How many drinks is too many? Do you know how much alcohol your body can handle?

NIH researchers looking at what triggers drinking
Posted at 10:33 PM, Jun 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-27 23:27:47-04

Summer is a time to enjoy lazy days with friends and family and enjoy a few drinks. The harsh reality is that over 15 million adults have issues with alcohol and less than 10 percent get treatment.

But how much is too much? And what makes us crave it?

Doctors George Koob and Lorenzo Leggio run the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at NIH. They look specifically at the behaviors surrounding why you want to drink.

"We cover research on diagnosis, research on prevention, research on treatment of alcohol use disorders we do a lot of work on organ damage that's associated with alcohol but also alcohol's effects on the brain," Dr. Koob said.

This research hopes to yield new medications to help those with alcohol use disorders (AUD).

"We see how much craving they have, how much they crave alcohol and we want to see if the medication we're giving them will reduce the alcohol craving," said Dr. Koob.

Dr. Koob said alcohol use disorders include "compulsive use of alcohol, loss of control over intake and a number of medical, psychological or social  consequences that are not good from excessive use."

"It's actually one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in the U.S. and abroad," added Dr. Leggio.

Koob and Leggio use what's called the "Bar Lab" to observe patients and study participants--mimicking the look and feel of an actual bar.

"We're hoping by using a bar situation which has a good bit of face validity it looks like a situation where you would crave alcohol so were hoping that by using that that we can identify what triggers craving and how we can prevent that craving," Dr. Koob said. "The most important thing is to know how much you're drinking."

That can be tricky but there are rules you can follow.

"We have a standard drink that we've adopted which is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine 1.5 ounces of 40 percent distilled beverage," Dr. Koob said.

Koobs said there are resources to help gauge your drinking. He said the Rethinking Drinking website is a good place to start.

"Knowing how much is in a drink and knowing how much drinking produces what blood alcohol level and where you're at on that function is step No. 1," Dr. Koob said.

With alcohol being the centerpiece for so many summer activities, knowing how much is too much is key.

Dr. Koob said four drinks in two hours for a healthy and five drink drinks in two hours for a healthy make is considered binge drinking. 

"Drinking into those conditions can impair motor functions and coordination obviously you don't want to be driving heavy machinery but even more importantly, it impairs judgment," he said. 

Alcohol also causes dehydration, which is very dangerous in hot weather. Dr. Koob said common sense prevails when drinking responsibly. He recommends staying hydrated and pacing yourself. Also, eating because it causes the alcohol to be absorbed more slowly.

So is there a magic number for healthier drinking?

"One drink a day for females, two drinks a day for males," Dr. Koob said.

Researchers say enjoying alcohol in moderation is safe but if you think you have a drinking problem seek treatment immediately.