What makes a person turn to binge drinking?

    What makes a person turn to binge drinking?
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    By Akriti Anand   IST (Updated)


    Did you know social drinking can lead to binge drinking, just as binge drinking can plunge a person into alcoholism? CNBC-TV18 spoke with some experts to understand the psychology of people who indulge in binge drinking eventually. Here's what they said.

    Having a drink or two regularly may still qualify as a mild ritual, despite dire reports to the contrary that crop up periodically. But when it becomes five or seven drinks at a single sitting, there’s cause for alarm. The behaviour of having one drink after another is known as binge drinking. This pattern of drinking has become a health concern among adults.

    Even moderate or occasional "drinkers account for many cases of binge drinking...," showed a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. According to experts, "For the person with binge pattern of drinking, there are more risks in terms of risk of accidents (under intoxication), as well as almost other types of alcohol-related problems."

    How many drinks exactly leads to 'binge drinking'

    Most researchers believe that five or more drinks in a single occasion constitute binge or "heavy episodic drinking."

    The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) defined binge drinkers as healthy men who drink four standard drinks on any day or 14 standard drinks per week; and women drinking more than three standard drinks on any day or seven standard drinks per week, noted Professor Dr Rohan Savio Sequeira, Consultant Cardio-Metabolic Physician. He said binge drinkers are considered alcohol abusers, but not necessarily alcoholics.

    But what makes someone turn to binge drinking?

    What is the psychology behind people turning from moderate drinkers to binge drinkers? Here are some of the factors that possibly drive people to drink copiously in one sitting.

    The sense of satiety, that ‘it's enough now!’

    The sense of satiety ("it's enough now!") lacks in some people whenever people start drinking, said Dr Atul Ambekar, MD Professor at National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre and Department of Psychiatry at AIIMS Delhi.

    "In such cases, individuals would not know when to stop," he said, calling it a neurobiological phenomenon. "The brain circuits and systems governing desire to drink, experiencing pleasure after drinking and providing a message of ‘Enough! Now stop’ are dysfunctional. This which leads to heavy episodic drinking (or binge drinking),” Dr Ambekar said.

    Social factors

    Dr Rohan Savio Sequeira, consultant cardio-metabolic physician, said research shows that drinking seems more pleasurable when someone consumes alcohol along with other drinkers. "Unfortunately, this perception of increased pleasure may lead to a pattern of alcohol binging if your companions also binge," he said.

    Sharing a similar view, Dr Ambekar said, "The drinking norms in the immediate surroundings where drinking or solitary drinking is taking place, both influence the probability of heavy drinking," Dr Ambekar said.

    A belief that drinking is beneficial

    Dr Sequeira cited a research on alcohol consumption and said that significant numbers of social drinkers go on binges because they believe that rapid intoxication will provide them with some benefits such as:

    • Lowered personal inhibitions
    • Easier social interactions
    • A sense of social bonding with peers who binge drink
    • Acceptance among their peer group
    • Dealing with emotional and mental stress levels
    • Deal with stress
      Clinical Psychologist Pallavi Sood said binging is like relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with stressors related to work or personal life. "It gradually changes to dependence because now the body wants more as it's building tolerance for alcohol. So, 120 ml of alcohol can be a limit for three months, but as one builds tolerance, they would like to increase it to 240 ml or even more."

      Anxiety disorders

      Dr Ambekar noted that there are certain personality traits found to be associated with higher risk of binge drinking like "impulsivity and sensation seeking."

      He said people with an anxious predisposition and those suffering from anxiety disorders are also vulnerable to drink in a binge pattern. "Alcohol use becomes a kind of  'self-medication,’ which is wrong, of course," the doctor said.

      Easy availability of alcohol

      Alcohol is now easily accessible to everyone and college students are among the nation’s most likely binge drinkers, Dr Sequeira said. He mentioned that in many cases, the ready availability of alcohol contributes to the high rate of binging.

      Occasional binging (is also harmful)

      Consuming alcohol occasionally can also make a difference, if the number of drinks keep climbing. A person consuming three drinks every day would end up consuming 21 drinks over the week. Another person may consume only three days in a week, but could drink seven drinks on every occasion.

      In both scenarios, the person has consumed equal amounts over the week, "so the risks of some long-term health consequences such as chronic liver disease, cancers and cognitive decline, would be similar for both the individuals,"a Dr Ambekar said.

      How to avoid binge drinking

      Dr Sequeira said the best method to avoid binge drinking is to have an improved understanding of how little alcohol it takes to reach a state of intoxication in a short period of time. However, experts say it is extremely difficult to set a benchmark for  'safe' level of alcohol consumption.

      Expressing views against providing guidelines on low-risk alcohol consumption, Dr Ambekar said, "(This can deliver) an inadvertent message that it is recommended to drink this much alcohol."

      He also emphasised, "... It is prudent to not consuming alcohol at all."

      What happens when someone simply has to have alcohol?

      In that case,  Dr Sequeira said, it takes five 30 ml servings of pure alcohol for men and four 30 ml servings for women "reach a state of intoxication."  He added, "Limiting your drinks to just a few and diluting your drinks can be an effective method to reduce the chances of binge drinking."

      Meanwhile, Dr Ambekar said there's no standard for "low-risk drinking" in India yet, but "if one has to consume, follow the international guidelines — not more than two drinks on any occasion.” Globally, the limit of two standard drinks for men and one for women is often cited and largely accepted level of low-risk or moderate drinking, the expert said.

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