If there’s one thing that tends to blur the line between friend and foe, it’s alcohol. One glass of wine can easily morph into two. Then add shots to the mix, and your casual night out gets sloppy fast. So we had to wonder: Is it better to stay sober during the week and get crazy on the weekend or pour yourself one drink on the daily?
Why It Hurts to Go Hard
We hate to be killjoys, but just because you didn’t partake during the work week doesn’t mean you’ve got a free pass to rage your face off on Friday. In fact, there’s a lengthy list of how heavy drinking—even if it’s confined to a single night—can wreck your health.
For starters, binge drinking (i.e. pounding four drinks if you’re a girl and five if you’re a guy in under two hours) boosts your risk for liver disease, which in turn damages other organs in the body, such as your heart, kidney, and brain. Binge ethanol and liver: new molecular developments. Shukla SD, Pruett SB, Szabo G. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 2013, Jan.;37(4):1530-0277. And you may be hitting that threshold more often than you realize. One standard drink technically equals 12 ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of hard (80-proof) liquor—meaning a couple of hefty pours at happy hour can add up fast.
Worst-case scenario: Since alcohol acts as a depressant, drinking a substantial amount in a relatively short time period can lead to alcohol poisoning/overdose, coma, or death, explains Dessa Bergen-Cico, Ph.D., an associate professor of Public Health and Addiction Studies at Syracuse University. When a person consumes more alcohol than their body can metabolize at one time, the concentration of alcohol builds up in the bloodstream, suppressing vital functions like breathing and heart rate.
What's more, binge drinking could also lead to scary stuff like accidents, memory problems, or alcohol addiction, warns Nasir H. Naqvi, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Division on Substance Abuse. Research also suggests that binge drinking may lead to insomnia symptoms, a higher risk of injury for women in particular (so that explains those mystery bruises), and an earlier risk of stroke—just to name a few. Binge drinking and insomnia in middle-aged and older adults: the Health and Retirement Study. Canham SL, Kaufmann CN, Mauro PM. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2014, May.;30(3):1099-1166. Relative risk of injury from acute alcohol consumption: modeling the dose-response relationship in emergency department data from 18 countries. Cherpitel CJ, Ye Y, Bond J. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 2014, Nov.;110(2):1360-0443. Heavy alcohol intake and intracerebral hemorrhage: characteristics and effect on outcome. Casolla B, Dequatre-Ponchelle N, Rossi C. Neurology, 2012, Dec.;79(11):1526-632X.
To top it off, you could end up doing stuff you wouldn’t normally do while under the influence, adds Alison Moore, M.D., a professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics and psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. After all, it’s not called liquid courage for nothing; alcohol’s been shown to make you more impulsive, so you may be more prone to tipsy texting, regrettable (or unsafe) hookups, and unhealthy late-night bites. Associations between Heavy Drinking and Changes in Impulsive Behavior among Adolescent Males. White, H., Marmorstein, N., Crews, F., et al. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2011 Feb; 35(2): 295–303.
A final piece of bad news: Nasty hangovers are pretty much unavoidable—unless you regularly drink too much. (People who do may build up a tolerance that may keep them hangover-free, says Moore—not that drinking more frequently is the answer.) And giving into the drunk munchies isn’t going to help: Eating or drinking water only leads to a slight improvement in how you feel the next morning, according to recent research. The only proven hangover cure: Drink less.
Making the Case for Moderation
Though there’s controversy over just how great alcohol really is for you, there’s plenty of research that points to it being more of a boon than a bummer. That said, less is definitely more: Having one drink or half a drink fairly regularly does seem to reduce the risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, says Moore. Red wine: A drink to your heart. Saleem TS, Basha SD. Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research, 2011, Jul.;1(4):0976-2833. Drinking moderately may also boost your brain health—one study suggests that it helps protect against dementia. Ethanol protects cultured neurons against amyloid-β and α-synuclein-induced synapse damage. Bate C, Williams A. Neuropharmacology, 2011, Aug.;61(8):1873-7064. And it may up your dating game too: Having a single glass of wine (but no more) may make you appear more attractive to other people—seriously, it’s science! Increased facial attractiveness following moderate, but not high, alcohol consumption. Van Den Abbeele J, Penton-Voak IS, Attwood AS. Alcohol and Alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire), 2015, Feb.;50(3):1464-3502.
But here’s the funny part: You may not even be reaping many of the health rewards—at least not for a few more years. “The main benefits of alcohol occur in middle age or older,” Moore says. That’s because people in their 20s and 30s generally don’t have to deal with conditions like heart disease, stroke, and other complications that can improve from moderate alcohol intake, she explains.
Moore also points out that even light or moderate drinking may not be for everybody, like women with a strong history (whether personal or family) of breast cancer. Even one drink per day may boost a woman’s risk for the disease, according to a recent study. Light to moderate intake of alcohol, drinking patterns, and risk of cancer: results from two prospective US cohort studies. Cao Y, Willett WC, Rimm EB. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 2015, Aug.;351():1756-1833.
Another study found that moderate drinking (one to two drinks daily) led to an increased risk of a-fib, a heart condition associated with stroke and heart attack. Alcohol consumption and risk of atrial fibrillation: a prospective study and dose-response meta-analysis. Larsson SC, Drca N, Wolk A. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2014, Sep.;64(3):1558-3597. (Liquor was associated with the greatest risk, followed by wine, but beer consumption had no association.)
One last cause for concern? You find yourself using your daily drink of choice as an Rx for recurring mood or anxiety issues. If you think that could be the case, see a mental health expert, Naqvi says.
The Bottom Line
Sorry, boozy brunchers and part-time party people, but going on a weekend bender is just a plain ol’ bad habit. As far as your overall wellness goes, drinking a little on a daily basis trumps being good all week, only to get trashed on Saturday night.
The healthiest game plan: Stick to drinking in moderation (one drink a day for women, two drinks for men) and avoiding binge drinking, Naqvi suggests. And know yourself, adds Moore. Before popping bottles, consider your family health history, what—or how many—drinks it takes to trigger bad behavior, and whether or not you’re on any meds that may have less-than-stellar alcohol interactions.