There are plenty of reasons to cut back on drinking alcohol. It could be for health benefits like better sleep or clearer skin, or maybe you just like to do an annual sober challenge like Dry January.
Scaling back on how much alcohol you drink could be beneficial if you suspect you're going overboard. The current guidelines for moderate drinking for adults 21 and over recommend one drink or less in a day for people assigned female at birth (AFAB) or two drinks or less in a day for people assigned male at birth (AMAB), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One standard drink would be a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine or a shot of liquor, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
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More than that, and your drinking may be categorized as binge drinking or heavy drinking, according to the CDC.
- Binge drinking is defined as drinking 4 or more alcoholic beverages on an occasion for people AFAB or 5 or more drinks for people AMAB.
- Heavy drinking is defined as 8 or more drinks per week for people AFAB or 15 or more drinks per week for people AMAB.
Drinking more than is recommended is common: Around 44 percent of people were classified as binge drinkers and nearly 29 percent were classified as heavy drinkers, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Even though that messaging can feel stigmatizing, "drinking does not make you a 'bad' person," says Jeff Temple, PhD, a licensed psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch. "Alcohol can absolutely be a pleasurable hobby, a social lubricant and a great way to spend a Friday night."
Whether or not you're worried about your intake, there are practical ways to improve your relationship with alcohol. Here are tips to control drinking habits without giving up alcohol entirely, according to experts.
A Note on Language
The language surrounding alcohol use continues to evolve. In the medical world, some experts use "alcohol abuse" and "alcohol misuse" interchangeably, Temple says, to mean "an individual is drinking in a manner that puts them at risk for adverse health and social consequences, including violence, accidents and a number of physical problems like liver disease and heart disease."
Alcohol dependence, on the other hand, "is a more severe form of alcohol abuse and is associated with increased tolerance to alcohol, experiencing withdrawal symptoms after not drinking for a bit and craving alcohol," Temple says.
Alcohol use disorder is a severe medical condition that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol and continuing to drink it despite the problems it's causing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
1. Remove Temptation
The allure of alcohol can be anywhere — family gatherings, social events, work happy hours, to name just a few. It can be tough to control when and where alcohol is present, but the one place you do have a say is your home.
"First of all, I advise my patients to keep zero alcohol in your house," says Mike Sevilla, MD, a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
If you're making an effort to cut back on drinking, follow the path of least resistance by removing alcohol from the areas where you have total control.
"Be aware of those certain situations, like holidays, and certain people who are associated with drinking," Dr. Sevilla says. That could mean planning ahead and choosing which special event you'll decide to have a drink or two, or choosing not to attend altogether so you can avoid the temptation.
2. Make a Plan
If you know you'll be around alcohol, make a plan for how you'll approach drinking ahead of time. Decide at the beginning of the night how many drinks you'll allow yourself to have, if any. If you need someone to hold you accountable, ask a friend to check in with you. Or maybe your plan is to alternate alcoholic drinks with glasses of water to help you stay hydrated and minimize a possible hangover.
Your approach can also include doing your best to avoid any negative consequences of drinking, Temple says. "Plan your drinking so it doesn't affect your work or relationships," such as only drinking on weekends and limiting alcohol to only special occasions.
"The first and necessary tip is harm reduction. If you tend to become aggressive when you drink, then don't drink in front of your partner or others," Temple says.
3. Check In With Yourself Before You Drink
It can also help to monitor your emotions before you start drinking, per Harvard Health Publishing. Feelings of anxiety, stress or anger can increase temptation to drink too much. Try finding alternatives to cope with stress before reaching for a drink, such as meditation and exercise.
"Unfortunately, many people drink to self-medicate, which may do the trick immediately but ultimately worsens and prolongs the problem," Temple says.
"Alcohol misuse is associated in some way with anxiety, depression, PTSD and nearly every other mental health concern. Problematic alcohol use can contribute to poor mental health, and can result from poor mental health. They can each make the other worse."
4. Keep an Alcohol Log
Because cutting back doesn't mean total elimination, Temple suggests starting a drinking diary to keep yourself accountable. Your entries can include each time you have a drink, how much you drank and where you were.
Seeing your alcohol intake on paper (or in a digital note on your phone) can also give you a better idea of how much you're having and how frequently. If you notice any red flags that concern you, reach out to your doctor for help.
"When it comes to trying to improve one's health, I always recommend that a person check in with their family physician first, because your doctor has experience in trying to help you reach your particular health goal, whatever that is," Dr. Sevilla says.
5. Ask for Support
The effort to control drinking doesn't have to be done alone or remain a secret. In most cases, it can be helpful to let friends and family know about your intentions so they can support you. Or as Temple suggests, recruit a friend to be a sober buddy so you can have help with drinking less.
"Don't be afraid to ask for help and support from those friends and family who are on your side," Dr. Sevilla says. Use an accountability buddy to check in with you to make sure you aren't going beyond your drink limit. It could also be helpful to tell them your limit at the beginning of the occasion so they can keep tabs on you.
6. Opt for Low-Alcohol Beverages
Another way to cut back — even just a little — is to opt for low-alcohol beverages or zero-proof drinks. "A good option could be a seltzer or a hard cider," Temple says. "I also recommend having a non-alcoholic drink in between each alcoholic beverage."
The benefits of having watered-down drinks could work in your favor — fewer hangovers, better sleep and more energy, to name a few. And if a pre-made drink isn't your idea of a fun time, it's OK to ask a bartender to shake up a mixed drink that has less alcohol in it, too.
7. Practice Mindfulness
While drinking alcohol can be a big part of socializing, it's healthy to set boundaries around your drinking and pay attention to how it makes you feel. This could mean taking a mindful moment to really consider whether or not you want more than one drink or if you've had enough. Give yourself space to honor how you feel, then make a decision about whether or not to keep drinking.
"You could also screen yourself with a few questions," Temple says. "Do you feel like you've had too much? Are you feeling guilty about drinking? Are you drinking because you want to or is there peer pressure?"
8. Don't Finish Your Drink
Changing your mind isn't a crime. If you've ordered a drink and suddenly don't feel like having anymore alcohol, feel free to ditch it. While this may be a waste of money, it's not a waste if you're sticking to your boundaries and your goals to cut back.
"I advise people to be persistent, because it's normal to sometimes have setbacks during this process," Dr. Sevilla says. "But continuing to work on yourself and to reach your goals is always a good thing."
"Constant hangovers, missing assignments or work, problems with your relationships or needing a drink when you’re stressed are telltale signs that you may have a problem with drinking," Temple says.
Alcohol-related stigmas are often a barrier between someone seeking help or admitting they may have a problem, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
If you or someone you know are dealing with alcohol use disorder, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is available 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It provides referrals to local treatment centers, support groups, and community-based organizations.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol"
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: "Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs"
- UTMB Health: "Jeff Temple, Ph.D."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "11 Ways to Curb Your Drinking"
- Mayo Clinic: "Alcohol use disorder"
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "When It Comes to Reducing Alcohol-Related Stigma, Words Matter"
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "What Is A Standard Drink?"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.