What to know about 'gray area' drinking, which can lead to alcohol use disorder

·3 min read
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  • "Gray area" drinking is when you constantly think about your next drink of alcohol.

  • Experts say alcohol consumption in the pandemic made "gray area" drinking more complicated.

  • One warning sign of "gray area" drinking is even if you want to, you can't stop drinking alcohol.

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Somewhere in the spectrum between sobriety and alcohol use disorder lies an unofficial medical diagnosis: "gray area" drinking.

While alcohol use disorder occurs when the body is physically dependent on alcohol, "gray area" drinking is not as clearly defined.

Kate Julian recently wrote in The Atlantic, for example, that she's drinking six to almost 15 drinks per week. While it's not as worrisome as drinking more than two bottles of wine per night, she said it's hard to measure the harms of her drinking habits.

Despite the vagueness that comes with "gray area" drinking, experts have come up with explanations for this nebulous term.

"Someone's not so far into their drinking that their body is dependent … they're not in the severe end of the spectrum, but they are drinking in a way that makes their life worse as opposed to better," Dr. Jessica Gregg, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, told USA Today,

Gregg also said it's not necessarily the number of drinks that places you in this category, but how you view alcohol.

"If someone is only drinking three nights a week, but they're thinking about that night every day … they're just waiting and it's occupying their thoughts and distracting them, they're not drinking as much but their drinking is more disordered," she told USA Today.

While "gray area" drinking isn't an official medical diagnosis, it can lead to other serious issues, like alcohol use disorder.

Pandemic alcohol consumption made 'gray drinking' more complicated

Alcohol use was up 14% last spring compared to the same time period the year before, according to one study.

Most recently, a report published in March found that almost 25% of Americans drank more in the past year to cope with stress.

Alberto Augusten, head pharmacist and toxicologist at Memorial Regional Hospital in Miami, told USA Today that the pandemic complicated the already fuzzy definition of "gray area" drinking. "

"The COVID pandemic has made it more difficult."

The warning signs of 'gray area' drinking

From happy hour to boozy brunch, drinking is ingrained in our culture, and it could be hard to tell if you're in the "gray area" drinking category. But experts said there are a few ways to gauge if you have issues with alcohol.

One warning sign is if you want to cut back on alcohol, but aren't able to do so.

Another sign includes questioning whether you drink too much.

If you're concerned about whether you have a "gray area" drinking problem, Gregg said to talk to a medical professional or a friend about your drinking concerns, and find other non-drinking activities to fill your time.

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