How Binge Drinking Can Change Your DNA

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Binge drinking is considered to be any pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent of above. This generally happens when a woman drinks 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours and when men drink 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours. It’s also the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. When I was drinking, I didn’t know any other way, other than to binge. It’s an accepted part of the drinking culture in our society. You’ll be hard-pressed to find people who don’t binge drink at least once a month.

Alcohol is an addictive drug so it’s not surprising that when it’s consumed people lose their inhibitions and their ability to say when “enough is enough.” How can we ask people to moderate a substance that is not designed to be moderated? The result is increased levels of binge drinking. But now, we’re seeing another interesting trend arise. According to a recent study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, binge drinking can actually cause changes to your DNA, resulting in increased cravings for alcohol over the long-term.

Researchers from Yale University and Rutgers University assessed blood samples from nonsmoking moderate drinkers, non-binge drinkers, binge drinkers, and heavy social drinkers. Participants were part of a three-day alcohol motivation experiment. Every day the participants were shown a different type of visual cue, one that was related to stress, one related to alcohol, or a neutral one. Then the participants were shown beer containers and given a taste test to measure each person’s motivation to drink alcohol. Then the researchers look at two genes POMC and PER2, both believed to be related to drinking behavior.

Results showed changes in both of these genes through DNA methylation, in the heavy and binge drinking participants. Additionally, there was decreased expression of these genes in their blood samples. These findings are exciting because it’s gives us a scientific way to see that a genetic system that normally contributes to regulating how we drink alcohol has a way of becoming deactivated. After this happens in the body, the internal craving monitor fades out, increasing the cravings for the very thing that is changing our DNA.

Senior author and Professor Dipak K. Sarkar, director of the Endocrine Program at Rutgers University-New Brunswick said, “We found that people who drink heavily may be changing their DNA in a way that makes them crave alcohol even more. 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 implications of this study go far. We see exactly how some people can become dependent on alcohol, or at the very least, how their physical cravings begin. It starts in the DNA. Although the results of this particular study do not reflect changes in the brain, we know from previous studies addiction can cause changes and imbalances in the brain. Knowing more about cravings could help further the addiction treatment process if additional studies can reproduce these findings.

For those of us in recovery, I believe these findings tell us what we already know. Binge drinking carries many risks, one of which is long-term changes to our own DNA. According to the CDC, binge drinking costs the United States $249 billion in 2010. These costs were from losses in workplace productivity, health care expenditures, social justice costs, and other expenses. Drinking more is harmful to you and harmful to society.

What strategies are available to us to decrease binge drinking? Getting sober. Increasing alcohol taxes. Screening and educating the public on alcohol misuse and the benefits of recovery. Limiting the number of retail alcohol outlets that sell alcoholic beverages in a given area. Most importantly, we should keep talking about the realities of alcohol. It carries no real benefits, yet is normalized as being essential to events, socializing, and growing up in our society. The more we talk about how you don’t need alcohol to have fun, the more waves we make and lives we change.

Let’s stop changing our DNA with binge drinking and live sober instead.

Kelly Fitzgerald Junco

Kelly Fitzgerald Junco is a sober writer based in Southwest Florida who is best known for her personal blog The Adventures of a Sober Señorita. Her work has been published across the web including sites like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Ravishly, SheKnows, Elite Daily, The Fix, Brit + Co, Addiction Unscripted and AfterPartyMagazine. She is currently writing a memoir.