While it’s widely acknowledged that drinking alcohol takes a toll on the body, social drinking often goes hand in hand with a night out. A little more than a quarter of American adults reportedly engaged in binge drinking (drinking five or more alcoholic drinks for men, four or more drinks for women within the same occasion) in the past month, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Seven percent of adults in the same survey said they engaged in heavy alcohol use, defined as binge drinking for five or more days in a month. Binge drinking can lead to a host of health consequences in the long term, as well as immediate dangers associated with impaired faculties. But a new study suggests that heavy drinking and binge drinking may lead to increased cravings for alcohol by prompting long-term genetic changes.
"We found that people who drink heavily may be changing their DNA in a way that makes them crave alcohol even more," Dipak K. Sarkar, one of the study authors and the director of the Endocrine Program in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, said in a statement. "This may help explain why alcoholism is such a powerful addiction, and may one day contribute to new ways to treat alcoholism or help prevent at-risk people from becoming addicted."
The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, assessed blood samples from three groups: moderate non-binging drinkers, binge drinkers, and heavy social drinkers. Over the course of three days, the participants were subject to a “behavioral alcohol motivation experiment” where they were shown one type of visual cue each day: either stress-related, alcohol‐related, or neutral images. After each day’s visual session, the participants were presented with beer containers (or “discrete alcoholic beer cues”). These experiments were followed by an alcohol taste test to gauge each person’s behavioral motivation to drink.
The researchers looked at two genes in particular: POMC, which helps regulate the human stress-response system, and PER2, which affects the body's biological clock. Both genes are associated with drinking behavior management. Blood samples depicted changes for both of these genes in the binge and heavy drinker groups, relative to the moderate drinkers. The genetic differences were also a significant predictor for increased alcohol craving in subjects both immediately after their exposure to imagery and when they were presented with the beer container prior to the alcohol taste test. How much alcohol the person would consume during the taste test was also correlated to these changes. Basically, heavy or binge levels of alcohol consumption were linked to genetic changes in the individuals that were associated with a greater craving for alcohol. In the future, these results could help researchers look for predictors that assess an individual’s risk for binge and heavy drinking.
Americans’ relationship with drinking has long been a topic of interest for researchers as alcohol use in the U.S. has climbed since 2001. If you feel like your substance use is interfering with your day-to-day life, you can talk to your doctor about ways to seek help. Alcohol use is also the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, with an estimated 88,000 people dying annually from alcohol-related causes. The key word, however, is preventable.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).