Sometimes after a long day of work, school, caregiving, and generally being alive in the year 2022, nothing sounds better than a glass of wine or your favourite cocktail. Call it happy hour, call it taking the edge off, call it blowing off steam; we're accustomed to leaning on alcohol when we need some help relaxing, which feels like a harder task than ever these days.
No judgment to anyone's coping mechanisms, especially after the last few years, but it's true that alcohol is one habit you don't want to lean on too heavily. The physical and mental health risks of drinking are well documented, yet it's not always easy to objectively assess your own drinking habits and the risks that come with them. Let's say you drink alcohol almost every day, but not in large amounts — a glass of wine or two, or a gin and tonic, or one hard seltzer. You're not drinking heavily, but you are drinking regularly. At what point does that become unhealthy or a habit to watch out for? Here, Christopher Johnston, MD, addiction medicine specialist and chief medical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers, has the answers.
Is It Unhealthy to Drink Alcohol Every Day?
"There is no risk-free frequency of drinking alcohol," Dr. Johnston says. "It doesn't matter what type of alcohol; the risk goes up as the amount of alcohol increases." If you drink more frequently, he adds, your risk of negative consequences goes up, though there's some risk even if you drink sporadically.
Short answer: yes, drinking every day is an unhealthy habit. Specifically, drinking frequently can lead to stomach issues, high blood pressure in the short and long term, and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, Dr. Johnston says. Liver and nerve damage, memory problems, and sexual dysfunction are also common health effects. Daily drinking may also increase your risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), particularly if you're engaging in heavy drinking, which the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines as consuming more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week for women and consuming more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men.
Daily drinking may also increase your alcohol tolerance, which means you won't feel the effects of alcohol as quickly. In other words, if you're drinking to elicit a certain response in your body (such as feelings of relaxation or stress reduction), you may find yourself needing to drink more to get there. So even if you start out as a moderate drinker (one drink or less a day for women), daily drinking increases the likelihood that you'll become a heavier drinker to overcome an increasing tolerance.
New research also suggests that age might have something to do with the health risks of alcohol. A 2022 study published in The Lancet found that health risks were higher for people under the age of 40 and that the estimated amount of alcohol that's safe to drink daily — without incurring any potential health risks — is only two tablespoons of wine or 0.34 ounces (100 milliliters) of beer for women and a small shot glass of beer for men.
This research (which is a review of data and conclusions extrapolated from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study) is notable because it's the first to report alcohol risk by geographical region, age, sex, and year and because it suggests that alcohol-consumption guidelines should potentially be differentiated by age rather than sex. Some experts have criticized the conclusions, and it's worth noting that the study had a very broad definition of "health risks," including everything from physical injuries to mental health issues, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
But senior study author Emmanuela Gakidou, professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington's School of Medicine, told CNN that the takeaway is largely the same. "What we've been able to do now is break it down: Who is alcohol harmful for? Who is alcohol beneficial to?" he said. "That's why the message is coming across as different, but it is actually consistent with what we said before." And that message is that drinking, in any amount, seems to be bad for your health.
How to Evaluate Your Drinking Habits
The NIAAA defines moderate drinking as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less in a day for men. Binge drinking and heavy drinking are defined as consuming four or more drinks on any day for women or five or more drinks on any day for men, though heavy drinking can also be applied to women drinking more than seven drinks per week or 14 drinks per week for men. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on five or more days in the past month.
Binge drinking and heavy drinking can increase the risk of AUD, which is the impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use. AUD is diagnosed on a spectrum of mild, moderate, and severe. Some common early warning signs that you're developing AUD, according to Dr. Johnston, include:
- Disruption of sleep patterns
- Continuing to drink in spite of adverse consequences
- Being late for work, school, or other obligations after heavy drinking
- Significant people in your life commenting about your drinking
You can see the complete list of symptoms on the NIAAA's website.
While drinking every day does not necessarily put you in the category of a heavy drinker or someone with AUD, it may increase your likelihood of developing those issues as well as other alcohol-related health problems. If you do drink every day or most days, it's worth reevaluating your habits in view of the health risks they present and considering decreasing your alcohol intake in favor of other coping mechanisms. With drinking, as with many things, moderation — in amount and frequency — is key.