How much is too much?

| Posted On Apr 19, 2012 | By:

Many of us can probably think of a time when we’ve wondered if we drank too much, and certainly whether someone else we care about might have had too much to drink.  But how much is too much

The Basics
First, let’s start with some basics: in general, a “standard” alcoholic drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol (0.6 ounces) and is equal to the following:

What’s really important to remember is that it’s the amount of alcohol consumed, not the type of alcoholic drink consumed.  Therefore, a 12-ounce beer has about the same amount of alcohol as one 5-ounce glass of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, and they are all considered “one drink.”

So, how many alcoholic drinks per day are considered to be “okay”? There are many websites we can reference, but most, including the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), recommend that people keep to the following limits:

Some think that this is extremely conservative, and there is some variation on these levels.  More generous guidelines online suggest that, for women, the upper limit is as high as 2 drinks per day, and for men, closer to 3 drinks per day.  Many guidelines also set weekly limits in addition to daily consumption levels.  Essentially, women should not drink more than 1–2 drinks per day, and men should consume no more than 2–3 drinks per day (and preferably with meals for everyone).

You might be wondering why there are gender differences in the suggested guidelines.  As it turns out, men’s bodies tend to be made up of more fluid than women’s bodies, meaning that alcohol is more diluted in a man’s body than in a woman’s.  As a result, women tend to get drunk faster than men on the same amount of alcohol.

The Risks of drinking too much

What are the dangers of drinking too much alcohol?  Drinking alcohol above the guidelines set forth here is associated with many consequences: a higher risk for developing certain health conditions, injury and even death from accidents, and disruptions to daily routines, responsibilities and relationships.  Specifically:

Alcohol Abuse or Dependency

Of course, one of the greatest problems is the ability to stop drinking if you or a loved one abuse alcohol or have become dependent on alcohol.  There are many good websites that provide assessment tools to determine whether you or someone you know is at risk, including WebMD, the NIAA, and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, Inc. (NCADD).

The treatment for alcoholism is abstinence from drinking, but deciding to quit – and being able to quit – is hard.  The NCADD and other sites have information on how to approach someone you care about to realize the problems that alcohol use is causing, and to get him or her to seek professional help  and support.  Although this can be extremely hard, studies find that more people with alcohol problems opt for treatment when their family members or employers are honest with them about their concerns, and try to help them see that drinking is preventing them from reaching their goals.

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About Michael Williams, LICSW

Joined Harvard Vanguard: 2009 Prior experience: Michael worked for Harvard Vanguard between 1992 and 2001; and then worked for the Cambrige Health Alliance's Department of Psychiatry as the Program Director - Addictions until rejoining Harvard Vanguard in October of 2009. Undergraduate School: University of Natal, Durban, South Africa Professional/Graduate School: Smith College School for Social Work, Northampton, MA Professional Certification: Massachusetts CANS Certification Faculty Appointments: Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA Clinical Interests: Adults; substance abuse; couples; anxiety; depression; geriatric; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); gay/lesbian issues; life transition issues; immigration issues and "New Americans"


  1. Hi. Thanks for this nice and simple post. Just wanted to mention that even that 1 drink/day increases a woman’s chance of breast cancer.

    Comment by roberta falke md on April 24, 2012 at 9:28 am

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