How much is too much alcohol?

Maybe you have a glass of wine with dinner regularly. Or maybe you have a few drinks out with the girls every week. Unless you don’t drink at all, you’ve probably wondered at some point how much you should be drinking.

It’s kind-of a trick question — there’s not a definitive answer that applies to every person. How much you personally can safely drink depends on your age, body size, genetics, gender, weight and a number of other factors. If you’re concerned you may be drinking too much, talk with your doctor for personalized advice based off your health and your family health history.

But let’s take a look at some general information related to alcohol consumption.

The basic guidelines

Most health organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association recommend adults stick with moderate drinking. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture define moderate drinking as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.

For men, drinking 15 or more alcoholic beverages per week is considered heavy drinking, while for women, any more than seven is considered heavy drinking.

What’s in a serving

The tricky part about alcohol consumption is that you may be drinking more than one serving of alcohol in one drink. Because a serving is based on how much pure alcohol is in a drink, serving size varies by type of alcohol.

A serving equals:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, such as tequila, or liquor, such as gin, vodka or whiskey

Because of this, it’s important to consider the actual amount of alcohol you’re drinking, rather than simply counting an individual beverage as one drink. That mixed drink you’re having may actually contain two or three servings of alcohol.

Alcohol consumption & health

Over the years, studies have found that moderate alcohol consumption may lower a person’s risk of heart disease, gallstones and Type 2 diabetes, among other conditions. In particular, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol has been linked with raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, which are often referred to as the “good” cholesterol because of their heart-healthy effects.

However, the key to obtaining health benefits from alcohol consumption is moderation. When your alcohol consumption crosses the line between moderate and heavy drinking — even if just for a brief period of time — you can seriously harm your body.

Heavy drinking can cause liver inflammation and scarring, increase blood pressure levels, and damage heart muscle. Excessive alcohol consumption has also been linked with several types of cancer, particularly in smokers.

The takeaway

It’s important to pay attention to your drinking habits. If you find you’re regularly stepping over the line into heavy alcohol consumption, take steps to moderate your drinking.

At your next checkup, be honest with your doctor about your drinking habits. If you think you’re drinking too much, he or she can offer suggestions and resources to help you cut back or stop drinking entirely.

Don’t have a primary care physician? Establish a relationship with one you can trust. Find one here.