About a third of American adults drink too much. “Too much” means they consume enough alcohol to increase their risk for physical, mental and social problems, even death. Continuous alcohol use is linked to brain damage, high blood pressure, heart and liver disease, strokes, digestive problems, elevated cholesterol levels, depression and anxiety, reduced resistance to disease, several types of cancers, and alcohol dependence or alcoholism.

In addition to physical and mental health problems, continuous alcohol use increases the risk for:

  • Unintentional injuries such as car accidents, falls, drownings, burns and firearm injuries
  • Violence, including child abuse and intimate partner abuse, homicide and suicide
  • Harm to a developing fetus if a woman drinks while pregnant, called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Lost productivity/job loss
  • Financial problems or inability to support your family
  • Deteriorating family and personal relationships

About 90,000 Americans die every year because of their alcohol use or from its complications. Almost one in three traffic deaths is alcohol-related, making it the third leading cause of preventable death. In Arkansas, about 1,000 deaths a year are due to excessive alcohol use.

How much is too much?

You don’t have to be alcohol dependent to engage in excessive drinking. Men under the age of 65 should consume no more than four “standard” drinks per day or no more than 14 drinks per week. Men over age 65, and women of any age, should consume no more than three drinks per day or seven drinks per week.

It’s the amount of alcohol consumed that affects a person most, not the type of alcoholic drink. A standard drink contains about a half ounce of pure alcohol. Generally, this amount of alcohol is contained in each of the following drinks:

  • 12-ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
  • 8-ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol)
  • 5-ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5-ounces or a “shot glass” of 80-proof distilled liquor such as gin, rum, vodka, whiskey (80-proof equals 40% alcohol content)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women are binge drinkers. Binge drinking means a man has five or more drinks in about two hours; women have four or more in two hours. In Arkansas, 13 percent of adults report binge drinking; 5 percent report heavy drinking. Heavy drinking is five or more drinks on the same occasion, during five or more days in the past month.

Alcohol and depression

Many depressed people drink too much to feel better. It’s also true that many people who drink too much are actually depressed, drinking to try to lift the depression. Both of these responses are dangerous. They can make depression worse; worsen alcohol or drug abuse, or even cause death from suicide.

Does alcohol abuse lead to depression, or are depressed people more prone to alcohol abuse? Both are possible, but often the depression comes first. Alcohol is a depressant that only makes you more depressed and increases the number of times you have episodes of severe depression. At least 30 to 50 percent of people who drink too much are also depressed. Drinking alcohol also makes antidepressant medications less effective.

Depressed people who drink are more likely to commit suicide. Alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression as the most frequent suicide risk factor. About 75 percent of people who died by suicide had one or more drugs in their body; many had taken both drugs and alcohol.

Addiction is a personal journey

Addictions come in many shapes and sizes. We’ve all been affected in some way by them, whether it is our own struggles or that of a friend or family member.

Read about one person’s journey from alcoholism to hope.

Alcohol reduces inhibitions, making it easier to do something you wouldn’t do if you were sober. If sober, you wouldn’t even think about suicide. But, if you’ve been drinking, it’s easier to act on an impulse, go against your good judgement and harm yourself or others.

Men are more likely to feel shame about their depression, and try to tough it out without medical help. Men more frequently use alcohol to lessen their depression. This is especially dangerous because men are four times more likely than women to die by suicide.

Drinking to “self-medicate” does more harm than good. The “high” from drinking alcohol only lasts a little while; afterwards, the depression is worse.

Treatment options

If you have concerns about your alcohol use, or that of a loved one, start the discussion with your primary care provider or other health care professional. Medications are available that help reduce drinking behavior and avoid relapse. Three medications, naltrexone (ReVia®), acamprosate (Campral®) and disulfiram (Antabuse®), have been ap­proved by the Food and Drug Admin­istration for the treatment of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression or overuse of alcohol, there is help and hope. Please call these free helplines – a name is not required.

  • Arkansas Crisis Hotline 1-888-274-7472
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
  • National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service, available at 1-800-662-HELP, can provide information about local treatment programs and let you to speak with someone about alcohol problems
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s site here