Heavy Drinkers More Sensitive to Alcohol Have Increased for Alcoholism

Heavy Drinkers More Sensitive to Alcohol Have Increased for Alcoholism

Binge drinking is the term used to describe the act of getting legally intoxicated in a single, relatively short bout of alcohol consumption. Most binge drinkers do not experience the physical dependence on alcohol that more or less defines the presence of alcoholism. However, some people who engage in this practice do eventually become alcoholics or develop diagnosable symptoms of alcohol abuse. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers from three U.S. universities investigated the impact that a binge drinker’s reaction to alcohol has on his or her chances of developing a diagnosable case of alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse).

Binge Drinking

In the U.S., the common legal standard for intoxication in all jurisdictions is a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent. People with this much alcohol in their bloodstreams commonly lose substantial amounts of their ability to react to changes in their surroundings, control their body movements or speak or think clearly. In a person attempting to operate a motor vehicle, these altered functions can have catastrophic results. In a person not attempting to drive, a legal state of intoxication is still associated with serious problems, including increased odds for other forms of accidental injury, increased odds for violence exposure or violence perpetration, increased odds for participation in unsafe sex and short- or long-term damage to a number of vital organ systems. Typically, a binge-drinking man needs to consume at least five drinks in two hours or less to reach legal intoxication. A binge-drinking woman typically needs to consume at least four drinks in an equivalent amount of time.

Alcohol Use Disorder

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that most binge drinkers in the U.S. don’t have a physical dependence on alcohol, and therefore don’t qualify as alcoholics. However, binge drinkers who never develop alcoholism may still experience life disruptions severe enough to merit a diagnosis of non-addicted alcohol abuse. Historically, doctors, researchers and public health officials have treated alcoholism and alcohol abuse as distinct and separate issues. However, current evidence consistently shows that any given drinker may simultaneously have problems typically associated with alcohol abuse and problems typically associated with alcoholism. For this reason, doctors now use a newly established diagnosis called alcohol use disorder to identify both alcohol abuse and alcoholism in their patients.

Response to Drinking Binges

In the study published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers from the University of Chicago, Columbia University and the University of Illinois at Chicago used a long-term project to investigate the impact that binge drinkers’ responses to alcohol consumption have on the chances of developing a diagnosable case of alcohol use disorder. A total of 104 binge drinkers in their 20s initially enrolled in this project. For the next six years, the researchers performed annual tests designed to determine how sensitive each participant was to the effects of a quantity of alcohol sufficient to produce legal drunkenness. Almost all of the participants stayed active throughout the study and underwent annual tests until they entered their 30s. Depending on the individual, binge drinking rates at the beginning of the study ranged from once a week up to five times weekly. Testing of the relative sensitivity to alcohol’s effects included objective examinations of memory and body control, subjective responses from the participants and measurements of the blood levels of the body’s main stress hormone.

After six years, the researchers concluded that, in the context of alcoholism-related symptoms, the study participants eventually fell into one of three groups: a low-symptom group, a moderate-symptom group and a high-symptom group. Critically, they also concluded that the participants most likely to fall into the high-symptom group were those who self-reported a relatively high degree of sensitivity to alcohol’s effects and also had relatively high objective test scores for alcohol sensitivity.

As a rule, most theories of alcoholism hold that a person’s risks for dependence-related problems go up as he or she grows increasingly tolerant to the effects of alcohol. The authors of the current study believe that their findings may contradict this point of view by establishing that sensitivity, not tolerance, may be a key factor in the eventual development of diagnosable problems. They also warn binge drinkers who have an unusually strong reaction to the effects of alcohol that this reaction may indicate increased odds of receiving an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.

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