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Moderate vs. heavy drinking

Answers and insights from Tara Heeney, DO

Humans have been consuming intoxicating drinks for a long time — perhaps as long as 10 million years, according to one study. More recently, health care professionals, including Tara Heeney, DO, have been exploring the distinctions between moderate and heavy drinking. The questions and answers below are a great way to build your knowledge about this important subject. If you have additional questions, we’d love to hear from you or to see you in person, so reach out.

Q: Where is the line between “moderate” and “heavy” drinking?

For women, moderate drinking is fewer than two drinks per day; heavy drinking is more than three drinks per occasion or more than seven drinks per week.

For men, moderate drinking is fewer than three drinks per day; heavy drinking is more than four drinks per occasion or more than 14 drinks per week.

The limits are lower for women because they tend to have smaller bodies and less water to dilute alcohol, so the concentration of alcohol in their blood will be higher than in a man who drinks the same amount. 

Q: What are the lesser-known risks of heavy drinking?

The risks of alcoholism — liver disease and car accidents — are well known. But fewer people know that heavy drinking also may be associated with:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Increased risk of developing diabetes
  • Higher cancer risks, including cancers of the breast, pancreas, liver, lung and gastrointestinal system
  • Mental health problems
Q: How harmful is binge drinking?

Binge drinking — that is, drinking a lot in a short amount of time, such as four (for women) or five (for men) drinks in two hours — can be just as harmful to your health as heavy daily drinking — perhaps even more so. In addition to all the risks of heavy drinking, binge drinking also commonly leads to poor decision-making, injuries, alcohol poisoning and impaired driving. In fact, binge drinkers are 14 times more likely than nonbinge drinkers to drive while impaired.

Q: Can healthy behaviors counteract the negative effects of drinking?

Not exactly. While exercising and eating right are great things for your health, they don’t really counteract the negative effects of alcohol.

Q: Is alcohol more harmful for young people?

Yes. It’s significantly more dangerous for young people whose brains are still developing —  particularly teens — and can even cause permanent damage. Underage drinkers also are more likely to become alcohol dependent.

Q: Can moderate drinking be healthy and beneficial?

Possibly. Some studies suggest that moderate drinkers have lower mortality rates than both nondrinkers and heavy drinkers. The biggest benefit seems to be in men and women who average one drink daily. More studies are needed to confirm this, but, in general, moderation is key.

Q: What do you recommend for people who want to cut back on drinking?

Your primary care doctor can help you create a plan. We are not here to judge — we’re here to help.

Dr. Heeney is a family medicine physician at The Portland Clinic.