Can a Saliva Test Help Doctors Detect the Presence of Alcoholism?

Can a Saliva Test Help Doctors Detect the Presence of Alcoholism?

Can a Saliva Test Help Doctors Detect the Presence of Alcoholism?

Can a Saliva Test Help Doctors Detect the Presence of Alcoholism?Saliva is the water-based fluid that helps keep the mouth moist, provides protection from certain invading microorganisms and starts the process of breaking down food consumed. When a person drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, signs of this consumption appear as detectable changes in saliva content. In a study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, a team of Polish researchers looked for changes in human saliva that can accurately point toward the presence of alcoholism. These researchers found several potential candidates for an alcoholism marker in saliva, including one candidate most likely to serve as an accurate test.


People affected by alcoholism have a brain disease that makes them physically dependent on alcohol consumption and produces a range of symptoms that commonly include such things as a compelling urge to keep drinking excessively, an inability to successfully combat drinking urges and limit alcohol intake, falling susceptibility to alcohol’s mind-altering effects and alcohol withdrawal that sets in when intake of the substance drops below a certain point. Under terms outlined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), alcoholism is no longer diagnosable as a distinct condition. Instead, it now forms part of a more far-reaching condition called alcohol use disorder, which also includes alcohol abuse, another alcohol-related concern once diagnosed independently. The APA made the change to the new alcohol use disorder diagnosis in 2013 in response to extensive scientific evidence that demonstrates the interconnected nature of alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Alcohol and Saliva Changes

When a person drinks alcohol, the substance passes quickly into the mouth’s saliva, and for roughly half an hour after drinking begins, saliva contains far more alcohol than the bloodstream. After alcohol enters the bloodstream, it eventually gets broken down in the liver. The main byproduct from this breakdown process, called acetaldehyde, also appears in saliva in relatively large amounts. While present in saliva, both alcohol and acetaldehyde can trigger damage in the tissues that line the structures of the mouth. Drinking-related changes in human saliva can also interfere with the body’s ability to protect itself from bacteria and other invading microorganisms. In a person who habitually drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, long-term changes in saliva can contribute to serious tissue deterioration inside the mouth, an impaired immune response and damage in tissues in the esophagus and trachea. As a rule, a heavy drinker who also smokes experiences even greater levels of saliva-related oral damage.

Saliva Test for Alcoholism

Human saliva contains a complex mixture of chemical compounds, including proteins, enzymes electrolytes and bacteria killers. In the study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers from the Medical University of Bialystok, the Medical University of Warsaw and two other Polish institutions sought to identify specific changes in these compounds that could potentially indicate the presence of alcoholism. Four compounds in particular were isolated as possible alcoholism markers. The researchers looked for telltale changes in these compounds in three groups of alcohol consumers: drinkers who only consume alcohol on a social or casual basis, people affected by alcoholism who don’t smoke cigarettes and people affected by alcoholism who do smoke cigarettes.

The researchers concluded that, compared to casual drinkers, people with alcoholism develop clear changes in all four of the saliva compounds under consideration. The biggest changes occur in rates of activity and overall levels of two particular compounds, known by the abbreviations MAN and GLU. Changes in MAN, GLU and a third saliva compound called FUC track well with changes in alcohol consumption. The activity rate and level of one compound, GLU, rises and falls predictably depending on how recently a person has consumed enough alcohol to reach a state of drunkenness.

The study’s authors concluded that the changes in the saliva compounds GLU, FUC and MAN are all detectable enough and specific enough to function as targets for alcoholism-related saliva testing. However, they also concluded that changes in the activity rate of the compound GLU are most closely linked to drinking patterns stemming from alcoholism. For this reason, they identify relative GLU activity as the most likely candidate for an alcoholism saliva test. While smoking can make the saliva-related effects of heavy drinking worse, the study’s authors did not differentiate between people with alcoholism who smoke and people with alcoholism who don’t smoke when making their findings.

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