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How to Drink Responsibly

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The results of the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 85.6% of Americans over the age of 18 reported consuming alcohol at some point in their life. 1 While alcohol is a legal substance for people over 21 in the U.S., many individuals struggle to drink responsibly.

Approximately 26% of people in the same age demographic reported at least one episode of binge drinking and 6.3% reported at least one instance of heavy drinking in the last month. Alcohol misuse can be a factor in developing alcohol use disorder, which affects a reported 14 million Americans.1

In this article:

Importance of Drinking Responsibly

Many factors contribute to the development of an alcohol use disorder, including: 2

  • Genetics
  • Social influences like peer pressure
  • Psychological and medical history
  • Living environment

However, because alcohol use disorder is often progressive, you can do many things to prevent alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder. One of the most important steps is learning how to drink responsibly.

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Responsible drinking can be defined as knowing how much alcohol your body can handle without becoming inebriated to the point that you have difficulty regulating your choices or emotions, or may be in danger of medical consequences like blacking out or overdosing. Drinking responsibly can also mean taking specific precautions to prevent alcohol use from causing harm to yourself or others and from interfering with your life.3

Responsible drinking has physiological and psychological benefits. In a review of 63 studies, those who reduced the amount of alcohol they consumed saw improvements and recovery of certain ailments that are considered related to alcohol use.4

Examples of the findings of those participating in alcohol harm reduction programs include:4

  • Reduced alcohol-related accidents and injuries
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Body composition and metabolism regulation and stabilization
  • Slowed progression of alcohol-related liver diseases
  • Improved symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Lowered psychosocial stress levels
  • Reduced occurrence or severity of withdrawal symptoms
  • Recovered heart function in those with alcoholic cardiomyopathy
  • Reduced number of psychiatric episodes and hospital stays

If you have developed a pattern of alcohol misuse or an alcohol use disorder, drinking responsibly may positively affect self-perception—such as improving self-confidence—or positively affect your relationships, finances, or career. These improvements can be related to mitigating the symptoms of alcohol use disorder related to managing time; completing tasks; engaging socially; and participating in hobbies, household activities, and events.5

Understand Alcohol Serving Guidelines

Guidelines for servings of alcohol exist to help you control alcohol intake by accurately calculating how much alcohol is in a drink. Beer, wine, and liquor have different standard sizes due to the amount of alcohol in each product.6

Standard serving sizes for alcohol are: 6

  • Beer—12 ounces, or 5% alcohol
  • Wine—5 ounces, or 12% alcohol
  • Liquor—1.5 ounces, or 40% alcohol

This information, combined with recommendations for moderate and low-risk drinking give you a foundation for how to drink responsibly. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are intended to lower disease risk and facilitate overall wellness, define moderate drinking as: 6

  • For women, up to one drink per day
  • For men, up to two drinks per day

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that alcohol use above these dietary guidelines does not necessarily increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder when it falls within a “low-risk” range. NIAAA defines low-risk drinking as:6

  • For women, no more than three drinks per day or seven drinks per week
  • For men, no more than four drinks per day or fourteen drinks per week

In addition to these standards, take the effects you feel from alcohol into account. Factors including weight, how quickly you consumed the alcohol, and whether you ate food before drinking can determine the level of intoxication you experience.6

The accepted definition of binge drinking, for example, is four drinks for a woman or five drinks for a man or more in the span of approximately two hours. If you are drinking liquor, are petite, have not eaten recently, or are taking medication that interacts with alcohol, you may experience the effects of binge drinking even when you have had fewer actual drinks.1

Calculate Blood Alcohol Concentration

One way that alcohol use is measured is by calculating your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). BAC refers to the amount of alcohol in your blood. Once alcohol enters your blood, it travels to the brain and, in just minutes, alters how you feel, think, and behave.7 BAC is how you can determine if you should drive, make important decisions, and so on after using alcohol.

You can estimate blood alcohol concentration by measuring how many standard-size drinks you consume, in what amount of time, and factoring in your body weight. Standard charts can tell you, based on those numbers, your BAC, which falls into various ranges.8

Effects at different BAC levels include:9

  • 02 BAC level—You may feel relaxed, warm, and altered mood.
  • 05 BAC level—You can have impaired judgment, less inhibition, reduced coordination and alertness.
  • 08 BAC level—It is illegal to drive in every U.S. state. You can have short-term memory loss, impaired self-control, judgment, and perception.
  • 10 BAC level—Reaction times are significantly slower, along with speech, coordination, and thinking.
  • 15 BAC level—Loss of muscle control appears, making it hard to stay balanced. Vision is blurred, and vomiting may occur depending on tolerance.

Track Your Alcohol Use

Tracking your alcohol use helps reduces guesswork about how much you drink. You can use a tracking app on your smartphone or write down each drink on a tracking card. How you track is less important than what you record. Studies show tracking drinking behaviors can help reduce the amount of alcohol consumed.10

Another idea for tracking is to keep a calendar that shows each day of the month you’ve used alcohol. If you see that you are exceeding low-risk drinking ranges defined by NIAAA, you can make a plan to reduce not just how much you drink in a sitting, but how many days you use alcohol.

This pattern can also help you determine if you need external help for alcohol misuse or to be evaluated for alcohol use disorder.

Set Alcohol Use Goals

Self-monitoring methods like tracking and goal setting help can help you reduce the amount of alcohol you use and teach you how to drink responsibly. Setting goals enhances motivation, self-control, and a sense of internal responsibility separate from others’ expectations.11

Using the standard drink size guidelines, you can set realistic goals for a given period. Make your goals official by writing them down or telling someone else what they are, such as your therapist or a trusted friend. If you find yourself unable to control how much or how often you use alcohol, this one of the criterion clinicians evaluate to determine if an individual has alcohol use disorder.5 Not meeting these goals is not a failure of willpower, but rather a sign that you may need better tools or more help.

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Practice Drink Refusal Skills

Peer pressure is not something that happens only among teens or college students. It occurs within the adult population too. When you are trying to regulate your alcohol use, social pressure can make it more difficult, whether this pressure is direct or indirect.12

The ability to say “no” and remain in control of your drinking decisions is key to drinking responsibly. NIAAA recommends practicing these drink refusal skills:12

  • Avoid situations when you know peers will pressure you to drink.
  • Create a list of ways to say “no” assertively.
  • Be honest, admitting you are trying to control how much you use alcohol.
  • Drink nonalcoholic drinks or “alcohol-free mocktails” instead of alcoholic beverages or alternate between the two.
  • Plan ways to leave high-pressure situations.
  • Ask for support from friends and family to help you reduce alcohol consumption.

Arrange Alternative Transportation

Drinking responsibly means behaving responsibly when intoxicated. Drinking and driving causes numerous preventable deaths each year. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 29 people die every day in a vehicle accident involving an impaired driver.13

Just a few years ago, over one million people were arrested for driving under the influence.13

To be a responsible drinker, choose alternative transportation, like the following:14

  • Choose one person out of your group to be a designated driver for the night.
  • Choose to use a rideshare program like Uber or Lyft.
  • Take a train, bus, or cab if you live in a city with access to these forms of transportation.
  • Call a family member or friend to pick you up.

Check to see if your town has a program to prevent drinking and driving and utilize the services. Examples include Wisconsin’s Road Crew program, New Jersey’s Evesham Saving Lives program, and Jolly Trolley in Delaware.14

Build Sober Habits

National organizations list tips and suggestions for reducing alcohol intake and responsible drinking. Some of these include the following:15

  • Fill your free time with positive activities that don’t involve alcohol.
  • Make new healthy friendships or renew old ones.
  • Seek counseling and support to deal with mood or coping issues.
  • Avoid triggers, including people, places, and things that remind you of drinking alcohol.
  • Find ways to manage the urge to drink.
  • Reward yourself along the way for becoming a responsible drinker.
  • Recognize if you are replacing alcohol use with any other substance or behavior.

Recognize the Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

Not everyone who drinks has an alcohol use disorder. But if you find yourself thinking about drinking often or are unable to control how much you drink, even when you try, these could be signs of a bigger problem. Also, if you have to drink more alcohol to feel its effects, you may have developed a tolerance, which can also be early signs of an alcohol use disorder.16

Additional signs may include:16, 17

  • Spending a lot of your time using alcohol or dealing with the effects of alcohol, like hangover
  • Noticing that alcohol use interferes with personal, professional, academic, or social obligations
  • Continuing to drink even though it causes negative consequences like losing a job, broken relationships, financial problems, and more
  • Participating in high-risk activities while drinking
  • Continuing to use alcohol even after you become aware of mental or physical issues directly related to alcohol, like depression, anxiety, or liver disease
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, including:
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Shaking
    • Headache
    • Digestive issues
    • Mood changes
    • Sweating
    • Sleep disturbances

Drinking responsibly may reduce the chances of developing an alcohol use disorder or experiencing adverse effects of alcohol.

If you want to reduce your drink and need help making a plan, outpatient counseling is available. If you have severe withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit drinking, medically supervised detox programs can help you avoid any medically significant symptoms, such as seizure.

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  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.
  3. S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Responsible Drinking. MedlinePlus.
  4. Charlet K, Heinz A. (2017). Harm reduction-a systematic review on effects of alcohol reduction on physical and mental symptoms. Addict Biology, 22(5), 1119-1159.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
  6. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews Editorial Staff (2018). Drinking Patterns and Their Definitions. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 39(1), 17–18.
  7. Sullivan, E. V., Harris, R. A., & Pfefferbaum, A. (2010). Alcohol’s Effects on Brain and Behavior. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 33(1-2), 127–143.
  8. S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Blood Alcohol Level. MedlinePlus.
  9. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC).
  10. Attwood, S., Parke, H., Larsen, J., & Morton, K. L. (2017). Using a mobile health application to reduce alcohol consumption: a mixed-methods evaluation of the drinkaware track & calculate units application. BMC public health, 17(1),
  11. Walitzer, K. S., & Connors, G. J. (1999). Treating problem drinking. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 23(2), 138–143.
  12. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Building Your Drink Refusal Skills. Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol & Your Health.
  13. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Impaired Driving: Get the Facts. Transportation Safety.
  14. Fell, J. C., Scolese, J., Achoki, T., Burks, C., Goldberg, A., & DeJong, W. (2020). The effectiveness of alternative transportation programs in reducing impaired driving: A literature review and synthesis. Journal of safety research, 75, 128–139.
  15. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Tips to Try. Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol & Your Health.
  16. S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Alcohol Use Disorder. MedlinePlus.
  17. Newman RK, Stobart Gallagher MA, Gomez AE. (2021). Alcohol Withdrawal. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
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