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How much alcohol is too much

As a psychologist that practices in Calgary’s central downtown core, I am regularly asked the question, “How much alcohol is too much?” My clients, for the most part, are high performing professionals. Some may drink too much for all sorts of reasons.

Some professionals feel pressured to drink to keep up with the crowd when they attend work events or are out with clients. They say that ordering a coke or saying, “I don’t drink,” will cause them to be viewed as either prudes or recovering alcoholics. They don’t want to be seen as either because they perceive this will jeopardize their careers.

Some drink in the evening as a reward after putting in a long day’s work. Others drink to help their brains turn off so they can fall asleep at night. Some have an interest in wine or scotch, and enjoy the pleasures of indulging themselves. Others only drink on Friday nights to celebrate the end of the work week. Some drink with family members or friends because they will be ostracized if they don’t. Others have successfully stopped for a period of time because their drinking had become excessive. They believe this period of sobriety proves they can stop at any time, and thus don’t have a problem. Some tell me that they have a problem.

The definition that psychologists use to identify when someone has a problem with alcohol is when they “drink more than intended for longer than intended.” In colloquial terms, this means they are alcoholic.

But what guideline do I give when I am asked, “How much is too much?”

I used to tell people, “More than 14 drinks is a red flag,” but the response I’ve received to this has been disappointing.

Too frequently, I’ve heard, “Okay, I’ll get my drinking down to 14 drinks a week.”

The problem with using this number as a goal is that 14 drinks a week leaves the person in the danger zone. They are still harming their hearts, exposing themselves to elevated cancer risks, and shortening their lives. They are still active alcoholics.

They are also not managing their stress effectively. Instead, they’re self-medicating so they won’t feel their stress, pain, or depression. I would much prefer it if they were to hire a personal trainer and use regular exercise to combat their stress.

I have started to give people a much better answer than 14 drinks a week. I now tell them that it’s safe for men to have eight drinks a week, and for women to have six. These numbers are still high, and they still leave me concerned, but they are much more realistic than 14.

In the end, if you aren’t prepared to stop drinking, or to reduce your drinking to a lower, healthier number of drinks a week, then cutting back at all is still a good idea. For example, if you currently have 5 drinks a day (35 drinks a week), then cutting down to 2 drinks a day (14 drinks a week) will be a huge success.

This approach is called harm reduction. My hope, if this is you, is that you will discover you feel better drinking less than you used to and will become motivated to cut back even further.

You may want to cut back to zero drinks a week for several reasons. You may be taking antidepressants to help you manage depression. If this is the case, no antidepressant can overcome the effects of alcohol because alcohol is a depressant. If you really want to feel better, stop drinking as an experiment and discover what happens.

If you have an illness, not drinking in general is also a good idea. Whether you’re being treated for diabetes, or Multiple Sclerosis, or cancer, give your body its best chances for a good outcome and remove the added stresses that drinking puts on your body.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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