Heavy Holiday Drinking: Normal or a Sign of an Alcohol Use Disorder?


In many homes, alcohol augments every part of the Thanksgiving meal.

In fact, drinking on Thanksgiving could be considered an American holiday tradition. Guests bring a bottle of wine with them when invited over for the meal. Adults drink beer while playing cards and other games with family members, and young people head out to the bar to meet up with old friends who have also returned home for the holidays.

Alcohol is a ubiquitous part of American culture on an average day, and the holidays are far from average. Everything is done to excess from Thanksgiving through the New Year, and many drink heavily throughout this period without giving it a second thought. For some, heavy holiday drinking is a “normal,” though potentially unsafe and unhealthy, practice that does not significantly impact any other part of their lives. For others, however, heavy drinking during the holidays can be a sign that an alcohol use disorder is an issue.

What Amount of Alcohol Defines ‘Normal’ Intake?

This is a difficult question to answer due in part to the fact that each person metabolizes alcohol differently. Those who drink regularly may be able to have a couple of drinks without really “feeling” the effects, while someone who rarely drinks will likely experience a “buzz” before finishing a single drink. Weight, metabolism, use of certain medications, and/or underlying medical conditions can all impact how someone experiences alcohol in different amounts, which makes it hard to define “normal” by identifying quantity.

Additionally, not everyone defines “one drink” the same way. Some fill up a glass and call it “one” alcoholic beverage, no matter how many ounces the glass holds. Others refill a glass repeatedly before it is empty and still believe that they’ve only had one drink.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines a standard drink as any of the following:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (7 percent alcohol)
  • 8 or 9 ounces of malt liquor (12 percent alcohol)
  • 3 or 4 ounces of fortified wine, like port or sherry (17 percent alcohol)
  • 2 or 3 ounces of a liqueur, cordial, or aperitif (24 percent)
  • 1.5 ounces of a cognac, brandy, or 80-proof liquor (40 percent)

Even if you think you are only having a drink or two at a holiday party, watch those refills before your glass is empty, cocktails that have multiple types of alcohol in them, and mysterious holiday punches, if you’re trying to count drinks as a way to manage alcohol intake.

How Much Is Too Much?

Again, “too much” is a variable that is highly subjective, but it’s important to note that erring on the side of caution is recommended. It is estimated that an average of six Americans die of alcohol poisoning every day due to binge drinking – drinking four or more alcoholic beverages in two hours for women, or drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in that same time period for men – and more than 38 million Americans report binge drinking behaviors. That is, one in six Americans say that they drink an average of eight drinks or more in a two-hour period – and that’s not just during the holidays. Given that the number is an average and that Americans tend to drink heavily on holidays, it’s likely that those rates are far higher during the holiday season.

What Are the Signs That Holiday Drinking Is Indicative of an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Not sure if your drinking during the holidays is just a temporary overindulgence or a sign that treatment is necessary? Here are a few indications:

  • Holiday drinking causes difficulties at work: If you find that you are continually experiencing problems at work due to your drinking – showing up late or not at all, making mistakes, not getting along with coworkers – yet you continue to drink heavily through the season, it can indicate a problem.
  • Arguments with family members occur while drinking or hungover: Similarly, fighting with family members that is fueled by drinking can be an indication of an alcohol use disorder.
  • Driving while under the influence happens even once: Drinking and/or use of drugs and driving do not mix under any circumstances for any reason, and rationalizing or engaging in driving under the influence without thinking is a clear sign that drinking has gotten out of control.
  • You tend to make other poor choices while drinking: Unprotected sex, physical aggression, lying or stealing – these are just a few of the poor choices that can indicate a substance abuse disorder when alcohol is part of the equation.
  • Drinking leads to legal issues: Any choice made under the influence that threatens your personal freedom is another red flag of an alcohol use disorder.
  • Your doctors have told you not to drink at all due to underlying mental health or medical disorders: If you are under a doctor’s orders not to drink and you continue to do so – and heavily – throughout the holidays despite the repercussions, it can indicate a problem.
  • These are not just holiday problems: If you experience these issues during the holiday season but are then able to stop or moderate your drinking so these issues do not continue into the new year, it may not indicate an alcohol use disorder. If these are not just problems that you experience during the holidays, and heavy drinking is an ongoing issue, it may be time to seek help. If that is the case, remember that you are not alone and help is available.


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