What you need to know about binge drinking

Boozed, buzzed, smashed, trashed – there are endless descriptions for getting drunk in the Aussie vernacular. But experts agree on one word for binge drinking: harmful.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education this year found a disturbing lack of community awareness about the links between excessive alcohol use and life-threatening diseases like cancer.

And Monash University Professor Merlin Thomas says heavy booze sessions, particularly as teens and young adults, is a risk factor for alcohol dependence in later life.

“This is more than simply that the kind of people who binge are also the kind who may become dependent,” he says.

“Alcohol binges in the developing brain change its wiring in a way that alters its functions long into the future.”

What is binge drinking?

Prof Thomas says binge drinking is technically defined as repeatedly consuming alcohol over two hours, reaching a blood alcohol level higher than 0.08 and equating to at least four to five standard drinks in one session.

The short-term impacts of binge drinking

Waking up with “hangxiety” – a common feeling of dread after a big night on the turps – can be the least of your problems.

Injuries, vomiting, sexual assault, memory loss and potentially fatal alcohol poisoning are just some of the more serious risks when over-indulging.

The National Health and Medical Research Council says a heavy drinking session can also exacerbate mental health issues like depression, while mixing alcohol with some medications can prove a dangerous cocktail.

Young people can be particularly vulnerable to risks like unprotected sex, self-esteem problems and involvement in unsafe activities, warns ReachOut.

What are the long-term risks of binge drinking?

It sounds obvious, but the more we binge drink, the higher the chance of developing serious physical and mental health problems like cancer.

NHMRC‘s alcohol guidelines state that more than two standard drinks on any day increases your lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease, such as cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, bowel, liver, prostate and breast, as well as brain damage.

Relationship problems, bad skin, sexual problems, liver disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease can also result from drinking to excess.

Drinking is not just accepted but is often celebrated in Aussie culture, but FARE chief executive Michael Thorn says most of us are in the dark about the long-term damages.

The organisation’s Annual Alcohol Poll 2018: Attitudes and Behaviours found fewer than half of Australians know that alcohol misuse is linked to diseases including stroke, mouth and throat cancer and breast cancer, as well as 200 other disease and injury conditions.

“People’s lack of knowledge about the link between drinking alcohol and the risks of cancer and other diseases, combined with general ignorance of how to reduce those risks, is extremely alarming,” he says.

Managing your alcohol consumption

Prof Thomas says ultimately, alcohol consumption comes down to a “delicate balance”.

“In essence, alcohol is a test of self-control and self-awareness,” he says.

“For those who pass the test, alcohol can be one of life’s shared pleasures, a source of domestic bliss.

“But a little glass can easily become more, especially if the bottle is already open or someone else is paying. Sometimes, it’s far healthier for us not to have another, than go down this slippery slope.”

See what psychologist Leanne Hall, naturopath David Jivan, pharmacist Gerald Quigley, and presenters Ed Phillips and Jo Stanley had to say when they took on the Big Topic of alcohol use on The House of Wellness TV: 

Written by Elissa Doherty.