Chances are you’ve hit a few happy hours and let loose—that is, five or six drinks loose—on at least one recent Friday night. Even if you’re not the club-hopping type, chatting over beers at the corner bar has become a regular part of socializing. In fact, a new survey from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that Americans are drinking more than they did last year, or ever before, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that men are more likely than women to be moderate or heavy drinkers.
But since a healthy range of drinking is two to three beers a night, and you’ve probably had hangovers so bad you resolve to never, ever drink again—only to do the same thing to your body a week later—it begs the questions: How bad is your drinking habit for your health, and are you actually headed toward an alcohol problem?
“Binge drinking—considered more than five drinks for men—produces changes in our body that we may not feel immediately,” says Patricia Molina, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center of Excellence at Louisiana State University. One excessive night of boozing can suppress your immune system’s ability to fight an infection, delay healing of a broken bone, change your liver enzymes, and cause inflammation in the brain, she explains.
And while we all know that the more you drink, the more impaired your motor skills are, this applies to more than just drunk driving: When you fly past five drinks, your risk increases for falling over and spraining an ankle, burning yourself during a barbecue or tailgate, and getting in fights—whether physical or emotional—at bars or with your spouse, explains Thomas Babor, Ph.D., M.P.H., an associate scientific director at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Alcohol Research Center. You can also factor in the risk of blacking out from one too many drinks, which studies have shown increases your likelihood of participating in potentially dangerous activities, like vandalism or unprotected sex.
Then there’s the lifetime impact of indulging too often, which doesn’t stop at liver damage: In a massive study earlier this year, European researchers found that men who drank at least two shots of booze, two glasses of wine, or two beers every day for 10 years experienced greater memory loss and slowing of executive function, which controls things like attention span, strategic thinking, and mood.
What if you just drank a ton in college, then cleaned up your habits after receiving your first real paycheck? You’re minimizing long-term damage, but partying hard while your brain is still maturing disrupts its ability to make connections that allow for better functioning, reasoning, and thinking, says Dr. Molina. Some of these effects may not be totally reversible, she adds.
Boozing isn’t all bad, though. A handful of studies have shown moderate drinking—12-14 drinks a week for men—can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes, aid digestion, and lower stress.
But a recent study from the University of Chicago Medical Center found that heavy social drinkers who report greater reward and stimulation—like happiness and more energy—from alcohol are more likely to become alcoholics over time. Unwinding from work with a cold one—or two or three—causes your body and mind to crave the mood-booster more often. Compounded with the tolerance you build up, it becomes harder to control the number of drinks you’re having, Dr. Babor explains. Along with a family history of alcoholism and an addictive personality, this pattern can increase your risk for alcohol dependence.
Still, when you’re in the prime of life and will, theoretically, slow down when a house in the ‘burbs and babies come along, it’s hard not to take advantage of this lifestyle while you can. So how do you keep your drinking habits healthy without compromising your wild nights?
Take at least 2 days off from drinking per week, and never exceed five or six drinks a night, Dr. Babor advises. And make your drinks last: It takes about an hour to metabolize 1 ounce of alcohol, so aim for one drink per hour, he adds. (Studies show most bar-goers put away a pint every 23 minutes!) Also try switching between alcohol and water, or asking for extra ice in your mixed drink to help you stay hydrated.
If your tolerance is above all your friends, you crave a drink, you’ve recently gotten hurt because of being drunk, or your hangovers routinely interfere with your job, family, or school, all experts agree it’s time to cut back or seek help. Not sure if your habits qualify as unhealthy? Check out the NIAAA’s quiz that helps you assess whether your drinking patterns might be a problem.