New research suggests binge drinking can make changes to your cells and make you crave alcohol even more.
What does binge drinking do to your cells?
That’s a question you may have never asked before, but new research suggests binge drinking could be causing enduring changes to your DNA that may, in turn, lead you to crave alcohol even more.
The study was just published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
These findings from researchers at Rutgers University and Yale University could lead to new, more effective ways to treat alcohol use disorder and prevent those who are at risk from developing it.
“The biggest thing for us when looking at this was the persistency of the gene changes after binge drinking,” senior author Dipak K. Sarkar, PhD, the director of the endocrine program at the department of animal sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, told Healthline.
Sarkar and his team assessed blood samples from nonsmoking moderate drinkers, non-binge drinkers, binge drinkers, and heavy social drinkers who were part of a three-day “behavioral alcohol motivation experiment.”
Each participant was exposed to a different type of visual cue each day: a neutral image, one that was related to alcohol, and another that was stress-related.
Following this, the participants were shown beer containers, which was followed by a taste test to record each individual’s motivation to drink alcohol.
Through the blood test, Sarkar says he was aiming to look at POMC and PER2, two genes believed to be tied to drinking behavior.
PER2 affects the body’s biological clock, while POMC regulates your stress response system.
There were changes in both of these genes in the heavy and binge drinking participants through DNA methylation, a gene modification process. There was also reduced expression of these genes in their blood samples.
“Seeing the higher difference in those who engaged in heavy drinking of alcohol is pretty exciting, while it’s surprising. It’s scientifically exciting because that gives us the feeling of, ‘Wow, this is going to be something we are going to target and identify those people with problems,'” Sarkar said of the wider implications of these findings.
“The goal would be to prevent their future drinking. That is where all the excitement is here. This is a major problem for millions and millions all over the world,” he added.
If we zoom out from the microscopic, we’ve always known that binge drinking is a problem.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 1 in 6 adults in the United States binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about seven drinks per binge.
Binge drinking can lead to a range of threats to your health, from unintentional injuries and a higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases to memory and learning problems.
It costs a lot, too. Binge drinking consumption cost the United States $249 billion in 2010, with expenses like drops in workplace productivity and soaring healthcare bills racking up that total, according to the CDC.
“One important clarification to make is that this study is looking at alcohol consumption and related behaviors with regards to ‘epigenetic’ changes. It does not speak to anything pertaining to genetic risks or genetic changes,” she wrote in an email to Healthline.
“While intriguing, this is a very preliminary study with extremely limited scope. It is consistent with other reports that suggest alcohol use can modify gene expression through the activity of epigenetic mechanisms, including DNA methylation,” she wrote.
Ting adds that given the study focused on potential changes that were measured in blood samples, “it is difficult to extrapolate the findings to help treat alcohol addiction.”
“Addiction, in large part, is controlled by processes happening in the brain, and as the authors appropriately acknowledged in their paper, the changes they reported ‘do not necessarily reflect changes in the brain,'” she wrote. “It may, however, serve as a potential marker to monitor addiction treatment progress if additional studies can reproduce the findings.”
Sarkar acknowledges this research is still in its early phases, but says what has been found is encouraging.
“Moving forward, what we will be interested in looking to find out is whether or not the gene methylation we found is prominent or long-lasting. It still needs quite a bit of study,” he said.
“We would like to investigate whether these changes can be reversed and brought back to normal. We are quite a ways to that goal, but if we could achieve this, we could really help our society in a really big way.”