How Much Alcohol Is Safe to Drink Daily?
Alcohol is second to only tobacco as the most widely-used substance in the United States. In recent surveys, more than 86% of people ages 18 and over reported drinking alcohol at some point in their life.1 Even though moderate drinking is common in many cultures, anyone who chooses to drink alcohol daily must remain aware of its potential risks.
Despite the perception that alcohol is somewhat distinct from other drugs, alcohol is in fact one of the most addictive substances consumed worldwide. Drinking is by no means an entirely benign pastime. Alcohol consumption, though somewhat normalized, results in more than 3 million alcohol-related deaths each year throughout the world.2
Increasingly so, many argue that the only safe amount of alcohol to drink is none at all. However, to minimize the myriad of potential health risks, people who choose to drink should weigh certain biological, psychological, and environmental factors. The daily amount of alcohol that constitutes low-risk drinking may differ from one person to the next. The following components can potentially influence the amount of alcohol that is safe for someone to drink:3
- Concurrent use of other drugs, including both certain prescribed or over-the-counter medications
- General mental and physical health status
- Genetic influences
Although general guidelines exist to help people determine how much alcohol they can drink while minimizing health risks, recommended authoritative limits do not guarantee safety for every individual. Drinking responsibly requires an awareness of how much you, as an individual, can consume without becoming impaired or otherwise under the control of alcohol. Excessive drinking can lead to irreversible health-related or social consequences.1,4
Drinking While Pregnant
Women who are pregnant should not consume alcohol. There is no amount of alcohol that is completely safe for pregnant women to consume. Drinking while pregnant exposes the developing baby to the potentially-toxic effects of alcohol and increases the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.5 Even women who are breastfeeding are encouraged to abstain from drinking, as exposure to alcohol in breastmilk could unintentionally hurt an infant by impairing growth and cognitive development.4,6
Dietary Guidelines For Safe Levels Of Alcohol Consumption
It has long been debated whether there actually is any amount of alcohol that constitutes a safe amount to drink.
According to the US Dietary Guidelines, 2015-2020, people should limit their alcohol-related risks by drinking in moderation, meaning up to 1 serving of alcohol per day for women and up to 2 servings per day for men.4 Daily drinking may indeed be harmful for you, especially if you suffer from certain health conditions, mental health issues, or have a family history of substance use disorders.
What Is One Serving of Alcohol?
One alcoholic drink-equivalent totals as:4
- 12 ounces of beer (containing an average percentage of 5% alcohol).
- 5 ounces of wine (containing an average percentage of 12% alcohol).
- 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (containing an average percentage of around 40% alcohol).
Be aware that these are rough guidelines. These protocols may not apply to every single brand or type of drink within a particular category of spirits. In fact, most drinks served at bars tend to be larger than these suggested serving sizes.7 No alcoholic beverage is currently considered safer than any other type of spirit, either.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
There is no clear-cut way to determine how much alcohol is “too much” to drink. Each individual’s body chemistry is unique and situations in which alcohol is being consumed will naturally vary. Increasingly so, researchers investigating the global impact of substance use on health and disease are making arguments that even small amounts of alcohol can be detrimental to our health, and that the associated risks rise with increased levels of consumption.8
When it comes to the amount of drinking, there are patterns of alcohol consumption—such as binge drinking—that can greatly increase several types of health risks.
- For example, binge drinking is associated with increased:9
- Risk of violence.
- Injuries, such as car crashes and fall-related injuries.
- Heart disease.
- Certain types of cancer.
- Memory and learning issues.
- Alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose.
- Alcohol use disorder (AUD).
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is not defined by a specific number of drinks people have, but by the blood alcohol content (BAC) they reach while drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption that raises the BAC to 0.08 or above.1
Typically, women may reach this BAC by having 4 or more drinks in a span of 2 hours. In men, this may be reached by having around 5 or more drinks in 2 hours.4 Similarly, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more for men in the same sitting (i.e., at the same time or within a few hours of each other), with such a pattern taking place at least once during the past month.1
What Is Excessive Drinking?
The concept of excessive alcohol consumption, or “heavy drinking” may also encompass binge drinking. However, excessive alcohol consumption also refers to when women have more than 8 drinks in one week, and when men have 15 or more drinks in one week. In comparison, as mentioned above, binge drinking refers more to having 4 or more drinks for women or 5 or more drinks for men in a time span of two hours.4
How Long Does It Take To Get Drunk?
Several factors affect how alcohol long it takes for someone to feel intoxicated, such as weight, how much someone has eaten that day, and even the amount of water in their body which can influence the rate at which a person’s BAC rises.10 In many instances, someone may begin to feel the effects of alcohol within 30 minutes of consuming an alcoholic beverage, depending on their BAC.
Biological and Genetic Factors
Certain genes may confer differences in the ability to metabolize alcohol in the body, which can influence the rate at which alcohol blood levels rise and fall. Genetic heritability also plays a role in the likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder. For instance, a person with a family history of alcoholism or addiction may be at a higher risk of developing problematic patterns of drinking, so abstaining from alcohol may be a safer option for this person than consuming any amount of alcohol.11
Certain medical conditions such as the following can make drinking any amount of alcohol very dangerous:
- Heart conditions
Certain medications can make daily alcohol consumption unsafe at any level and for any individual. Alcohol is generally not recommended for people who take certain prescription drugs. A person should consider his or her overall physical health, medical conditions, and the medications they are taking before deciding how much alcohol is safe for them to drink each day.
Mental health issues and substance use disorders, including alcohol use disorders commonly co-occur. Struggling with a mental health disorder can influence the likelihood of developing patterns of problematic drinking and, conversely, having an alcohol use disorder can increase the risk of developing significant psychiatric issues. The potential interplay of both can worsen the course and treatment of the other. Many healthcare professionals advise that those with certain psychological conditions (including those people who might experience adverse interactions between alcohol and their psychiatric medications) steer clear of drinking alcohol.12
In many cases of compulsive alcohol use, people lose control over the ability to regulate their patterns of drinking. For those not struggling with such compulsive patterns of use, the amount of alcohol one consumes may be more of a personal choice—but not one that people should weigh lightly because of the myriad risks to health, including the potential for eventual alcohol use disorder development. To determine their safe level of drinking, people must consider the biological, environmental, and psychological factors that could affect their safety while drinking, while also abiding by the recommendations set forth in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. And, as always, the absolute safest level of drinking remains none at all.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2020). Alcohol Facts and Statistics
- World Health Organization (2018). Alcohol
- Bowling Green State University. (2020) Factors that Affect Intoxication
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2020). Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Alcohol and Public Health
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Breastfeeding
- Health Direct (2020). Managing Your Alcohol Intake
- U.S. National Library of Medicine (2018). Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories; 1990-2016: a systematic analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Binge Drinking
- Oxford Academic (2016). Impulsivity Moderates Subjective Responses to Alcohol in Alcohol-Respondent Individuals
- National Institutes of Health (2013). Genetics and alcoholism
- Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.