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Alcohol abuse - when does binge drinking lead to problems?

Published 07/04/2008

What does the phrase ‘binge drinking' mean to you? Does it make you think of large groups of giddy young women on a hen night fuelled by copious tequila shots? Or beer-swilling football fans drowning their sorrows in the aftermath of an ignominious sporting defeat?

Those examples would certainly seem to fit the mould - but in fact, binge drinking is quite difficult to define. Even the British Medical Association seems to have trouble pinning it down, but tends to use the term to refer to "heavy drinking, often with the intention of getting drunk, over an evening or similar time span", or to "the consumption of more than half the recommended maximum weekly number of alcohol units in a single night".

It's a tricky one, admits Mat Symington, addictions therapist at Linwood Manor. "Binge drinking can mean so many different things to different people. We tend to use it to define any episode of excessive drinking that has consequences to the drinker's health and well-being," he says.

But one thing IS clear from his years in practice, he says: the stereotypes of binge drinkers no longer apply. "As licensing laws and social habits have changed, more and more people have got caught up in drinking habits that they consider to be ‘normal', but which in fact impair their health, careers and family lives." As a consequence, he adds, alcohol abuse is no longer confined to any particular demographic group.

"We're seeing more and more people coming into treatment who have developed habits through the occasional episode of excessive drinking that have eventually landed them in real trouble with alcohol," he says. "They believe that their habits don't indicate any underlying problem because they only occur now and then - such as on the odd Friday night after a particularly busy week in the office."

However, such thinking can be dangerous. Alcoholics can be either ‘top-up drinkers' (that is, they take frequent and regular drinks) or binge drinkers - and, in fact, binge drinking can be the more dangerous form of alcoholism. That's because binge drinking causes blood sugar levels to rise and fall rapidly, which puts enormous strain on the body and can, in some cases, lead to diabetes.

And over time, many binge drinkers find that the duration of drinking sessions and the volumes consumed rise, as do the frequency of binges, without the drinker really noticing, says Symington. For some, it eventually develops into serious alcohol addiction that can only be addressed via specialist alcohol help.

The truth is that, in the modern world, very few people are safe from the dangers of alcohol abuse and more people are becoming alcoholic, regardless of their age, sex or social class.

"Many people make the mistake of considering themselves to be somehow ‘immune' to the risk of becoming alcoholic. But I often find that it's the ones who say that the odd episode of binge drinking won't affect them that we end up treating," he says.

The message is clear: binge drinking - in any of its many forms - isn't something to be dismissed with bravado. It's a path fraught with risk, but sadly, a well-worn one.

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