Military Drinking: How To Spot A Problem, Ways To Help

By Karisa Ding | October 12, 2016 | Rally Health


In the military, it's no secret that people drink. Sometimes a lot. In fact, many see it as a way to deal with stress and build camaraderie, so service members are more likely than civilians to be heavy drinkers — before, during, and after deployment.

For vets back from conflict zones, the transition to civilian life can be overwhelming. Some might find that drinking is easier than asking for help for combat-related stress.

And even if you’re a social drinker, you might be having more than you realize. For guys, any more than two drinks a day is heavy drinking, and a single pint of beer might actually count as two, three, or even four drinks!

What counts as one drink?

Less than you might think. One drink is about 14 grams’ worth of pure ethyl alcohol (produced when yeast ferments the carbs in things like fruit and grain). That translates to:

  • One 12-ounce beer (about 5 percent alcohol; some craft beers have up to 18 percent so a pint may be more than four drinks)
  • One 5-ounce glass of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
  • One 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor (typically 80 proof or 40 percent alcohol; many classic cocktails can have two or more times that amount)

As your drink gets stiffer, “one drink” will be smaller. You can look up your favorites here.

Experts define “moderate drinking” as no more than two drinks a day for men or one a day for women. That’s because women tend to be smaller and process alcohol more slowly.

What’s a "heavy drinker”?

Just asking the question is a smart move.

Heavy drinking or "at-risk" drinking is having any more than a moderate amount — more than 14 drinks a week for men, or seven for women. It’s surprisingly easy to hit that mark. If you drink, try to keep track of your daily and weekly total in your head or with an app and try to stick to moderate amounts every time.

Binge drinking is having five or more drinks for men (or four or more for women) over a two-hour period. For most people, that’s how long it takes to for blood alcohol to reach 0.08 g/dL, the legal limit for drunk driving in most states. People who binge drink five or more days in a month are considered heavy drinkers too.

Can you drink a lot and not have a drinking problem?

Some people can party hard and still function, but the military's "warrior culture" can make it hard to spot trouble or ask for help. Anytime alcohol starts to interfere — in relationships, family, work, or school — it’s a problem.

Aside from hangovers, drinking raises your risk of accidents like burns, falls, drowning, and vehicle crashes. When you’re drunk, you're also more likely to take unnecessary risks like having driving under the influence or getting into arguments or even physical fights.

Alcohol also affects your brain and can lead to learning and memory problems, and can worsen depression and anxiety. Heavy drinking can even set you up for long-term health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and liver problems.

Tips for cutting back or quitting

When your or a loved one needs to make changes, there are many ways to go about it, from cutting back to quitting cold turkey. If you ever feel like you need professional help, don't hesitate to ask.

To cut back:

  • Set goals. Decide which days you’ll drink (or not) and how many drinks you'll have. Aim for no more than two a day or 14 a week if you’re a man, one a day or seven a week if you’re a woman.
  • Track your drinks. Recording the number of drinks you have helps you stay under your limit. Use any system that's convenient for you — a kitchen calendar, pocket notepad, or phone app, for example. Some apps allow you to track the number of drinks you're having and use your gender and weight to estimate your blood alcohol concentration.
  • Sip and skip. Sip one drink slowly over the course of an hour. Make every other drink something without alcohol, like water or club soda with lime. Keep in mind that it takes the body about two hours to break down the alcohol in one drink.
  • Pair with food. Eat some food with your drink so the alcohol is absorbed into your system slowly.

If you’re quitting:

  • Practice saying "No thanks." Walk into situations ready to say no immediately and politely when offered a drink. If you hesitate, you may end up taking the drink.
  • Avoid triggers. Give up the people, places, and activities that trigger your cravings. Plan something else to do. Don’t keep booze in the house. Find healthy ways to manage stress — meditating, deep breathing, and walking can help.
  • Be ready to handle cravings. Keep a reminder of why you’re doing this — it could be a simple picture or card in your wallet or a note on your phone. Call a friend or family member who can talk you through it, or distract yourself with a book or game. The urge to drink may be temporary.
  • Find replacement activities and hobbies. You might find you have more free time when you're not drinking. Fill up that time with a new hobby or revive an old one, or get into a regular exercise routine — anything that's healthy and distracts you from wanting to drink is a good option.

Whatever you try, give each strategy some time before deciding if it's working. If not, go for another approach. If you're still having trouble, ask your doctor for advice.

How to get help

As with any health problem, sometimes you need expert help to get better.

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are available on many military installations and in civilian communities. These groups are confidential and usually free.

Another option is to talk to your primary care provider. They can check out your overall health and, based on the full picture, work out a treatment plan that’s right for you.

If you're active-duty, National Guard, or Reserve, another option is to call Military OneSource (800-342-9647) to learn about resources and support programs. You can receive confidential treatment through your service's substance abuse program.

Remember, there's no quick fix for heavy drinking. It's a process that takes commitment and persistence. You may have setbacks, especially when stressed, and that’s normal. Stick with it.

Editor: Deepi Brar

Karisa Ding is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California.

Selected references and resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol FAQs.

Rethinking Drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Military OneSource Confidential Help


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