Many adults in the United States drink alcohol on occasion. However, many people drink too much, and they may not realize it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that alcohol abuse contributes to at least 88,000 deaths every year, from car crashes to liver failure.1 One in 10 working-age adults (ages 20-64) die because of alcohol abuse.1
One of the riskiest forms of alcohol abuse is binge drinking which, for women, involves consuming four or more servings of alcohol in a two-hour period and, for men, five or more in that same timeframe. Drinking this much raises blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over 0.08, which is the legal limit where it is no longer safe to drive.2 Although “going on a bender” and binge drinking are often conflated, benders are extreme forms of binge drinking that can lead to severe physical, mental, emotional, financial, and legal harm.3
A Bender Is a Dangerous Form of Problem Drinking
To define binge drinking and benders, it is important to know how much a standard serving of alcohol is:4
- 12 ounces, or one bottle of 5% ABV beer.
- 5 ounces, or one small glass of 12% ABV wine.
- 1.5 ounces, or one shot of 80 proof hard liquor.
The liver processes about one serving of alcohol per hour. To avoid raising BAC too fast, people may aim to drink alcoholic beverages slowly—at most one per hour. However, many bars and restaurants serve more than these standard, measured servings in large wine glasses, pints of beer instead of bottles, and overflowing shots for mixed drinks. As a result, many people drink more than one standard serving at a time when they are out.
Some people intentionally drink more than one serving per hour because their goal is to get drunk. In some cases, a person may not monitor how much they’ve had to drink, so they may accidentally drink two or more servings in an hour. Binge drinking is defined as four servings of alcohol for women, or five servings of alcohol for men, or more consumed over the course of two hours.5
One in six adults, according to the CDC, binge drinks four times per month, consuming about seven drinks per binge.6 Binges are problems for nearly all adult age groups. While binges occur most frequently in people ages 18-34, binge drinking is also a significant issue for older adults, 35 and older.6
After binge drinking, a lot of people experience a hangover, which is physical sickness from dehydration and the effects of alcohol. Though many people will not continue drinking alcohol at the point that a hangover develops, some people are proponents of the “hair of the dog” approach to ease the sickness.
A bender is not just binge drinking, but bingeing on alcohol for several days. Many people drink all weekend, starting on Friday night, but a bender could involve drinking either Friday or Monday as well, which for most people means intentionally missing work or school to drink.3
Binge drinking by itself is very risky behavior, but drinking a lot of alcohol to stay drunk for several days can increase the risk of alcohol poisoning and death or chronic health problems later in life.8
The Harmful Effects of Too Much Alcohol and Going on a Bender
The adverse health effects of alcohol are well known, both in terms of acute harm and chronic illnesses. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) lists many of alcohol’s harmful effects.8
- Brain: Alcohol can interfere with the transfer of short-term memories into long-term memories, which helps to explain blackouts. Even retained memories may be fuzzy. Speech, judgment, physical coordination, and thinking are all impaired when a person is intoxicated. In the long-term, too much alcohol can change the function of various areas in the brain, resulting in more persistent changes or impairments in memory, cognition, and emotions.
- Liver: Binge drinking can overwhelm speed with which the liver is able to metabolize alcohol, so if a person develops alcohol poisoning, they may still have several servings of alcohol in their GI tract that have not yet been absorbed and processed, which can make poisoning worse or lead to death. In the long-term, people who drink too much can develop fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, liver failure, and be at increased risk of liver cancer.
- Heart: Short-term, being drunk or binge drinking can raise blood pressure and result in alterations to normal heart rate and rhythm. Long-term, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle) may develop as well as pathological arrhythmias, chronic high blood pressure, blood clots, and an increased risk of heart attacks or strokes.
- Cancer: Alcohol abuse increases the risk of several forms of cancer, including cancer of the stomach, liver, mouth, throat, esophageal, and breast.
These problems are associated with any kind of problematic alcohol consumption, including heavy drinking, binge drinking, and alcohol use disorder.
One bender may leave a person with just a serious hangover, but multiple benders and other forms of problem drinking dramatically increase the risk of alcohol poisoning, damage to long-term health, and death. Going on benders more than once can also indicate a potential alcohol use disorder (AUD), and this must be treated by addiction specialists.9
Get Help to Stop Going on Benders
Monitoring how much alcohol has been consumed in an hour is one way to avoid binge drinking. Quitting after a drink or two and drinking water or a non-alcoholic beverage are other ways to avoid binge drinking.
Drinking every day, even one or two servings of alcohol, can also cause harm to the body, so intentionally taking breaks between social events or meals with alcohol is important for physical recovery. If a bender is binge drinking over three days or more, then drinking one day, followed by no alcohol the next day, will prevent a bender. Avoiding hair of the dog, or drinking alcohol to alleviate a hangover, can also prevent a bender.
Compulsive consumption of alcohol, drinking more than intended in an outing, or frequently craving alcohol are all indicators that alcohol use disorder (AUD) may be a problem.10 Frequent benders and feeling sick from several days of drinking a lot can also suggest that the person has a problem with alcohol.10 Get help with medically supervised detox and evidence-based rehabilitation to avoid the long-term effects of alcohol abuse.
- CDC – Fact Sheets-Alcohol Use And Health – Alcohol. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- What Happens to Your Body at Different BAC Levels? https://www.alcohol.org/effects/blood-alcohol-concentration/. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- T B. What is an Alcohol Bender? https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-bender-67956. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- Alcohol Poisoning | Student Health and Counseling Services. https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/topics/alcohol-poisoning. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- Drinking Levels Defined | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- CDC Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- Why Am I So Hungover? – River Oaks. https://riveroakstreatment.com/alcohol-addiction/why-so-hungover/. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- Alcohol’s Effects on the Body | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-body. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- Alcohol Poisoning Deaths | VitalSigns | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/alcohol-poisoning-deaths/. Accessed June 20, 2019.
- Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/treatment-alcohol-problems-finding-and-getting-help. Accessed June 20, 2019.