Why binge drinking is bad for you

Posted on 1 December 2022

Never mind the popular wisdom and urban legends; avoid the trap of binge drinking this festive season with expert info and advice.  

In the journal Alcohol Research, binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on one occasion. But this is a general rule and people respond to alcohol in different ways. Dr Peter Berning, a GP at Mediclinic Plettenberg Bay, has a simpler take on the matter: “It’s not a regular excess, but less frequent. So, for example, you don’t drink during the week, but then you go big on a Friday and drink until you fall down.”

Choice of alcohol is irrelevant

“The type of alcohol doesn’t matter; alcohol is alcohol,” he says. “Everyone has their preference and will binge on the alcohol of their choice.” Decisions around alcohol should be based on how much you drink, not the type of drink.

Binge drinking isn’t harmless fun

Binge drinking and frequent excess drinking are both unhealthy warns Dr Berning. “You’re loading your liver and your stomach a lot more with the binge drinking, but you’re loading it more often if you’re having, say, a bottle of wine every night – which is also wrong and excessive. Both these types of people are going to end up being defined as alcoholics.” Just like overdoing it more regularly, binge drinking is also bad for your body, he adds. “It’s carcinogenic (has potential to cause cancer), it can lead to fatty liver, gastritis (inflamed stomach lining), and can affect your thought processes. And, apart from your health, it’s horrific what it does to domestic life because people change when they drink.”

Save your liver – starting today

The good news is that it’s never too late to stop binge drinking, says Dr Berning. “The body recovers very well, especially the liver, which is the only organ that can regenerate itself. Even a cirrhotic liver, which is far down the line, can recover. And while there are other consequences, such as skin changes and eye changes that may not be reversible, they can still improve.” His tips for a binge-free festive season:

  • Plan: In the moment, it’s difficult to make good decisions, so decide your choices and plan accordingly.
  • Jump on the zero-alcohol trend: Non-alcoholic beers and the like are becoming more popular and socially acceptable when friends want you to drink. Tell yourself, “I’m going to have one drink and then I’m going over to an alcohol-free beer.”
  • Be choosy about your functions: It’s easy to go out every day during the festive season. The key is to avoid going to places out of habit; plan your outings so they don’t all revolve around alcohol.
  • Drink with a meal: This slows down the absorption of alcohol.

5 pieces of conventional wisdom: true or false?

Dr Berning responds to common binge-drinking beliefs.

  1. Popular belief: Drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage.

Verdict: True – but not in the way you think.

“If you’ve drunk five glasses of water, there’s no space for five beers. So, it’s not a bad idea.”

  1. Popular belief: Line your stomach before you go out.

Verdict: Partly true

“It does lessen the effect of the alcohol because you don’t absorb as much as quickly. But eventually the alcohol will still be absorbed.”

  1. Popular belief: Down a litre of water before bed after a night of binge drinking.

Verdict: Half true

“It mitigates the dehydration that the alcohol causes, and a hangover headache is dehydration, so it does help with that. But you’re just making yourself feel better without addressing the other damage it’s done.”

  1. Popular belief: Drinking spirits with a mixer is a “healthier” choice.

Verdict: False

“Usually, the mixer is full of sugar, which just adds to the rush and the weight gain. I would say it’s actually more harmful than wine or beer.”

  1. Popular belief: Have just one drink per hour to let your body metabolise the alcohol.

Verdict: Partly true

“It does allow your body to metabolise the alcohol, although it won’t be entirely out of your system. More importantly, it slows down your drinking so you drink less purely because you run out of time.”

  • If you feel your drinking is a problem, your GP can help. Visit mediclinic.co.za to find a healthcare provider in your area.

Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.