Alcohol Moderation or Abstinence?

Conventional wisdom has insisted on complete abstinence for people who have drinking problems, but moderation may be better advice. The current issue of the Harvard Mental Health Newsletter reports that it may be best to recommend that men have up to two drinks per day and women, one drink per day. This is certainly a conservative definition of moderation for many drinkers, but an amount unlikely to cause ill health effects. The authors explain that individuals who are alcohol dependent will probably not be able to control the drinking to that extent, and therefore, may realize their alcohol dependence and seek help.

After all, how many people who are dependent on alcohol take advice from anyone to abstain? It’s common that alcoholics who eventually accept treatment, do so because of some type of serious consequence of their drinking. The loss may be of a marriage, a home, a job, relationships with children, prison, serious health problems or something else. No one can say what will convince a particular dependent person to quit drinking, but advice is rarely a motivation. Some people with alcohol dependence never quit for good. Learning for oneself that just a drink or two per day isn’t possible may provide an individual with evidence that he or she needs treatment.

For other drinkers, moderation can prevent the terrible sinkhole that is dependency on alcohol. The progression from excessive drinking to dependence to the ill health and social effects of alcoholism is much more easily understood by someone who drinks too much, yet hasn’t developed a dependency and the denial that accompanies alcoholism. Drinking in moderation is attainable for this group and can save them from that dangerously rocky, downhill road of alcoholism.

© Copyright 2009 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Margie

    January 29th, 2009 at 5:14 AM

    I can definitely see the logic in this research and the conclusions. Perhaps with those who are alcoholics it is like it is with many with food issues- tell them they cannot have something and they want it even more. But allow them to have what they want but in moderation and many find tremendous success in this. Of course it will not work for everyone but nothing ever does. But at least this may give some drinkers hope and not let them feel like such a failure in this one very controllable area of their lives.

  • Jade

    January 30th, 2009 at 10:50 PM

    I do agree that this might prove more successful with getting rid of alcohol dependancy. However, the alcoholic must be able to accept the limit allowed like an adult. The most common problem with this is the 2 allowed drinks tend to become 3 and then by the end of the week it’s bottoms up!!! Violent behavior and erratic behavioral patterns need to be tackled simultaneously.

  • Kiera

    January 30th, 2009 at 10:52 PM

    This is very encouraging as it becomes a huge headache around social events as it leaves a person in rehab with no choice but to avoid a social life. This is definitely a more acceptable and easier way of tackling the problem.

  • Irena

    January 31st, 2009 at 8:59 AM

    As the wife of an alcoholic who has been through treatment and recovery more times than I care to admit, there is no way he can have just one or two drinks. This is simply not possible for him or for so many others who have an alcohol dependency. The only way he and others will ever be successful at curing their habits is complete abstinence. I am sorry if that offends some readers but having lived thru the nighmare of alcoholism I can honestly say that from my viewpoint this is absolutely true.

  • Jolyn

    January 31st, 2009 at 6:31 PM

    It seems there has been some misunderstanding of what the Harvard Newsletter suggests. As it says in the article above, “The authors explain that individuals who are alcohol dependent will probably not be able to control the drinking to that extent, and therefore, may realize their alcohol dependence and seek help.” They don’t say that people who have alcoholism will be able to control their drinking to one or two per day, but only that trying it and failing may convince some to seek treatment.

    For people who are problem drinkers, but haven’t hit the point of alcoholism, limiting their drinking to one or two may be possible and help them avoid alcoholism.

    I hope this is clearer.

  • Carson

    February 3rd, 2009 at 1:48 PM

    So what is the real definition of a problem drinker versus an alcoholic? To me it seems to be one and the same. I am of the opinion that if you have a rpblem with the stuff then you just don’t touch it at all and that would resolve a lot of your problems right there. End of that discussion. Why does there even need to be a question about it? It seems to me that there are more effective ways to deal with this issue than to just talk about drinking in moderation- you must don’t drink at all and find better ways to spend your time.

  • Rene

    February 4th, 2009 at 6:21 AM

    I agree with you Carson. Have a problem- no drink for you.

  • Jeanette

    February 12th, 2009 at 3:40 AM

    As a therapist in an outpatient drug treatment facility I have seen it go both ways. There are some people who can still handle the occasional social drink while there are others for whom this would raise huge challenges. Personally I tend to err on the safe side and caution all of the patients there that perhaps there are other things they can do to unwind rather than through having a drink. You never what step may cause you to fall off the wagon for good so why even take that chance?

  • Delayna

    March 10th, 2009 at 3:11 AM

    I agree that a person dependent on alcohol, is not going to stop and just one or even two drinks.. I don’t have a problem with alcohol.. but I know if I have a drink, I am going to want another. I keep telling myself mentally that once I have my last drink, it will take about an hour to fully feel the affect of it and there is no sense in having another one.. This may not be true or affective for the alcoholic, but I feel if I mentally remind myself of the affects of it, I don’t have to have another…

  • Alysson

    March 15th, 2009 at 1:17 PM

    Thats great thinking, Delayna, but unfortunately that doesn’t work for everyone. And besides, drinking can become a problem if you don’t stop and realize that you are drinking for that feeling.

  • delta

    March 21st, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    I think if you have or had a problem with alcohol, you should seek help and try to stay away from it.. as hard as it may seem.

  • Resn8r

    April 8th, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    Eh – it swings both ways. Some people can be alcoholics and learn to control their drinking to the occasional drink, some can’t. It’s not always all-or-nothing, but it may be the wisest choice for some people to avoid it completely. For every argument one way, there is at least some evidence the other way.

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