Don’t Binge Drink on This St. Patrick’s Day

Alcohol is a large part of St. Patrick's Day when many cities across the United States are plunged into drunken chaos. Experts warn that binge drinking, even if practiced only a few times a year, has significant health risks.

St. Patrick's Day, which takes place every March 17, is a celebration of Irish culture, primarily associated with green clothing, corned beef, and large pints of beer.

The custom of excessive drinking makes the holiday one of the deadliest times on American roads. During the 2015-2019 St. Patrick's Day period, 280 lives were lost in drunk-driving crashes, according to Traffic Safety Monitoring data.

Victims are not only those who make the poor decision to drive under the influence. In 2019, 32% of the pedestrians killed in traffic crashes had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) at or above 0.08 g/dL, the legal limit for driving.

Even if you don't plan to find yourself behind the wheel after binge drinking this St. Patrick's Day, heavy alcohol consumption increases multiple health risks.

Dangers of binge drinking

Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks for men and at least four drinks for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One in six American adults binge drinks, with 25% doing so at least once a week. Most binge drinkers, however, are not dependent on alcohol and are aged 18–34.

The liver of an average-sized person can break down about one standard drink — a regular can of beer or a glass of wine — per hour. Drinking more alcohol than the liver can process increases blood alcohol content (BAC), strengthening the effects of alcohol on the body.

Timothy Naimi, M.D., M.P.H, a physician and alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center (BMC), tells Healthnews that binge drinking increases the risk of injuries, violence, including sexual assaults and domestic violence, and alcohol poisoning.

Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period can affect breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. It may also suppress the gag reflex, increasing the risk of choking on your own vomit if you pass out. As a result, alcohol poisoning may lead to coma and death.

Those who binge drink have an approximately 10 times higher chance of developing an alcohol use disorder, explains Brady K. Atwood, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Animal studies show that even one binge-drinking episode can produce changes in brain cell communication in parts of the brain that are involved in the development of addiction. Repeated episodes of binge drinking produce even worse changes in these addiction centers of the brain.

Atwood

Over time, excessive drinking may lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It can also cause liver disease, digestive problems, and some cancers, including bowel and breast cancers.

High alcohol consumption may weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to various diseases. Alcohol addiction is also linked to mental health problems like depression and anxiety, according to the CDC.

Naimi says that binge drinkers are at increased risk of dementia in later life and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract — the stomach, liver, and pancreas.

No amount of alcohol is safe

Moderate drinking has long been thought to be harmless, with anecdotes linking a glass of red wine to heart health benefits.

However, no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in 2023, pointing to the latest evidence that even low to moderate drinking increases the risk of several cancers and impairs brain function.

Historically, binge drinking has been more common among men. A 2016 study confirmed the closing male–female gap in indicators of alcohol use and related harms, with women's alcohol-related death rates increasing faster than men's.

Because women tend to have higher blood alcohol levels, the immediate effects of alcohol usually kick in more quickly and last longer than in men. This makes women more susceptible to long-term negative effects compared to their male counterparts.

Teens and young adults aged 12 to 20 account for 11% of alcohol consumption in the United States. The data leaves little doubt they will be among binge drinkers on St. Patrick's Day.

The risks of alcohol use are magnified in youth and include violence, risky sexual behavior, and mental health issues like depression and suicide.

Studies show that youths with alcohol use disorder have a noticeably smaller part of the brain responsible for forming new memories. Moreover, they have decreased ability planning and executive functioning, memory, spatial operations, and attention, all of which may impact academic performance.

Reducing the harm of binge drinking

St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner, and many may find it hard to resist several pints of frothy beer.

When asked how to reduce the harm of excessive drinking, Atwood puts it simply: "There's really no other answer than to not partake in binge drinking to begin with."

Meanwhile, scientists are looking for ways to cut or reduce binge drinking. A 2022 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry included 120 men who took Naltrexone, a drug approved for treating alcohol dependence before they were expecting to drink.

By the end of the 12-week study, those on Naltrexone reported binge drinking less frequently and consuming less alcohol than those who had been given a placebo. The change lasted for up to six months.

However, taking a pill before binge drinking may not be a sustainable solution, as the harm inflicted by alcohol may be irreversible.

Naimi says, "Don't do it in the first place. Seriously. Or drink less."


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