How do you like your booze? Many, many, many drinks over the course of one sitting, a couple of times a week at the absolute most? Or just one or two drinks, every night of the week? Either way, you’re drinking roughly the same amount, only on very different timescales. All of which got us wondering: Is one practice healthier than the other? According to Carolyn Coker Ross, board-certified physician in Addiction Medicine, the answer is pretty darn clear.
Binge Drinking Ruins Your Body
There’s a lengthy list of how binge drinking (which is defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a two-hour period) can wreck your health, even if it’s confined to a single night. For starters, there’s this 2013 study that claims that binge drinking “dramatically amplifies” your risk of developing liver disease, which in turn damages the kidneys and heart. Speaking of the heart, those who binge drink are 72 percent more likely to experience a heart attack than those who don’t, according to a 2015 study performed at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
On top of that, research suggests that binge drinking leads to insomnia, an earlier risk of stroke and a higher risk of injury amongst females in particular (which explains why women tend to wake up with mystery bruises after a wild night out).
Lastly, binge drinking (obviously) leads people to make poor decisions—i.e., tipsy texting, consuming unhealthy late-night eats, and on the more immediately damaging end, falling off roofs—that can result in everything from embarrassment to serious bodily harm. It’s probably unnecessary, but allow Coker Ross to hammer this point home: “Binge drinking can lead to injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence and alcohol poisoning,” she says. On average, at least 50 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses are associated with heavy alcohol use.
Binge Drinking is Depressing
A study in the journal Addiction found that binge drinking “produces depressive symptoms in the general population.” This should be no surprise to anyone who’s experienced the dreaded “Sunday Scaries.” Another similar but more recent study adds that heavy drinking also increases feelings of anxiety and bouts of memory loss (aka blackouts).
Binge Drinking is Expensive for Society
Binge drinking cost the U.S. $249 billion in 2010, or $2.05 a drink, according to a report published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. These costs resulted from losses in workplace productivity; health-care expenditures (resulting from the health problems mentioned above); criminal justice costs; and various other expenses. In other words, while a weekend binge drinker might spend the same amount on alcohol as a moderate nightly drinker, their drunk (or hungover) behaviors result in tons of additional costs.
On the Flip Side, Moderate Drinking Is Healthy (Sort Of)
Various studies show that moderate drinking (defined by such studies as fewer than three drinks per day) is associated with decreased risk of heart attack and coronary artery disease. On top of that, drinking moderately may also boost your brain health—e.g., a 2011 study suggests that it helps protect against dementia.
This doesn’t mean moderate drinking is the be-all and end-all, though: As Coker Ross points out, even one drink per day can boost a woman’s risk for disease (particularly cancer), according to recent studies. Another 2014 study (which directly refutes the claims of numerous other studies, like those mentioned above) also found that even moderate drinking is associated with increased risk of atrial fibrillation, a heart condition known to cause stroke and heart attack, in both men and women.
All in all, Ross sums it up well: “The more alcohol you drink on any given day, the worse your health risks will be,” she says. “Bottom line: It’s healthier to drink [a couple drinks] more often than it is to drink a ton of drinks at once.”
Just something to bear in mind next time you want to punish your hungover self.