Gray-area drinking is a new catch phrase that you might find as you search the internet. The term describes that space between very casual, periodic drinking, and heavy binge or daily drinking. Essentially, it was coined to provide a category for those folks whose drinking may not look outwardly problematic (i.e. they haven’t gotten into trouble at work, school, or home, haven’t had legal or financial issues, and haven’t had any medical consequences from their alcohol consumption) but feels subjectively troubling for any number of reasons. The phrase is not meant to downplay the seriousness of the issue; it is there to provide clarity and ultimately to encourage people who fall into this category to become more conscious and to consider pathways to sobriety without shame.
Gray-area drinkers may not feel that they fit in at AA, where members’ stories can seem dramatic and scary, and they may not know if they need some kind of treatment to stop. Gray-area drinkers may spend time taking self-tests and asking those around them if they appear to have a problem. The period before the decision to stop drinking can be confusing and lonely, and all the information in the world won’t make the decision. There is an internal shift, as there is for anyone who reaches the decision to stop.
That’s true. More information can only take one so far. But information can help. It can be especially helpful for individuals who are logic driven. With that in mind, let’s look at the effect of short- and long-term alcohol use on the body.
Alcohol use has a long association with humans. Hundreds of years ago it was called a life-enriching substance and remains a favorite mind- and mood-altering substance around the world. In the United States specifically, it is legal, and in many circles, encouraged. Take a walk down the street today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and chances are you’ll find a liquor store that remains open even when other retail businesses have been closed.
Here’s another bit of truth, alcohol, EtOH, is a poisonous substance that has many negative effects on the body in both the short- and the long-term.
Consuming too much alcohol in the short-term can lead to:
- Vision problems
- Increased risk of lung infection (like pneumonia)
- High blood pressure
- Acid reflux
- Skin flushing and inflammation that can cause existing skin conditions to appear worse
- Lack of muscle coordination
Long-term use and mis-use of alcohol can lead to:
- Anemia and low blood platelet counts
- Nerve issues like pain, dizziness, weakness, difficulty walking, seizures, sleep disturbances, and dementia
- Diminished vision
- Cancers of the mouth, throat, and larynx,
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease, irregular heartbeats, chronic heart disease and even heart failure
- Esophageal cancer
- Chronic gastritis and bleeding from stomach or esophagus
- Hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer
- Chronic or acute pancreatitis
- Malnutrition and vitamin deficiency
- Cancer of the large intestine, bowel or rectum
- Osteoporosis, muscle weakness, and muscle wasting
- Impotence in men and decreased fertility in both men and women
- Birth defects (when consumed while pregnant)
The decision to quit drinking, whether you think you might be a gray-area drinker or you are aware that your alcohol use has begun to negatively impact different areas of your life, can be a challenging one for many reasons. It is a decision that only you can make, and while it’s true that all the information in the world can’t make the shift for you, information can help. The truth is that alcohol is a dangerous drug that negatively impacts the body in numerous ways. The decision to stop ingesting EtOH, whether you do so spontaneously or require assistance like formalized treatment, is a positive one.
Dr. Allaire received his Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Houston, as Valedictorian of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and his Medical Doctorate from Baylor College of Medicine, where he served as Chief Resident. He is the medical monitor for the Physician Counseling Committee of the Harris County Medical Society and the Medical Director of Serenity House Detox. Dr. Allaire specializes in medically assisted detox cases, treating patients in recovery from addiction or other mental health disorders, the medical assessment and monitoring of patients with addictive disorders, medical care related to eating disorders and the medical treatment of patients with mental health conditions.