In the United States, as is the case with many countries, alcohol is part of the history of the country and part of the culture. From California wine country to Kentucky bourbon, there is a lot of pride taken in the wine and alcohol we produce, and most special occasions—or even just the weekend—are celebrated with at least a couple of drinks. The majority of Americans are occasional or social drinkers—but can social drinking put you at risk? And what does social drinker mean?
The Fine Line Between Social Drinking and Alcoholism
What is social drinking? Many people struggle to understand the difference between different types of imbibing and to define social drinker in particular. So, what is a social drinker? In general, there are four types: social, binge, problem, and alcoholism. The definitions for each type of imbibing vary depending on the source and are measured in drinks per day. In general, a drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Below is the social drinking definition as well as those for binge drinking, problem drinking, and alcoholism.
- Social Drinking: The drinker consumes somewhere between one and 14 alcohol drinks per week.
- Binge Drinking: The drinker consumes more than four alcohol drinks within two hours if female and more than five drinks in two hours if male.
- Problem Drinking: The drinker consumes alcohol drinks in the same manner as a binge drinker but on a very frequent basis—even daily—but when faced with a situation where there imbibing starts to negatively affect their life, they can stop drinking.
- Alcoholism: The drinker consumes alcohol in a wide variety of manners, from daily binging to a single drink every so many days, but their relationship with alcohol is one of compulsion or dependence that is not deterred by the negative impact their imbibing has on themselves and their lives.
What these definitions show us is that both occasional drinkers and binge drinkers can also be alcoholics; in other words, the issue is not one of social drinker vs. alcoholic or social drinker vs. moderate drinker.
Additionally, many people who are alcoholics consider themselves problem drinkers because they are convinced they could stop using alcohol if they wanted to, even if they have yet to do so despite negative consequences associated with their imbibing.
Is Social Drinking Dangerous?
Because occasional drinkers can be hidden alcoholics, as per the social drinker definition above, occasional imbibing is automatically dangerous. However, there are other risks that are associated with social imbibing even if the drinker never develops alcoholism. Below are just some of the social drinking problems one can experience when regularly engaging in social consumption of alcohol.
- Heart Arrhythmia: Because alcohol disrupts the natural function of bodily systems, it can cause the heart to race or beat irregularly. This usually occurs when the social drinker ends up transitioning into binge drinking for the night.
- Fertility Problems: Drinking five or more alcohol drinks per week can decrease the quality of men’s sperm and lower testosterone, making it harder to have a child. It has also been found to have an impact on fertility in women, but the exact reason is not clear.
- Arthritis: Because alcohol can trigger inflammation in the body, those who have arthritis can experience increased symptoms when drinking. This can occur with just one drink.
- Glucose Imbalance: Drinking even one drink in a day can see a drop in blood sugar, and the more sugary the drink consumed, the more significant the imbalance will be. This can lead to dizziness, confusion, cravings for unhealthy foods, and in diabetics, a medical emergency.
Ways of drinking safely
- While it can be argued that the safest way to drink is not to drink at all, for many, that is unrealistic. As long as the drinker does not suffer from alcoholism, they should be able to safely engage in occasional imbibing by keeping the following safe-drinking guidelines in mind:
- If taking medication, make certain it is not contraindicated for alcohol consumption.
- Eat food before imbibing to help slow the speed of absorption and reduce the effects.
- If thirsty, drink water before consuming alcoholic drinks.
- Avoiding consuming alcohol when stressed, upset, or tired.
- Do not make getting drunk a goal of imbibing.
- Never consume more than 14 alcoholic drinks in a week and spread these drinks out over a minimum of three days.
- Have several drink-free days every week.
Signs of Alcoholism
Anyone who engages in any form of drinking, even if only social imbibing, needs to know the signs of alcoholism. As noted above, even occasional drinkers can be alcoholics because alcoholism is not about how many drinks are consumed but the relationship the drinker has with alcohol; the social drinker meaning shows us that the two can overlap. Alcoholism—clinically called alcohol use disorder—can be mild, moderate, or severe, but no matter the severity of the disease, treatment is needed. If two or more of the following signs are observed, treatment for alcoholism should be sought.
- More than once a year, the user drinks more or for longer than originally intended.
- The user has attempted to cut back on drinking or stop imbibing but was unable to.
- Cravings for drinks are felt at least once a week.
- Cravings for drinks are felt in response to emotionally taxing events.
- The user puts having a drink ahead of family, work, or community concerns.
- Despite negative health consequences, the user continues to drink.
- When imbibing, has engaged in risk-taking behaviors such as unsafe sex or driving while intoxicated.
- The user notices that drinking triggers depression or anxiety yet continues to drink.
- More alcohol is required to realize the desired effect.
- When going several days between drinks, withdrawal symptoms are experienced.
- The user has had run-ins with the law due to their imbibing.
- Significant time is given to thinking about imbibing or planning the next drink.
- Occasional drinking stops being social and is done alone in an effort to hide the habit.
- Anger is felt when others question the user’s drinking habits.
- The user seeks excuses for drinking at times or places that imbibing would not usually be acceptable.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
If a social drinker is suffering from alcoholism, recovery means seeking treatment. Unlike those who suffer from problem drinking, those with alcoholism are almost never able to stop imbibing without assistance. In addition to rehabilitation treatment, the user will need to be part of a recovery program that helps them continue to say no to drinking after the rehabilitation program is complete.
The rehabilitation program will likely include both behavioral and pharmaceutical therapy. Common types of behaviors therapy include cognitive-behavior therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and marital and family counseling therapy. Medications can include Naltrexone, Acamprosate, and Disulfiram. Depending on the needs of the user, the medications may be taken for many years after rehabilitation is complete.
Rehabilitation centers that help users recover from alcohol addiction are located across the country, ensuring that there is one nearby no matter where the user is located. These centers offer both residential and outpatient care, giving those looking to break the bonds of addiction flexibility in their treatment. There should never be a reason that prevents social drinkers with alcoholism from getting the help they need.
It is also important to note that many suffering from alcoholism wonder: can an alcoholic become a social drinker? This is a sign that the alcoholic is afraid to give up drinking entirely. However, because social drinkers can be alcoholics, the only way to deal with an alcohol use disorder is to stop drinking.
Social drinking can put you at risk
While seemingly benign, social imbibing is ultimately risky, especially for those who are predisposed to addiction or exhibit addictive behaviors. It is important that anyone who drinks, no matter how infrequently, is aware of the signs of alcohol abuse and seeks treatment if they observe two or more signs in themselves. Ultimately, there is no shame in having a problem with alcohol; millions of people do. But with treatment, a better life is possible.