Moderating alcohol use may be first step for some problem drinkers

As a new year approaches, many people vow to cut back on bad habits. Excess drinking is often high on the list. Whether it's possible to just reduce alcohol use rather than quitting completely is hotly debated. The January 2009 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter addresses this question.

It can be difficult to encourage a person with a drinking problem to quit. Offering counseling on moderation—that is, no more than one drink per day for women or two per day for men—may help convince some problem drinkers to reduce their alcohol use before they suffer painful consequences.

Research into moderate or "controlled" drinking has shown that this strategy can be successful for people who have not yet developed a pervasive pattern of alcohol abuse, or who have experienced few negative consequences from drinking. The goal is to help them set goals and drinking limits before they cross the line into dependence. But the research shows that moderation is unlikely to be successful for individuals who already meet criteria for alcohol dependence.

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