Indulging in a little binge now and then might be OK if you’re watching TV. But bingeing could be less casual and more dangerous when it comes to alcohol. Binge drinking is defined as a consumption pattern of typically five (or more) alcoholic drinks for men and four (or more) beverages for women in about two hours. It’s a surprisingly common practice in the U.S., where one in six adults has reported binge drinking every week. It can also be a harmful habit. But is it any more or less dangerous than daily drinking? Is it better to drink too much one day, or a little bit every day?
Binge Drinking vs. Daily Drinking
The list of studies that address this question is a long one. For example, one study reported that daily drinking is the most significant risk factor for liver diseases. Another shows that every-day drinking threatens the heart. On the other hand, studies in rats showed that binge drinking accelerates alcohol-use disorders. Plus, the CDC reports that binge drinking is “the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the U.S.” In short, there’s enough research on both sides to suggest a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion: Both binge drinking and daily drinking can be harmful, with each practice having less-than-ideal consequences for the organ systems in the human body, including:
Drinking affects plenty of organs in the human body, and with binge and chronic drinking, it starts with the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach and intestines. As the first point of contact between a drink and your body, cells in the tract are directly exposed to high alcohol concentrations. Over time, that leads to problems, especially for the gut mucosa.
The cells laying on the surface of intestines compose the gut mucosa. Even though these cells belong to the digestive system, they do much more than simply digest food; they also have a role in the body’s immunity.
When alcohol enters these cells, it’s divided into smaller substances known as breakdown products. These products aid a process that can damage epithelial cells and their tight junction proteins — proteins that act as tape in tissues, while also controlling permeability. Without this tape, the intestinal barrier is disrupted. Consequently, bacteria and toxins which usually stay in the gastrointestinal system can invade the bloodstream, possibly causing infection. Alcohol also influences the microbiome in the gut, decreasing microbe diversity and making bacteria overgrow. While it is generally good that the gut is filled with bacteria, too much might lead to inflammation in the mucosa. When this happens, gut cells can’t work correctly; the gut has too many bacteria and toxins have invaded the bloodstream. The body pleads for help, and one particular system comes to mind in such toxic scenarios: the immune system.
Alcohol affects the immune system on many fronts, with both binge drinkers and daily drinkers suffering different consequences. People who drink daily have issues with skin wounds (without a healthy immune system, it’s difficult to close wounds properly) and are prone to diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. However, binge drinkers have their share of issues, too. In one study, scientists reported that one single episode of binge drinking can trigger the immune system. Researchers speculate that since the gut is more permeable due to alcohol, bacterial toxins are regularly traveling from the gut into the bloodstream. This flow of toxins continuously activates the body’s defenses. Usually, the immune system fights off infection efficiently, but when it’s heavily activated like this during binge drinking, it may become dysfunctional and exhausted.
Binge drinking affects the brain within two main scopes: behavioral responses and physiological ones. Difficulties in decision-making, blackouts and loss of consciousness are some of the outcomes associated with a heavy night of drinks. However, the brain changes structurally over time, too. Studies show that the brains of teenagers who indulge in binge drinking have less gray matter, the vital tissue that allows humans to function normally. This same study also reports that binge drinking seems to affect how brains respond to a variety of tasks. While cognitive impairment is a problem for all ages, teenagers could bear the most tremendous burden. Numbers show that teens are among the ones who tend to binge the most and alcohol could affect the juvenile brain.
“Research suggests that alcohol influences how the teenage brain develops, both atypically speeding up and slowing down normal developmental processes. These alternations are in important brain regions for optimal adult functioning and decision-making,” says Bonnie Nagel, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University. “Changes related to alcohol use are even greater with more alcohol use, so binge drinking levels could be most detrimental.”
The list of ill effects goes on like a bad hangover. Binge drinking affects the heart, lungs, muscles and even bones. Drinking every day leaves its marks too, meaning that when it comes to chronic alcohol use, it seems like there’s no way around the harm it can cause. So perhaps sticking to the old proverb of “all things in moderation” is still the best advice — unless of course a new season of your favorite show has just dropped on Netflix.