Although general guidelines exist to help people determine how much alcohol they can safely drink, the recommended limits do not guarantee safety for all people at all times. Many different factors must be taken into consideration.
Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol Consumption
The basic rule of thumb provided by dietary guidelines is that women should limit themselves to one alcoholic beverage per day. For men, the limit is two. Although a double on the rocks is served in a single glass, it does not count as only one drink by these guidelines. A single serving of 80-proof liquor is 1.5 ounces. For beer and wine, single servings are 12 ounces and five ounces respectively.
Servings should not be averaged over a period of time. For example, having seven drinks in one night but remaining sober the rest of the week is not safe. That level of consumption is considered binge drinking.
The alcohol content of a beverage determines the recommended serving size, so the guidelines may not fit every single brand or type of drink within a category. For example, microbrews and port wines often have higher alcohol percentages than standard beers and wines. No type of beverage is considered safer than any other type, either. Wine and liquor can be equally dangerous, although wine may have some health benefits.
Gender Differences in Alcohol Safety
Generally speaking, men can safely drink more than women. Not only are men usually larger than women, but they also have more water in their bodies because of their size. The water helps dilute the alcohol. If a large man and small woman drink the same amount, the woman's internal organs are exposed to greater concentrations of alcohol and byproducts than the man's are as it passes through their systems. This puts women at a greater risk of developing health problems associated with alcohol consumption.
No amount of alcohol is considered safe for pregnant women. Drinking while pregnant can cause birth defects or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Women who drink alcohol may also have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who do not.
Biological and Physical Factors
A person's genetic makeup can partly determine the effects alcohol has on him and, therefore, a safe amount of consumption for him. A person with a family history of alcoholism or addiction is at a higher risk of developing a dependency, so abstaining from alcohol may be a safer option for him than drinking in moderation.
Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and cirrhosis, can make alcohol consumption at any level unsafe. Alcohol is not safe for people who take certain prescription drugs, either. A person should factor in his overall physical condition when deciding how much he can safely drink. Having an empty stomach can make a single drink dangerous for people who have a low tolerance and plan to drive.
Alcohol use at any level is not safe for people who have a personal history of substance abuse or alcoholism. Sometimes, people who have been in recovery for a long time feel that they are in more control of themselves and that they are capable of drinking in moderation. This rarely proves to be the case. A recovered alcoholic remains an alcoholic, so he should not experiment with using alcohol socially.
People who are under intense amounts of stress may not be able to drink safely, either. They are at a higher risk of consuming too much and developing a dependency. This level of stress can result from major life events, such as divorce or death of a loved one, and it can also come from unhealthy living situations or demanding careers. People with mental health conditions, such clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, are also at a higher risk.
To determine a safe level of drinking, people must consider all of these factors in addition to the dietary guidelines. For many people, no amount is safe.