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Health column: Drinking one can be healthy, but when is one more too much?

April is Alcohol Awareness Month

LEXINGTON, Ky. — How do you know if you are drinking too much? This can be a difficult question to answer. Some research has shown that there may be health benefits of drinking small amounts of alcohol.

There are also risks associated with consumption of alcohol. Understanding your alcohol intake can help assess how alcohol may affect your health. Health care providers advise patients on “lower risk” amounts of alcohol intake. Drinking above the “lower risk” amounts can have negative impacts on health.

Each year, April is recognized as Alcohol Awareness Month to increase awareness and understanding of the causes and treatment of the nation’s No. 1 public health problem: alcoholism.

Assessing alcohol intake starts with counting the number “standard drinks” an individual has in a week.  A “standard drink” is equal to the following; a 12-ounce beer containing 5% alcohol, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5-ounce of liquor containing 40% alcohol. Women should have no more than one standard drink per day or no more than seven drinks per week.  Men should have no more than two standard drinks per day or no more than 14 drinks per week.

Men process alcohol differently than women. This explains discrepancy between recommended number of drinks. It is important to note that some health conditions or use of certain medications can make alcohol unsafe in any amount. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse on Alcoholism, consuming five drinks for men or four drinks for women on the same day within a couple hours is considered binge drinking.

Some studies have shown that one glass of wine per day may decrease blood pressure, but it is important to know that daily drinking of alcohol can increase blood pressure and also increase risk of stroke. Daily heavy alcohol use can be detrimental to memory, the heart, and liver, and can cause nerve damage.

While there is no way to determine what level of use will cause damage to these organs, but drinking above the recommended amounts can put people at risk for developing these conditions. Genetics and other health conditions play a role in this. In some cases, binge drinking is more harmful to the body than daily alcohol use. Talk to your provider about your health conditions and medications prior to using alcohol. If you are drinking above the recommended amounts of alcohol talk with your provider about your concerns.

If a person who is drinking alcohol daily stops abruptly, alcohol withdrawal symptoms may develop. Symptoms may include increase in anxiety, sweating, confusion, nausea, vomiting or hallucinations. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal and should be treated by a medical professional.

Alcohol use disorder is the medical term used for what used to be referred to as “alcoholism.” This occurs when an individual loses control over alcohol use. Alcohol use disorder is considered a chronic disease that should be treated, just like diabetes or hypertension.

Health care providers can help create a treatment plan that includes medications, therapy and involvement in mutual support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART recovery.  The UK SMART clinic at 245 Fountain Court in Lexington assesses alcohol use and can help address alcohol use and related health problems.

— By Danielle Anderson, M.D., addiction medicine specialist with UK HealthCare; assistant professor, UK Department of Psychiatry.