Imagine this scene. You’re supposed to grab dinner with some friends after work on Friday. Last weekend you went overboard with the binge drinking and paid for it dearly well into Tuesday, so you’ve decided to “take it easy” this weekend. You’ll just have a glass of wine or beer with dinner and make it an early evening, maybe even hit up the gym Saturday morning. There’s a class you’ve been meaning to check out.
Except at dinner, that glass of wine felt really good and you were having such a good conversation with your friends. You didn’t want that vibe to end, so somebody (maybe it was you) suggested taking the party to the bar next door and before you know it, you’re laying in your bed with the spins at 3 o’clock in the morning. You’ve got your trusted puke bucket by your side, a notification on your phone that you just spent a small fortune that evening, and a swirling voice in your head begging to know why you insist on doing this to yourself.
Side Effects of Binge Drinking
Binge drinking, as you probably know, is wreaking havoc on your beautiful body. What qualifies as binge drinking? According to the CDC, binge drinking is 4 or more drinks within the span of 2 hours for women and 5 or more within the same timespan for men. At this point, you may be blushing a little because you know you’ve downed twice that amount in two hours on more than one occasion.
We know that binge drinking increases the chances of us making an ass of ourselves and feeling pretty horrible the next day or two, but what else could be going on?
Why Do People Binge Drink?
We’ve all been guilty of going out, overdoing it, swearing that we would NEVER do that again and then, of course we do it again.
As far as symptoms go, the hangover from binge drinking is somewhere around the vicinity of the flu meets food poisoning meets dying of thirst. Yet we go through it ON PURPOSE.
Sure, we all have our own reasons for doing the dumb things that we do, but on a scientific level, what is driving us to binge?
Let’s geek out for a minute.
According to a new study recently published in Forbes, scientists may know the answer. Alcohol “works” by stimulating neurons in the “pleasure center” of our brains which releases dopamine (that happy feeling). We like feeling good, so the brain tells us to keep going back for more.
The specific area in the brain that alcohol affects is called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Scientists have found that alcohol blocks a key potassium channel in this area of the brain. The result is a full on neuron party in your brain and the release of more dopamine. Without this potassium channel, alcohol can’t stimulate neurons, and thus can’t release the much-beloved dopamine rush to our brains.
Why does this matter for binge drinking?
In the study, mice that had been genetically modified to have a slight reduction in this potassium channel were 30% more likely to binge drink than normal mice. That means there’s a potential genetic component to binging. People who have less of this potassium channel have to drink more alcohol in order to get the same reward as people with normal levels.
For some, binge drinking could be a way to cope with unresolved issues or trauma, an indication of an alcohol addiction, or a matter of willpower. For others, however, there could be a genetic component causing them to binge.
How To Stop Binge Drinking
There are resources online that will tell you to moderate your drinking. I don’t think moderation works for a variety of reasons, but namely because if you had the ability to moderate, you wouldn’t be on the internet trying to figure out how to stop binge drinking.
Here are some suggestions that I think are worth attempting:
- Change your scene. If your social life feels like an eternal frat party (or maybe it literally is because you’re in college), it’s probably time to find other scenes to get into. What should you do? That’s up to you, but choose activities that are not 100% alcohol centered.
- Lay off the booze for awhile. Not everybody who binges has an alcohol problem, but everyone who has an alcohol problem probably binges. It’s up to you to determine which category you fall into. If you don’t think you’re dependent on alcohol, try going without it to see how you feel. Take two weeks and do some soul searching about how much you’ve been drinking. Afterwards, ask yourself why you’ve been drinking so much and what you want to do moving forward. Personally, I find listing all the things bingeing has ruined for me to be very helpful. Examples on my list have included: ruined weekends, embarrassing text messages, weight gain, bad skin, and lack of motivation.
- Think about quitting booze for good. It may not be the most popular decision, but it could be the right one. After you’ve abstained for a couple of weeks, try extending your sobriety to a month or two. Maybe you’ve discovered some deeper issues through this process. Find a counselor and get to work. Check in with yourself. If you feel like you can have a healthy relationship with alcohol, give it a go. Eventually, you will find out where you stand with it.
Fortunately, the trend for binge drinking is beginning to reverse itself. Young people are drinking less, which means as a culture we could be turning a page. That’s the good news. As binge drinking becomes less socially acceptable among young people, my hope is that we will start to see major cultural shifts in the ways we consume alcohol.
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, here are some resources to help get you through.
- In the USA https://www.alcohol.org/
- In Canada http://www.ccdus.ca/Eng/Pages/Addictions-Treatment-Helplines-Canada.aspx
- In the UK https://www.adfam.org.uk/help-for-families/finding-support/call-a-helpline
- In Australia http://www.recoveroz.com.au/how-to-find-help/help-lines.html
- In NZ https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines
Resources for infographic facts on the risks of binge drinking