1. You become a big risk taker
If you’ve ever witnessed your normally reserved co-worker strip off his shirt or tell your boss where to go after one too many cocktails at the company holiday party, you’re well aware of how drinking can lower inhibitions. Getting drunk can cause you to act out of character in a way that’s much worse than having an embarrassing episode like sliding behind the wheel or having unprotected sex.
“You could be a person who has done everything right, but drinking too much on just one occasion can change your life for the worse," Smith says. “The biggest risk factor when it comes to drinking is making bad decisions, because it increases your odds of contracting an STD, getting a DUI, or ending up in a fight or other violent situation,” Smith adds. Moreover, getting drunk makes you more prone to serious accidents of all kinds. Alcohol is to blame for about 60 percent of fatal burn injuries and drownings, and 40 percent of fatal falls and car accidents, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). It’s also a factor in half of all sexual assaults.
2. You’re a weekend warrior
“If you don’t drink daily but are drinking regularly, such as every Friday night, that’s a red flag,” Smith says. While some Harvard research shows having about seven alcoholic drinks a week lowers your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, abstaining all week only to guzzle seven pints on a Friday night negates any of alcohol’s potential health benefits.
Moreover, binge drinking raises blood pressure, boosts your risk of cancer, and interferes with certain medications. You could also suffer esophageal bleeding if you have to throw up repeatedly.
3. You can’t stick to your own limits
Have you ever told yourself you were only going to have a drink or two at happy hour, and before you knew it you’d downed six beers and had a serious buzz? One of the clues that you may be a binge drinker is if you seem surprised that drinking somehow crept up on you. “If you have trouble meeting the limits you put on yourself, it signals a problem,” says Deidre Roach, M.D., of the NIAAA.
Like diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems, drinking can get out of control gradually. That’s why it’s smart to reevaluate your drinking habits. Start writing down how much you drink and when, to reign yourself in if you’re starting to get a little out of control, and put reminders of the limit you want to stick to—such as having only two beers at happy hour—in your wallet, on your bathroom mirror, or some other place where you can look at it a couple of times a day.
4. You black out
Alcohol affects everyone differently because its effects depend on things like your genes (you’re four times more likely to have a drinking problem if one of your parents was an alcoholic), what medications you’re taking, and whether you ate a big meal (food slows the absorption of alcohol in your bloodstream). Still, researchers speculate that heavy drinking interferes with memory by disrupting a key brain messenger linked to recall called glutamate. If you've ever “forgotten” parts of the night until your drinking buddies reminded you, or have woken up in a woman’s bed, foggy about the details as to how you got there, you’ve definitely had one too many.
5. You become a slacker
“Drinking is a problem when you notice that you’ve started to neglect things that are important to you for the sake of alcohol,” says Keith Humphreys, PhD, of the Center for Health Care Evaluation in Menlo Park, CA. Maybe you’re normally a dedicated worker, but you’re too hung over from happy hour to prepare for your morning meeting. Or you repeatedly ignore your fitness goals and skip your after-work weight lifting session in favor of happy hour.
6. Your family and friends are worried about you
“If you’re afraid to ask people if you drink too much, that’s probably a sign that you’re overdoing it,” Humphreys says. You may not be aware of exactly how much you’ve been drinking until it starts creating conflict with your relationships at home or at work. If your family, friends, or co-workers have hinted (or flat-out vocalized) that they’re worried about how much you imbibe, it’s time to cut back.
If you want to minimize your risk, read on.