What’s the Difference Between Heavy Drinking & Alcoholism?

What’s the Difference Between Heavy Drinking & Alcoholism?

There’s no question that addiction is a complex brain disease. For instance, we know that abusing substances can have a negative impact on the brain, but why does it only happen to some people? And how do you know when you have progressed from a heavy drinker to an alcoholic?

If you’re concerned that you are developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it’s important to sit down and assess the reasons why this is the case. Or, if you’re concerned about a loved one, you may have to confront them about their habit. Addiction is never an easy topic to discuss, but we hope this article provides you with insight on how to recognize the differences between heavy drinking and the true disease of alcoholism.

What is Heavy Drinking?

Heavy drinking is an ambiguous term because it can mean binge drinking or chronic drinking. Binge drinking refers to drinking more than four (for women) or five (for men) drinks in a two-hour period. Even though many Americans indulge in binge drinking from time to time, it is an unhealthy practice. Drinking heavily like this can lead to liver disease, cardiovascular problems and unintentional injuries.

Chronic drinking, on the other hand, refers to drinking more than one drink (for women) or two drinks (for men) a day. It’s easy for alcohol to add up – a couple of cocktails after work or a bottle of wine on the weekends. While this is not healthy for the body, chronic drinking does not make a person an alcoholic.

Why is Heavy Drinking a Problem if I’m Not an Alcoholic?

Heavy drinkers are not physically dependent on alcohol, but they still abuse it by drinking too much, too often. However, the difference between problem drinking and true alcoholism is that heavy drinkers can go for days, weeks or months without drinking. They don’t experience withdrawal symptoms, either.

But heavy drinking is still a problem. Physical complications include an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease and certain cancers. Also, when heavy drinkers indulge, they usually end up drinking more than they intended, putting their health and wellbeing at stake.

What Does it Mean to be an Alcoholic?

Alcoholism is a chronic brain disease that affects the reward, memory and motivation systems of the brain. This is what eventually leads to physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual dysfunctions in a person’s life. While there is no cure for alcoholism, it does respond well to outpatient alcohol treatment.

Unlike in heavy drinkers, alcoholics are physically dependent on alcohol. When they try to stop, they experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches, nausea, tremors, anxiety and hallucinations. This is what makes it difficult to stop. Eventually, the addiction changes how the brain works, causing the person to put alcohol before everything else in their life.

Here are the hallmark symptoms of an alcohol addiction:

  • Tolerance. The person needs more alcohol to achieve the desired effects. This happens because the brain and body get used to functioning with alcohol.
  • Physical dependence. After building tolerance, many drinkers find that they go into withdrawal once they don’t have alcohol in their bodies. This is why they often start drinking earlier and earlier in the day.
  • Cravings. Alcoholics crave alcohol and will think about it all day, until they have a drink in hand. These cravings can become incredibly strong, which is why feeding the urge becomes a priority.
  • Compulsive drinking. When an alcoholic starts drinking, they can’t stop. They’ll continue drinking despite negative consequences.

drinking alcohol with friends

Do I Have an Unhealthy Relationship with Alcohol?

Determining if someone is an alcoholic is difficult because the drug is socially acceptable and even encouraged at times. It’s available at special occasions, holidays, social gatherings, sporting events, etc., giving people endless opportunities to indulge without worry. So how can you take an objective look at yourself or a loved one?

One of the best things you can do is fill out an alcohol screening quiz. These screening tools even pick up on mild drinking problems that deserve attention. You can then schedule an appointment with a trusted healthcare provider, whether it’s a doctor, therapist or Denver treatment counselor. They can discuss your options for lifestyle changes and treatment.

In the meantime, here are a few signs that indicate an unhealthy relationship with alcohol:

  • Drinking 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more for men. This is defined as “excessive drinking” by the CDC.
  • Driving under the influence or engaging in other risky behavior. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, leading to more reckless decisions.
  • Not meeting your work/school and family obligations due to drinking too much.
  • Saying or doing things that you later regret because of drinking. A common example of this is drunk dialing.
  • Drinking more than you planned to, or being unable to stop once starting.
  • Being diagnosed with medical conditions due to your drinking, such as high blood pressure or liver problems.
  • Feeling a strong urge to drink throughout the day. Basically, you can’t wait for happy hour.
  • Surrounding yourself with others who drink, as well as only attending events where alcohol will be served.

When is it Time to Get Help for a Drinking Problem?

It is a myth that you need to be at your lowest point to receive help. In reality, rehab facilities in Denver treat people in all stages of the addiction process. Our outpatient treatment programs can be tailored to your individual needs, allowing you to access the right level of care. Even if you don’t have an addiction at this point, the tables could quickly turn. Before you do become physically dependent on alcohol, or suffer financial and legal problems from your drinking, it’s best to get help.

Continuum Recovery Center of Colorado offers a structured environment and teaches healthier ways to deal with stress. Contact us today to learn more about our holistic outpatient rehab in Denver and how we can get you on the right track.