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Binge drinking does two things: it floods your body with alcohol breakdown products and it makes you take on an average 6,300 extra calories in the ensuing 24 hours. This is how we wind up on the liver transplant list, folks.
So What Can We Do About It?
Binge drinking attacks your body in two key, interconnected ways. The alcohol damages your body but so does the exposure to large loads of empty calories, primarily in the form of a crushing carbohydrate and fat load that taxes a liver already overburdened with alcohol byproducts.
The trouble is that it's something we often don't really think about: you hear the term and imagine college-age people, slumped in a gutter, clutching a nearly-empty container of something named after a handgun or martial arts move. But you don't have to be going home in a cop car to be binge drinking.
What's The Definition?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), binge drinking is "a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL". In case you don't happen to take breathalyser out with you after work, here's what that looks like in action:
Mike has a beer and a couple of shots after work, then after an hour or so he moves on to another brand has two more beers. Mary has a large glass of white wine after work, then moves onto another bar, runs into her old friend Mike and has another large glass of white wine while they catch up.
Which of them is binge drinking?
According to the NIH, binge drinking "typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men — in about 2 hours". A "drink" is one bottle of beer, or one shot — so a large glass of wine is two "drinks", for the NIH's purposes. So binge drinking is actually pretty widespread; many of us are doing it without even knowing it!
What Happens When We Binge Drink?
The real damage is done at a slightly higher level than that identified by NIH (not that 5 drinks is fine — it's just not the worst!). At about three large glasses of wine, most people cross over a "tipping point", where their inhibitions become degraded and they can no longer control their behavior effectively. This is why downtown on a Saturday night tends to look like Planet of the Apes by about 10:30, but it also has dramatic consequences for the so-called "responsible" binge drinker.
First, there's the calories you take on from the drink itself. That can add up to 1500 calories — about 75 percent of the recommended daily intake, usually on top of what you eat during the day.
Some people are aware of this and attempt the "Manhattan transfer" — offsetting the evening's cocktail calories by avoiding food during the day. That has its own problems. Not all calories are created equal, and less food means alcohol is more potent in its effect sand the other consequences of binging are exacerbated.
Binging causes two things to fall: your inhibitions and your blood sugar. Then you're outside a fast for joint, and when your stomach suggests a Pail o'Greasy Meat, your brain's unavailable to counsel caution.
The following day, most people feel worse than they expected.
Ever noticed how the best predictor of whether you'll have another drink is how many you've already had? The second one's a maybe, the third's probable, and every one after that is a done deal. That's because alcohol shuts down your prefrontal cortex, where long-term goals, abstract thoughts and executive decision-making is located, and leaves you at the mercy of your mammalian midbrain. One consequence of this is that you gradually lose the ability to associate actions with their consequences. That's why you wake up in the wrong bed, or in jail (I'm looking at you, country singers) — and it's why you totally forget how bad your hangover's going to be.
The next morning, it's a total surprise, and as soon as the Sheriff lets you out, the first thing you want is something to deal with the symptoms. Aspirin for the pain, sure, and water - but as soon as you can, you'll need to eat something, to bring your blood sugar back up and replace lost electrolytes. How much something?
All of which means that a binge drinking episode can result in taking on a whopping 6, 300 extra calories across 24 hours, most of it in the form of carbohydrates, fats and alcohol, which compete for liver action, degrading the organ's function.