That is the equivalent of four lower-strength (3.6%) pints of beer for men or three standard glasses of wine for women. Other organisations may have their own definitions – the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that binge drinking is “consuming 4 or more drinks on an occasion for a woman or 5 or more drinks on an occasion for a man”.


Signs of binge drinking

Binge drinking can have a number of adverse effects in its own right. There are always risks when you consume excessive alcohol in a single session but repeated or regular binge drinking can also lead to alcohol dependency or an alcohol use disorder. If you think you have a problem with your drinking, it is always best to seek help immediately, whether that is through your GP or contacting an alcohol rehab for advice.

Some signs that your binge drinking may be becoming a problem include:

  • Strong cravings for alcohol
  • Drinking more than you planned to
  • Having no ‘off switch’ – finding it difficult to stop once you have started
  • Drinking earlier in the day or more regularly
  • Getting defensive about your drinking
  • Avoiding activities where you can’t drink
  • Dangerous or inappropriate behaviour when drinking
  • Withdrawal symptoms when you do not drink
  • Having gaps in your memory or ‘blacking out’


Short term effects of binge drinking

Even a single session of heavy drinking can have serious impacts on your life and overall health. Getting very drunk can have a serious effect on your brain and body, potentially leading to sickness and vomiting, dehydration, slowed breathing and heart rate and, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, heart attack, coma and even death. According to the Alcohol Education Trust, there were more than 500 deaths directly from alcohol poisoning in the UK in 2018. There were far more hospitalisations and binge drinkers can also put themselves at risk in other ways.

Drinking alcohol to excess can affect your judgement, coordination, mood and behaviour. This can lead to you making poor decisions and indulging in risky or even criminal behaviour. This could involve an increased risk of injury through accident, indulging in unprotected sex, getting involved in fights and other harmful behaviours.

The Alcohol Education Trust stats suggest that a third (35%) of all accident and emergency attendance and ambulance costs in England are linked to alcohol. Alcohol is thought to be a contributory factor in 13% of pedestrian road deaths and alcohol consumption has been connected to 21% of deaths in males and 9% of deaths in females in the 16-24 age group. Additionally, 39% of all victims of violence in England and Wales said their attacker was affected by alcohol at the time.


Long term effects of binge drinking

While one episode of binge drinking can be risky, repeated heavy drinking can be connected to even worse physical and mental health problems. Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49-year-olds in the UK, and the fifth-biggest risk factor across all ages.7 Regular binge drinkers combine the short-term impacts that could occur during every drinking session with the cumulative health effects that build up over time.

These can include various types of cancer, heart disease, liver disease, stroke and brain damage. Women who binge drink in pregnancy risk causing harm to their baby and prolonged heavy drinking can easily lead to addiction. Physical dependency may require alcohol detox and holistic addiction treatment may be needed to help you deal with the root causes of your drinking and associated behaviours.


Binge Drinking Prevention

If you feel you have a problem with your drinking, you might be able to rein in your alcohol consumption in a few simple ways. You could switch your regular drink to a less alcoholic version, use smaller measures and avoid situations where you know there will be heavy drinking.

The addictive nature of alcohol can make it difficult to cut down or quit without help, however. Addiction changes the way your system reacts to alcohol and can affect areas of the brain to do with pleasure, reward and impulse control. If you have a serious addiction problem, evidence-based treatment programmes offer your best chance of overcoming your drinking and will usually include detox, therapies aimed at relapse prevention and an aftercare programme to provide vital support after you leave.



Ocean Recovery - Author - Last updated: January 21, 2022