Tag Archives: alcohol

Blood pressure drug also improves alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Those who suffer from alcohol use disorder can experience severe withdrawal symptoms once they stop drinking, including shakes, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and heightened cravings. This combination of physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms makes it incredibly challenging to quit drinking, but a drug originally designed to treat high blood pressure may help alcoholics in their life’s battle with addiction.

Credit: University of Michigan.

In a new double-blind study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers at Yale University gave the drug prazosin or a placebo to 100 participants who were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder and had entered outpatient treatment. Prior to receiving treatment, all patients had experienced varying degrees of withdrawal symptoms.

But those who took prazosin, a substance that belongs to a class of medications called alpha-blockers, significantly reduced the number of heavy drinking episodes and days they consumed alcohol compared to those who received just a placebo. Those who experienced very little or no withdrawal symptoms saw little improvements from prazosin.

“There has been no treatment readily available for people who experience severe withdrawal symptoms and these are the people at highest risk of relapse and are most likely to end up in hospital emergency rooms,” said corresponding author Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, a professor of neuroscience, and director of the Yale Stress Center.

Prazosin has been used for years to treat high blood pressure and prostate problems in men, among other conditions. According to previous studies that investigated the body’s reaction to prazosin, the drug acts on stress centers in the brain, improves working memory, and curbs anxiety and cravings.

When an alcoholic suddenly stops drinking, stress centers in the brain start to flare up. The more severe the withdrawal symptoms and the higher the cravings, the higher the disruption in the stress centers. But the activation of the stress centers diminishes the longer a person with alcohol use disorder stays away from drinking.

Prazosin may help ease this transition and increase the odds that a patient stays sober. Alcohol use disorder is an issue that affects 17 million U.S. adults and 855,000 youths ages 12 to 17, according to the National Institutes of Health. Most people who want to quit, however, find it difficult to do it completely on their own, especially if they lack coverage.

The only major drawback is that treatment with prazosin for alcohol withdrawal needs to be administered three times daily to be effective, the researchers said. On the upside, this is a drug that has been in use for years in a clinical setting, so it is safe.

Every week of lockdown makes binge drinking more likely

Being stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic can affect our mental health and behavior in more ways than we imagine. As many around the world can attest, it can even make us more likely to drink more alcohol. A new study has just confirmed that idea.

Image credit: Flickr / Diann Bayes

In response to the outbreak, local and state governments across the US mandated temporary shelter-in-place and business shutdown policies as an attempt to control and reduce the spread of the virus. As a result, many experienced a sudden loss of salary, unemployment, and physical isolation — all of which can take a serious toll on our minds.

As of late June, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health problems, including substance use, previous studies have shown. However, limited research has evaluated the impact of specific COVID-19-related stressors on alcohol consumption, and specifically, binge drinking.

Binge drinking is a common but preventable alcohol use behavior defined as having 5+ drinks for men or 4+ drinks for women, in a span of only two hours. It’s a practice commonly associated with increased stress levels and has been shown to be detrimental to mental health. Researchers from the University of Texas surveyed nearly 2,000 people over 18 years old across the US, to analyze the interplay between the binge drinking and the lockdown.

They collected data on sociodemographics, alcohol consumption, and COVID-19-related stressors using a web-based, self-report survey. Then, they used a multivariable logistic and multinomial regression model to establish the link between alcohol consumption and pandemic’s stressors.

The findings showed that 34% of the sample reported binge drinking during the pandemic. More binge drinkers increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic (60%) than non-binge drinkers (28%). For every week spent at home during the pandemic, there were 1.21 greater odds of binge drinking.

Binge drinkers had, on average, four drinks per occasion, compared to just two drinks for the non-binge drinkers. Those surveyed who drank at harmful levels during the pandemic would consume seven drinks maximum on one occasion, compared to a maximum of two per session during the pandemic for those who did not.

Underlying mental problems also seemed to play a role in people’s behavior. People with a previous diagnosis of depression and current depression symptoms had greater odds of increased alcohol consumption compared to those reporting no depression. Meanwhile, living with children was associated with lower odds of binge drinking during the pandemic, according to the study.

While the findings are significant, the researchers note a few limitations of their study. Over 70% of respondents reported an annual income of greater than $80,000, which potentially indicates more disposable income. This relatively high income could skew the data, though it’s not entirely clear which way.

At the same time, the findings may also differ as time progressed. For example, individuals may have adapted to the “new normal” and maintained pre-pandemic alcohol consumption behaviors. On the other hand, others may feel more strained due to the length of the lockdown and increase their dependence on alcohol.

At any rate, the study goes to show that the ramifications of both the pandemic and the lockdown orders can have on our mental state. Further studies are needed on strategies to prevent and intervene in binge drinking behaviors while people are in isolation, especially considering the potential of a longer lockdown as the pandemic continues, the researchers argued. That’s currently the case in many parts of the world, with cases on the rise amid a massive second wave.

The study was published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

Young Americans are drinking less, but they’re using weed and prescription drugs more than ever before

College-age Americans are staying away from booze compared to their peers 20 years ago, according to a new study. However, the use of marijuana and mixed use of alcohol and marijuana is more common among them today, as is polysubstance abuse.

Image via Pixabay.

While we all know that alcohol isn’t good for you, it has been the recreational drug of choice for many around the world since antiquity. But younger people in the USA were moving away from alcohol between 2002 and 2018, a new study reports, even among those not enrolled in college.

But it seems that to be human is to fall to vice, for the same study found that the use of marijuana and alcohol and marijuana together has increased.

High hopes, low drinking

“We’re encouraged by the significant decreases in alcohol use disorder–for both college and noncollege participants,” said lead author Sean Esteban McCabe, director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. “Alcohol-related consequences are one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity for young adults.”

“The prevalence of alcohol use disorder in both groups in 2018 was roughly half of what it was in 2002. We are excited to learn about these drops in disordered drinking.”

The percentage of college-enrolled young US adults (aged 18-22) from the US that abstained from drinking alcohol increased from 20% in 2002 to 28% in 2018, while in those not in school this figure rose from 24% to 30%. More excitingly, alcohol abuse — problematic behaviors ranging from binge-drinking to straight-up alcohol addictions — decreased roughly by half in both groups. All in all, very good news from both a public health perspective as well as in regard to these groups’ quality of life.

But that hole in our hearts (and glasses) demanded to be filled — as such, more people are turning to marijuana, to both marijuana and alcohol, or to prescription drugs. While there seems to be less misuse regarding these two than what we’ve seen regarding alcohol in the past, the team cautions that we still need to keep a close eye on the situation and nip any potential issues in the bud.

The study used data from a nationally-representative survey of 182,722 young adults. For the 2015-2018 interval, the team also looked at the link between prescription drug misuse and trends in alcohol and marijuana consumption. However, they say they were particularly surprised by the drop in alcohol consumption and misuse. The findings give us cause for hope “even with increases in marijuana use disorder and co-use of alcohol and marijuana”, according to Ty Schepis, professor of psychology at Texas State, co-author of the study.

“Points of concern that deserve more attention are the rise in co-use of alcohol and marijuana, as we know that polysubstance use can have more negative consequences and be more difficult to treat,” he adds.

Roughly three-quarters of those who reported “disordered use” of both substances during the previous year had also used prescription drugs, some illicitly. The majority of these participants admitted to misusing their prescription drugs.

So on the one hand, people seem to be getting better at managing their alcohol intake, perhaps by employing marijuana as a crutch. On the other hand, more young people seem to be using or misusing several substances at once (not just marijuana or alcohol), which obviously isn’t very healthy or a very good sign that all is well in society.

“For example, from 2015 to 2018, only 2.5% of young adults who abstained from both alcohol and marijuana reported misusing prescription drugs, while 25.1% of co-users misused prescription drugs,” Schepis said. “That is a tenfold difference with potentially dangerous consequences.”

The findings, however, can help inform better strategies aimed at helping people overcome such issues in the future. Current interventions tend to focus on a single substance at a time and are “less effective” at tackling polysubstance abuse, according to McCabe.

“The finding that abstinence is increasing among college students and young adults not in college is very important for U.S. colleges and universities to take into account moving forward,” he said. “These findings reinforce the importance of the need to support those young adults in recovery and abstinence for other reasons. There are over 1 million U.S. young adults in recovery and a wide variety of resources are needed to support these individuals.”

Ten days of binge drinking disrupts neuron connections, causes anxiety and other cognitive problems

Credit: Pixabay.

It’s no secret that lifelong alcohol abuse is responsible for serious health problems that can lead to organ failure and diminishing cognitive function. But a recent study shows that even temporary heavy drinking can cause important cognitive impairments and problems. According to scientists in Portugal, 10 days of binge drinking can disrupt connections between neurons, leading to anxiety.

Of mice and alcohol

João Relvas, a neuroscientist at the University of Porto, and colleagues, gave male mice alcohol or water via tubes for 10 consecutive days. The rodents in the intoxicated group were given 1.5 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body weight, a dose which is equivalent to five drinks for an adult human of normal weight.

After their binge drinking streak, the mice’s brain tissue was analyzed, with the researchers finding that the heavy drinking caused microglia to destroy synapses between neurons in the prefrontal cortex.

Microglia represent a specialized population of macrophage-like cells in the central nervous system, which act as immune cells that defend the brain and spinal cord from foreign invaders. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the cerebrum that lies directly behind the eyes and the forehead. It is primarily responsible for processing complex cognition and decision making.

The synaptic dysfunction in the mice given alcohol for ten days straight led to a visible increase in anxiety-like behavior. After the researchers investigated the rodents’ brain tissue in more detail, they found that the microglia disrupted brain cells due to inflammation triggered by the alcohol.

“The loss of these connections did not cause neuronal death during the study but instead depressed neurotransmission and increased anxiety-like behaviors in the mice. These findings suggest that binge drinking induces anxiety by activating microglia that destroy neuronal connections,” the authors wrote in their study.

When the scientists blocked the production of an inflammatory molecule called TNF with pomalidomide, a commercially available drug, the synapse disruption did not occur, preventing the onset of anxiety.

Microglia from mice that were only given water (left) versus microglia in alcohol-fed mice. The panel on the right shows microglia engulfing synapses in the prefrontal cortex. Credit: Science Signaling.

These findings suggest that drugs that regulate TNF may be useful in treating alcohol addiction and the effects of alcohol abuse on the brain. This possibility would have to be investigated by clinical trials on humans.

The authors of the study also point out, however, that TNF inhibiting drugs shouldn’t be used by people who experience fallout due to a week-long heavy drinking streak. Besides cognitive impairments, binge drinking affects the whole body, negatively impacting the function of the heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system.

A 2018 study published by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that young adults who frequently binge drink have greater cardiovascular risk factors such as higher blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

Ultimately, the best treatment is prevention: only drink in moderation or don’t drink at all, the researchers cautioned.

The findings appeared in the journal Science Signaling.

Your smartphone can tell when you’re drunk — and this might save lives

Credit: Pixabay.

Not everyone gets intoxicated from drinking the same amount of alcohol. Some feel tipsy after a single drink while other, more experienced, bar-hoppers can go shot after shot and still keep a straight face. However, once a person truly becomes intoxicated, it’s hard to keep it a secret — especially if you have to walk from point A to point B.

In a new study, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Pittsburgh have used smartphone built-in hardware to identify ‘drunken gaits’ with up to 92% accuracy. In the future, an app may be able to send notifications to intoxicated users that it is unsafe to drive or that they should be more careful in public, potentially saving lives.

The walk that doesn’t lie

The fact that a person’s gait can be tied to their level of alcohol toxicity is by no means a novelty. Police officers routinely employ so-called field sobriety tests to determine if a person suspected of impaired driving is intoxicated with alcohol.

The gait sobriety test has now been integrated into a smartphone, whose accelerometer can determine if a person is walking ‘funny’.

For their study, the researchers recruited 17 volunteers (12 male and 5 female) and served them vodka cocktails (for science!). After an hour of drinking their first serving, the participants had to complete a walking trial consisting of 10 steps forward and 10 steps backward every hour for seven hours. During this entire time, their smartphones were strapped to their lower backs, which is where the accelerometer can most accurately determine a person’s gait.

Their height and weight were also measured in order to determine how much alcohol would be required to intoxicate them — this is equivalent to a breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) of 0.08. Speaking to Inverse, lead study author Brian Suffoleto says that one shot of vodka raises the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) by 0.02 for men and by 0.03 for women.

The smartphone accelerometer recorded lateral movement corresponding to a back-and-forth swaying motion, which is a key sign of intoxication. Based on this recorded motion, the researchers could determine if a person’s BrAC was above 0.08 with 92% accuracy.

As an important caveat, these results are valid in a highly controlled research environment. In the real world, people’s gaits will naturally vary much more as they move around obstacles or in a crowded environment like a bar. Also, people don’t wear their smartphones on their backs, although Suffoleto says that they can adapt their analysis algorithms to data recorded from the trouser’s pocket.

The biggest challenge, according to Suffoleto, is designing a communication strategy that might convince a person impaired with alcohol to respond positively to supportive messaging.

In order to reduce alcohol-related traffic accidents and deaths, some have previously proposed embedding breath analyzers inside vehicles. If the exhaled breath contains alcohol levels past a legal threshold, the car won’t start. However, this is unrealistic, says Suffoleto — at least in the U.S. where consumers would not purchase a vehicle that would lock them out of their own property.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more persuasive methods. Suffoleto envisions a system where people can pay significantly less for their car insurance as long as they agree to this sort of monitoring.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The frothy history of beer

Some would say that the only proper way to start the weekend is with a beer on Friday afternoon. Whether that’s true or not depends on your own particular appetites. One thing that is undeniable, however, is that the concept of weekends, even that of modern society, can be traced back to a pot of beer.

Image via Pixabay.

It sounds like a marketing hook, but there is growing evidence that people first created settlements to make beer. Our appetite for the brew stood strong over the ages: beer is now the most popular alcoholic drink in the world, and the third-most-popular overall (after water and tea).

So we’re drinking it, our whole family line has been drinking it, and it might have made our species as a whole give up on wandering and commit (to agriculture) — which is no mean feat. Let’s take a look at how the frothy, bitter brew fared over the millennia.

How it all began

The earliest evidence we have found of beer-making comes from around 13,000 years ago from a site located near Haifa, Israel. This took the form of beer and alcohol residue preserved in pottery in local tombs.

So, awesome — that’s how we got beer. People were busy sowing fields, making bread, and cooking up alcohol, right? Well, yes, but also no. You see, at the time, people hadn’t really discovered agriculture yet. They did make bread and beer from grains they would harvest in the wild.

Now, this seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse, doesn’t it? But why would you settle down in a permanent city, thus limiting your access to resources? Nomads can move towards what they want; settled people can only rely on local resources, which are limited — especially if you don’t yet know how to plant and grow the food you need.

Brewing beer is one explanation. The process requires containers such as pottery or vats dug into the ground and the processing of relatively large amounts of grain — which don’t really mix with a nomadic lifestyle. These early brewers, known as the Natufians, didn’t produce large quantities of beer. It was likely used for religious and ceremonial purposes, and was pretty different from the drink as we know it today; it resembled a “porridge or thin gruel” in consistency, and relied on airborne yeasts for fermentation, meaning it was probably light in alcohol content.

Ancient starches compared to modern, beer-making-related starches.
Image courtesy of Li Liu.

We must keep in mind that virtually all industrial pursuits, including beer-making, were severely hampered by the absence of agriculture during this time. Agriculture allows for part of the population to provide food for everyone else, in addition to generating a nice little surplus. Because of this, people who aren’t directly involved in growing food can specialize — they become shoe-makers, or midwives, priests, or kings.

Both the surplus grain and specialized workers are indispensable for beer-making. You need people to grow grains, people to process them, other people to produce the tools needed, and so on. The brew wouldn’t really take off until people learned how to grow food where they lived.

Later evolution

As our know-how improved, the drink became more widespread. Both the ancient Egyptians and Chinese brewed it, although it often included ingredients we don’t associate with beer today, including fruit.

It was mostly used for religious or ceremonial purposes in both of these countries; in the case of Egypt, the Pharaohs themselves handled the distribution of beer to the commoners. During the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC), beer was made from cooked loaves of bread and had dates and honey mixed in for flavor. These added sugars also helped produce a more alcoholic drink, and the Egyptians knew how to isolate and use special yeast for the fermentation process (as opposed to the wild, air-borne yeasts of yore). In the New Kingdom (1550-712 BC), wheat was used instead, although fruits and herbs were still used to flavor the drink. It evolved from the porridge-like substance it had been in the past and was filtered before storing, often underground, to ferment.

Fișier:Egyptian-woman-painting Beer.jpg
Ancient Egyptian painting depicting a meal, including beer.
Image via Wikimedia.

The advent of filtering, underground storage for fermentation, and the use of specialized brewers’ yeast in the process helped bring ancient beer one step closer to what it is today.

But beer wouldn’t truly come to resemble that of today until it found its way from the Middle East into Europe during the early Middle Ages. The colder climate here, especially that in Northern Europe, was ideal for growing barley, the main ingredient in modern beer. The drink was also rich in nutrients and calories, making it very popular. And, during the Middle Ages, water was easy to come by but clean, safe drinking water was a very precious resource. The fermentation process and alcohol content made beer one of the safest ways people could stay hydrated.

It’s worth noting that during the Middle Ages, most beers were much weaker than the ones we drink today. This was especially true for those that the commoners could afford.

A hop of faith

During this time, hops were first mixed into beer. They’re the key flavoring ingredient in today’s beer, imparting its aroma and bitterness to the drink.

Before this, all manner of plants were added to control the taste of the brew. Everything from dried flowers and roots to herbs and spices were used. But around 1150, German monks began using wild hops to flavor theirs — and then stuck with it. The idea quickly spread around; either people found the aroma pleasing, or they did it for the benefits (hops act as a natural preservative in beer).

Hamei, Plantelor, Hamei Floare, Natura, Alpinistă
Today, hops are beer are inseparable.
Image via Pixabay.

In medieval Europe, monks enjoyed relative power, peace, prosperity, and high levels of education compared to commoners. Wine is especially important in Christian customs, so most monasteries also had their own breweries. Thus, they were the main source of improvements on the brewing process, developing ideas such as lagering (storing beer in cold spaces to allow it to ferment and mature its taste).

This tradition is still alive today, with monasteries in Belgium being especially renowned for their beers.

Britain had another large part to play in the history of beer, mainly through diversification. The British were huge fans of beer, but they also eventually got their hands on something no other Europeans had: half the world.

The wealth of beer styles today is in no small part the product of empire. Beer played a huge part in British culture, with soldiers being issued daily rations of the drink. Redcoats made their way to all the corners of the Earth, and so too had their beer. It was ferried by the shipload to supply thirsty soldiers.

This gave Britain first access to resources, ingredients, and know-how that other beer-drinking countries didn’t have. It also made brewing more profitable, encouraging investment and development. Colonization also forced advancements in beer-making. India Pale Ale, for example, is a very popular style of beer today — it was only developed because the crown needed a beer that wouldn’t spoil on very long voyages in the hot, humid climates of Southeast Asia.

Today

There has never been more beer in the world, nor have there ever been so many options.

Bar, Local, Cong, Irlanda, Pub Irlandez, Pub Ul, Sticle
Image credits Christian Birkholz.

Most beer produced outside of the USA today is pasteurized to ensure it’s safe to drink. Pasteurization involves heating a liquid, generally under 100 °C (212 °F), which helps inactivate the microorganisms that lead to spoilage. This process was already in wide use for beers by the 1870s. Louis Pasteur, the inventor of this process, reportedly wanted to use it to make French beer better tasting.

The pottery and casks of old have given way to metal vats for fermentation and glass bottles for distribution. The color of these bottles isn’t random. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight will degrade beer, altering its flavor. Tinted glass filters out enough of this UV radiation to keep the beer fresh. Before World War 2, brown glass was ubiquitous; a shortage during the conflict, however, made producers seek for alternatives, which is why we also have green-tinted beer bottles today.

The rise of the craft beer brewery, small breweries that rely more on the personality of their drinks, rather than volume and quality like traditional breweries, is one of the latest developments in the field. Craft brewers use a much wider range of ingredients, preparation methods, and apply tweaks to the filtration and pasteurization process to make beers that stand out through their aroma and taste. As with all decentralization movements, this will make beers less uniform, but will push the boundaries of the craft as we know it today.

In the short to mid-term future, however, we’re likely to see a shrinkage of the craft beer sector. Breweries have sprung up all over the place, but they’re all competing for the same consumer base. Given these tough times, especially, competition will be driving part of them out of business.

How about the long-term future, then? Well, if I’d have to hazard a guess, I’d say the next big evolutionary step for beer will be space travel. Just like the British invented new beers and distribution methods to keep soldiers supplied around the world, we’ll have to think up ways to get beer to orbit, and how to brew it so it doesn’t spoil. Alternatively, we may even decide to brew it in space altogether — a literal drink out of this world.

Beer has been with humanity for a very long time now. Whichever way our story goes in the future, this drink will probably remain a part of it.

New study furthers our understanding of how genetics influence heavy drinking

A new study comes to flesh out our understanding of the genetic basis for problematic drinking.

Image via Pixabay.

Previously, we knew of 13 gene variants associated with heavy drinking. Now, this study expands our knowledge to an impressive 29 different gene variants linked to problematic alcohol use. One limitation of the study is that, despite its relatively large sample of 435,000 people, all of them were of European descent.

Bottoms up

“The new data triple the number of known genetic risk loci associated with problematic alcohol use,” said Joel Gelernter at Yale University School of Medicine, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and a professor of genetics and neuroscience.

Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and professor of genetics and of neuroscience, who is the senior author of the multi-institutional study.

The study looked at genome-wide records of people of European ancestry contained in four separate biobanks and datasets. The team identified individuals who met criteria for problematic drinking, including alcohol use disorder and alcohol use with medical consequences and then looked for genetic variants they all shared.

They located 19 previously-unknown genes that represent risk factors for such behavior, alongside 10 previously-identified genes.

Furthermore, they looked at genetic risk factors for several psychiatric disorders including anxiety disorder and depression in the genomes. During the study, this step allowed them to analyze the genetic links between such disorders and heavy drinking. Major depressive disorder showed the greatest correlation to problematic drinking; risk-taking behavior, insomnia were also positively correlated with such behavior.

The genes identified in this study are particularly stable from a hereditary point of view in the brain (they’re more stable across generations) and in “evolutionarily conserved regulatory regions of the genome”, which suggests that they perform important functions in our metabolism. Exactly what these functions remain to be determined.

“This gives us ways to understand causal relations between problematic alcohol use traits such as psychiatric states, risk-taking behavior, and cognitive performance,” said Yale’s Hang Zhou, associate research scientist in psychiatry and lead author of the study. “With these results, we are also in a better position to evaluate individual-level risk for problematic alcohol use,” Gelernter said.

Heavy drinking is associated with adverse medical and social outcomes, so understanding which people are at risk for such behavior could help us better protect them.

The paper “Genome-wide meta-analysis of problematic alcohol use in 435,563 individuals yields insights into biology and relationships with other traits” has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Fruit and nectar eaters are nature’s most resilient alcohol drinkers

New research at the University of Calgary in Canada has identified nature’s stoutest drinkers — unsurprisingly, they’re all fruit eaters.

Primates like humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, alongside other mammals whose diets contain lots of fruit such as bats are nature’s best drinkers, the paper reports. Such animals had an evolutionary incentive to develop the ability to metabolize alcohol, they explain, which created a selective pressure in favor of this ability. However, it’s not just mammals that partake — pound for pound, bees are known to be some of the heaviest drinkers out there.

It’s in my genes

“Being able to eat a lot of fruit or nectar without being subject to the effects of ethanol would certainly open up an important food resource,” explains lead author Mareike Janiak from the University of Calgary.

Fruits are very useful in one’s diet: they’re full of good nutrients and contain a lot of energy in the form of sugars. But bacteria also know this and are liable to start eating (fermenting) those compounds into alcohol. Alcohol concentrations in fruits past their prime can reach up to 8.1%, the study reports. Nectar, the sweet liquid flowers produce to attract pollinating insects, can still reach a respectable 3.1% alcohol concentration. For comparison, beers typically revolve around the 4.1% alcohol concentration mark.

It’s understandable, then, that fruit-eaters could be exposed to quite a generous helping of alcohol during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The ability to metabolize alcohol would, therefore, be quite desirable for fruit-eating species, the paper explains, as it would prevent them from getting completely smashed on a daily basis — which helps with things such as avoiding predators, impressing potential mates, or just maintaining basic motor coordination.

In order to understand how different species developed this ability, Janiak and her team studied genetic data for over 85 different mammal species looking for a gene called AHD7. This gene encodes the production of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase 7, which is part of a larger family of proteins that mediates chemical redox reactions. This particular one is specialized in alcohols and, in short, it allows bodies to either break it down into its constituent parts or recombine it from said parts. In short, AHD7 is what allows us to process alcohol (and its inebriating effects) out of our systems.

Mammal species who regularly consume fruit or nectar are more likely to have a variant of ADH7 that’s more efficient at processing alcohol, the team reports. Among the species that have this gene variant number bonobos, aya-ayes, chimpanzees, gorillas, as well as humans. They say it comes down to our shared genetic history, tied together by a common ancestor “at least 10 million years ago, long before we began fermenting beverages on purpose”.

However, “it is a fallacy to assume that other animals share our metabolic adaptations, rather than taking into consideration each species’ unique physiology,” the authors note.

Fruit- and nectar-eating bats are also very good at processing alcohol, the team found, likely because “being inebriated would be bad news for a flying mammal, so being able to better metabolize ethanol could be an important adaptation for them”.

In contrast, mammals who typically exclude fruits or nectar from their diet — including horses, cows, or elephants — are poor at metabolizing alcohol because they have lost their functioning version of ADH7.

The paper “Genetic evidence of widespread variation in ethanol metabolism among mammals: revisiting the ‘myth’ of natural intoxication” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

How the coronavirus is impacting alcohol consumption

Credit: Pixabay.

It is not surprising to hear that sales of alcohol are rising during this COVID-19 pandemic. Retail sales data for the United Kingdom reported an additional £104 million was spent in the last week of March, which is when lockdown measures were introduced, compared to the week before. Lager is where the greatest spend was found, although sales of rum rose by 92.4%.

A recent YouGov survey found that respondents reported they are consuming as much alcohol now as they were prior to lockdown restrictions coming into force. Another commissioned by charity Alcohol Change UK found two distinct reactions to the pandemic: 47% of those who were already drinking the least have cut down further or are abstaining. This is in contrast to the 21% who are drinking more since the introduction of lock down measures.

These surveys need to be treated with caution as they may not be entirely representative of the whole country and people are known to underestimate their alcohol consumption. But they give an early indication of drinking habits as a result of the pandemic.

YouGov alcohol survey. YouGov

It might be that alcohol is yet another commodity that many people are stockpiling, fearing there will be a shortage or even a ban on sales of alcohol. An estimated 50 million pints are going unused in pubs, so some people are replacing drinking out with drinking at home. As some social media accounts imply, drinking more to cope with the pressures is both an intuitive and likely response for many.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, rumours of a ban on alocohol sales were soon quashed, although other governments around the world have introduced restrictions for accessing alcohol. The UK government is, however, unlikely to even consider such a move given its record on alcohol policy.

Far from restricting access to alcohol the UK government recently deemed off licences as essential retailers, placing them in the same category as pharmacies, ensuring we can all access our favourite drug. For many having a drink during this pandemic will be one of the few pleasures they have left.

Health risks

But if you are trying to optimise your immunity against COVID-19 it would be better to avoid alcohol or at least limit how much you drink as it can compromise immunity – even if the risks to health for the majority of people will be low. Don’t fall for the fake news stories that claim the opposite.

As the government does all it can to ensure the NHS has capacity to deal with the surge in demand during this pandemic, alcohol has so far not featured in any of the announcements. In 2018-19 there were 1.26 million alcohol-related hospital admissions, so more robust alcohol polices would go some way to freeing up capacity, at least in the longer term.

This is not the time to suspend public health messaging about alcohol or smoking. As we are encouraged to exercise and eat a healthy diet to ensure we reduce the impact of COVID-19 should we contract the virus, there has been no airing of the chief medical officers recommended guidelines on alcohol consumption. To keep the risk low, drinking within 14 units of alcohol a week is advised alongside having at least two alcohol-free days.

Meanwhile, sections of the alcohol industry are being encouraged to keep up marketing spend as it is now likely to be “more effective than ever”. In the public health camp, concerns have been raised that some people may be picking up more regular home drinking habits that could be hard to wind back. The daily government briefings on coronavirus would therefore be an ideal opportunity to be remind people about the CMO guidelines, but not one mention of these has been made.

Stick to a maximum of 14 units a week. Department of Health

The absence of government advice in relation to alcohol could simply be an oversight given all the other demands placed on ministers during this crisis. It is also likely to be sensitive to accusations of nanny-statism at a time when most people are likely to feel alcohol is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism.

Nonetheless, the alcohol industry has proven itself to be very effective at influencing successive governments. It has on the whole ensured that policies aren’t introduced that hurt sales, pricing or consumption of their product.

There are several examples of this, including recent budgets and, significantly, the long-running legal challenge to stop the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol in Scotland. After five years of protracted legal battles, minimum pricing was eventually introduced in 2018, but the industry were accused of having used deliberate delaying tactics that cost lives. Meanwhile in England, the government made an infamous u-turn and did not introduce minimum pricing in 2013. This followed extensive meetings between ministers with alcohol industry groups. An investigation by the British Medical Journal said “politicians ignored the strong health evidence in favour of protecting the interests of industry”.

The extraordinary circumstances of the current pandemic would have been an ideal opportunity to change the relationship between politicians and the alcohol industry. But by continuing to have an alcohol policy that is driven by commerce and not by evidence, the government risks adding to the costs from COVID-19.The Conversation

Ian Hamilton, Associate Professor, Addiction and Mental Health, University of York and James Morris, PhD Student/Lecturer, London South Bank University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humans aren’t the only animals that get drunk (or worse): here are a few others

Drinking isn’t good for you, but watching parrots get drunk is both healthy and entertaining. Not for the parrots, though.

There’s no day like a weekend day — cause that’s when we get to party. But humans aren’t the only animals that like to abuse their systems with various chemicals. In fact, a lot of animals do it; and get into trouble afterward. We’ve seen the shenanigans that animals go through in love (and lust), some of which are amusingly similar to those we humans cause or experience. So let’s see whether our furry and feathered friends also mirror us in the bad choices we make on a night out on the town (spoiler: they do).

The Darwin Drinking Awards

Northern Australia is the only place on Earth that I know of which has three seasons: a wet season, a dry season, and a drunken parrot season.

Red-collared Lorikeet.
Image via Wikimedia.

Just before the wet season, roughly in mid-to-late December, the local Weeping Boer-bean trees (Schotia brachypetala) are flowering. This brings swarms of red-collared lorikeets to the area to feed on the nectar of the trees’ flowers. However, after a while, some of the birds start to sway a little bit — and then fall out of trees. Darwin locals report that the birds lack coordination and that they seemingly lose their ability to fly and sometimes even to walk. Vets say the birds act similar to drunken people. They also seem to experience disorientation, energy loss, and perhaps headaches, all very familiar hangover symptoms.

While the possibility of a virus affecting these birds hasn’t yet been ruled out, the event may have more to do with the trees — which are also known as the Drunken Parrot Tree, I’ll let you judge for yourself. So far, local animal caretakers and vets provide safe, quiet places for the parrots to recover — which can take months in some rare cases according to National Geographic — while providing sweetened porridge and fresh fruit. The prevailing theory is that the parrots get drunk off their tails on nectar and fruit fermented in the baking Australian heat.

Tripping Reindeers

Reindeer live in Siberia (in North America too, but they’re called caribou there). The hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria also lives in Siberia, among other places. And the reindeer like to get really, really high on the ‘shrooms during those long and dreary winter months.

Image credits Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr.

Reindeer that partake of the mushrooms have been documented to act almost as if drunk, running around aimlessly, making strange noises, and twitching their heads.

“They have a desire to experience altered states of consciousness,” Huffington Post cites researcher Andrew Haynes, who studied the behavior in the wild. “For humans a common side-effect of mushrooms is the feeling of flying, so it’s interesting the legend about Santa’s reindeer is they can fly.”

He also adds that herdsmen drink the reindeer’s urine to get high themselves.

“Fly agaric is found across the northern hemisphere and has long been used by mankind for its psychotropic properties, but its use can be dangerous because it also contains toxic substances,” he explains for the Pharmaceutical Journal.

“Reindeer seem to metabolise these toxic elements without harm, while the main psychoactive constituents remain unmetabolised and are excreted in the urine. Reindeer herders in Europe and Asia long ago learnt to collect the reindeer urine for use as a comparatively safe source of the hallucinogen.”

Sharing, it seems, really is caring.

Popped-up Wallabies

Wallabies are adorable, diminutive kangaroos native to Australia and New Guinea.

They look like this.
Image via Pxfuel.

Opium poppy farmers on Tasmania (an island off the south Australian coast) have reported that wallabies will sometimes break into their fields to dine on the flowers, which are the raw material for prescription painkillers.

Although exactly which species of wallabies are responsible is still unknown, the animals have been seen eating poppies before running around in circles and eventually passing out, according to a BBC report. Lara Giddings, the attorney general for the island state of Tasmania even described the animals as being “high as a kite” and creating crop circles.

“The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles,” Lara Giddings told a parliamentary hearing on security for poppy crops. “Then they crash.”

“We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”

Rick Rockliff, a spokesman for poppy producer Tasmanian Alkaloids, told the BBC that these wallaby incursions aren’t very common, although other animals have been spotted “acting unusually” in the poppies.

Australia is a major producer of raw materials for the painkiller industry, supplying around half of the world’s (legally-grown) opium. And, it seems, the main supplier for wallabies as well.

Bees on a binge

Bees keep the world turning, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from functional alcoholism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhUKLsSjUZs

The bee nervous system is similar enough to that of humans for alcohol to have similar effects on them. In fact, researchers sometimes use bee colonies as models to test out the effects of alcohol intoxication in humans and other vertebrates. For example, a team of researchers at Ohio State University routinely gives bees ethanol — drinking alcohol — to see how it affects them. Unsurprisingly, they found that it affected their flying, walking, and grooming.

“Alcohol affects bees and humans in similar ways — it impairs motor functioning along with learning and memory processing,” Dr Julie Mustard, an entomology researcher at the university, explained to the BBC.

But bees seem in no way content to limit their day-drinking to the lab. Just last year, Australian Parliament’s head beekeeper Cormac Farrell explained that the bees, which could be seen sometimes dropping on the ground around the Australian House of Parliament in Canberra, are just really blitzed. Sadly for the bees, they can sometimes drink themselves to death, and the queens aren’t very understanding of them — they will post guards at the entrance of their hives to keep any ‘merry’ bees from getting in.

“As the weather heats up, the nectar in some Australian flowers will ferment, making the foragers drunk,” Farrell told The Canberra Times last year. “Usually this makes them a bit wobbly, and if they come back to the beehive drunk the guards will turn them away until they sober up.”

“The drunk bees are kept out of the hive to stop the honey from fermenting inside, which could hurt the whole colony,” he added.

Only introduced and exotic honeybees seem affected, with Farrell noting that he had not seen any drunk native bees, of which Australia can boast 2000 species.

So, are bees just the victims of excellent work ethic and fermenting sugar? It doesn’t appear that way — bees just seem to enjoy getting smashed hard. Charles Abramson of Ohio State University told Newscientist that while most animals need to be coaxed into drinking alcohol, “we can get [bees] to drink pure ethanol, and I know of no organism that drinks pure ethanol – not even a college student.”

A bee, he adds, will drink the equivalent of a human downing 10 liters of wine in a single sitting. Flawless work ethic indeed!

Puff puff porpoise

Dolphins… like to pass toxic pufferfish around to get high.

The behavior was first reported on by marine biologist Lisa Steiner in 1995. She was studying a group of rough-toothed dolphins roughly in the region of the Azores when she noticed that some of them were pushing an inflated pufferfish around and rubbing their faces against it. Which was an odd sight, as that pufferfish uses one of the most lethal substances on Earth, tetrodotoxin, to protect itself from, among others, dolphins. Later on, Steiner would hypothesize that the dolphins were only exposed to tiny amounts of tetrodotoxin, and this resulted in a high, not death. Which is an ideal outcome in my book.

It’s still unclear whether the dolphins are actually getting a chemical kick out of the pufferfish or if they’re just harassing the poor animal for sport. The main points of contention are that tetrodotoxin isn’t known to cross the brain-blood barrier, and that it’s extremely deadly — one pufferfish contains enough to kill 30 full-grown people. However, in episode two of the BBC One documentary film, “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod,” a group of dolphins was filmed hunting pufferfish and biting into it but not eating it, then sharing the fish with their mates.

So this one is still a bit up in the air. But no matter whether the fish is used as a drug or a simple toy, given how toxic it is, it’s definitely dangerous.

These are a few of the more unusual stories of animals binging, but they’re certainly not the only ones. Jaguars like to chew on the roots of yagé vines — a main component of the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca — and their diminutive cousins love catnip. And, well, humans are animals too. While it’s definitely a lot of fun reading about their shenanigans, hangovers aren’t, so enjoy your own real-life shenanigans in moderation.

Even light alcohol consumption increases cancer risk

If you want to reduce your cancer risk, completely eliminating alcohol consumption seems like the way to go.

Alcohol still plays a strange role in our society. We’ve known for a while that it’s bad for our health, we tax it quite heavily, and yet it remains incredibly popular. In most nations, it plays an important cultural role, it’s present everywhere and shows no real sign of declining. Even more, every once in a while, there’s the odd study saying that alcohol might good for you. The health impact of alcohol on our body is still controversial and probably won’t be settled by any single study, but there is growing evidence that alcohol is bad for you, even in low quantities.

A new study carried out in Japan, one of the countries with the best overall health, reports that every bit of alcohol increases your cancer risk.

Researchers looked at data gathered between 2005 and 2016 in 33 general hospitals in Japan. They examined 63,232 patients with cancer and took an equal number of participants in the control group. The participants reported their average daily intake of alcohol.

As soon as the alcohol consumption became larger than zero, the risk of cancer also increased. There was an almost linear association between cancer risk and alcohol — the more participants drank, the more their risk increased. For instance, a light level of drinking (one drink per day for 10 years) would increase overall cancer risk by 5%. Those who had an average of 2 drinks per day had almost double the risk of cancer.

Researchers say that this is particularly significant since heart diseases are relatively rare in Japan, and cancer is one of the biggest health problems in the country.

“In Japan, the primary cause of death is cancer,” said Masayoshi Zaitsu, one of the study’s authors. “Given the current burden of overall cancer incidence, we should further encourage promoting public education about alcohol-related cancer risk.”

Of course, this opens up the perennial discussion about association and correlation-not-causation. This study did not analyze causation, it only looked at a statistical relationship. Also, it is quite possible that Japanese people are not representative of the entire planet, so the findings might not carry over in other cultures. But it’s another piece of evidence suggesting that no level of alcohol consumption is without risk.

So if you’re thinking about a cup of wine… you may as well make an informed decision.

A previous study found that 50% of the cancer cases in Japan are preventable, and alcohol seems to fit in quite well in this pattern. Smoking and consumption of fried meat were also found to lead to an increase in overall cancer risk.

Journal Reference: “Light to moderate amount of lifetime alcohol consumption and risk of cancer in Japan.” Masayoshi Zaitsu, Takumi Takeuchi, Yasuki Kobayashi, and Ichiro Kawachi. CANCER. (DOI: 10.1002/cncr.32590).

How one thumb injury led to one man getting drunk from eating carbs

A recent case study recounts the story of one man getting drunk from pizzas, sodas, and everything in between.

Perhaps the coolest sounding medical complication ever, auto-brewery syndrome (ABS) is a rarely-diagnosed condition where patients can get very drunk when eating carbohydrates (the much-bemoaned ‘carbs’). And, at least in the case of one 46-year-old patient, ABS can cause some social tensions when nobody believes you haven’t been drinking when a plate of pasta leaves you staggering.

Involuntarily inebriated

The case study looks at a patient that had completed a course of antibiotics for a thumb injury in 2011. One week after the treatment, he reported to the doctor’s office citing uncharacteristic personality changes such as depression, ‘brain fog’, aggressive behavior, and memory loss.

He was at one point referred to a psychiatrist and given antidepressants. However, the nature of his condition wasn’t fully understood until he was pulled over by police one morning in an apparent case of drunk driving. At the time, he refused to take a breathalyzer test, as he knew for a fact that he didn’t drink any alcohol. The officer had him hospitalized for a blood test. This showed the patient had a blood-alcohol level of 200 mg/dL, equivalent to having drunk approximately 10 pints of beer, and enough to cause confusion, disorientation, impaired balance, and slurred speech.

“The hospital personnel and police refused to believe him when he repeatedly denied alcohol ingestion,” researchers from Richmond University Medical Centre note in their case report.

Subsequent medical tests found Saccharomyces cerevisiae (brewer’s yeast) and a related fungus in the patient’s stool. S. cervisiae is used in brewing as it breaks down sugars in plants into alcohol. While he was successfully treated, later flare-ups of the same condition — with the most serious incident involving a fall while inebriated that caused intracranial bleeding — led to him being diagnosed with ABS.

The researchers note that while recovering in the hospital, the patient’s blood alcohol spiked as high as 400 mg/dL. Still, “medical staff refused to believe that he did not drink alcohol despite his persistent denials”. Ultimately, the patient received treatment conducted in collaboration with the Richmond University specialists; the team used a cocktail of anti-fungal therapies supported by probiotics to reset his gut microflora. With the exception of one relapse when the patient sneakily enjoyed some pizza and soda without telling his doctors, the fungal infection has been successfully treated, the team explains.

“Approximately 1.5 years later, he remains asymptomatic and has resumed his previous lifestyle, including eating a normal diet while still checking his breath alcohol levels sporadically,” the researchers explain.

It’s a happy ending for the patient, who looks to be finally free not only of his unasked-for drunkenness (and resultant health problems) but also of the cloud of disbelief it invited in those around him.

“For years, no one believed him,” says Fahad Malik, a chief medical resident at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the lead author of the case study. “The police, doctors, nurses and even his family told him he wasn’t telling the truth, that he must be a closet-drinker.”

“We believe that our patient’s symptoms were triggered by exposure to antibiotics, which resulted in a change in his gastrointestinal microbiome allowing fungal overgrowth,” the authors explain, noting that we are only starting to recognise the complexity of this rare and probably under-diagnosed condition.

The paper “Case report and literature review of auto-brewery syndrome: probably an underdiagnosed medical condition” has been published in the journal BMJ Open Gastroenterology.

MDMA reduces alcoholism relapse, new study shows

After a few doses of the drug and psychotherapy, there were almost no signs of relapse. In comparison, around 8 in 10 alcoholics relapse after existing treatments.

Although they are still illegal in virtually all countries, psychoactive drugs have been regarded with more and more interest by doctors, due to their potential in treating various mental conditions. MDMA, for instance, has been branded as a “breakthrough treatment” for PTSD, and has been shown to make people more social. In this pioneering study, consumption of MDMA (commonly known as “ecstasy”) has been shown to be safe in controlled conditions — and it has also shown potential in treating alcoholism.

The World Health Organization estimates that as of 2010, there are 208 million people with alcoholism worldwide. Around 17 million of them are in the United States — a whopping 7% of all adults. Treatments are varied because alcoholism is a multifaceted condition, but they are rarely very effective. Most treatments focus on helping people eliminate their alcohol intake, followed up with life training and/or social support to help them. This new treatment follows a similar approach, with an MDMA twist.

Alcoholism, like all forms of addiction, is usually based on an underlying trauma. If you are only eliminating alcohol consumption, you’re just treating the symptom, and the underlying condition is still there — and is very likely to rear its head again. This is what the MDMA does: it addresses the core issue.

“MDMA selectively impairs the fear response,” says Dr. Ben Sessa, an addiction psychiatrist and senior research fellow at Imperial College London, and who led the trial. “It allows recall of painful memories without being overwhelmed,” he told The Guardian.

The trial carried out in Bristol, UK, tested whether a combination of a few doses of the drug and psychotherapy can help patients overcome alcoholism effectively. It was only a small study, with 11 participants. However, the results are impressive.

Out of the 11 participants, none exhibited any significant side effects because of the treatment. Out of them, just one relapsed.

“We’ve got one person who has completely relapsed, back to previous drinking levels, we have five people who are completely dry and we have four or five who have had one or two drinks but wouldn’t reach the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder,” Sessa said.

Although it’s a small study and results need to be replicated on a larger sample size, the results are promising and warrant further investigation.

It’s also important to note that the drug was consumed in controlled settings, in a hospital, alongside a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Participants are given the drug and then spend 8 hours mostly lying down, with eyeshades and headphones. Patients also stay in the hospital overnight and have their sleep patterns monitored after going home.

“There is no black Monday, blue Tuesday, or whatever ravers call it. In my opinion, that is an artefact of raving. It’s not about MDMA,” said Sessa.

Binge drinking ranks high among older adults, research shows

Binge drinking, the practice of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a single session, is surprisingly common in adults age 65 and older: 1 in 10 binge drink once a month, putting them at risk for a wide range of health problems, according to new research.

Image Credits: Flickr.

 

Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and AlcoholismExternal defines binge drinking as drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. This commonly means 5 drinks for men and 4 for women over the course of 2 hours.

“Binge drinking, even episodically or infrequently, may negatively affect other health conditions by exacerbating disease, interacting with prescribed medications, and complicating disease management,” Benjamin Han, MD, the study’s lead author, said.

Binge drinkers were more likely to be male, current tobacco and/or cannabis users, African American, and have less than high school education. They were also more likely to visit the emergency room in the past year.

Particularly for older adults, binge drinking is considered a risky practice because of aging-related physical changes, such as an increased risk of falling, and the likelihood of having chronic health issues. Nevertheless, research hasn’t been much focused on binge drinking among older adults.

Han and the research team examined data from US adults age 65 and older to determine the current prevalence and factors that may increase the risk of binge drinking. They looked at the prevalence of current binge alcohol use and compared demographic and health factors of binge drinkers with people who drank less.

The results showed 10.6% older adults have binge drank in the past month–an increase compared to earlier studies. In the decade leading up to the data used in this study (2005-2014), binge drinking among adults 65 and older was between 7.7 and 9%.

The study, also found that factors such as using cannabis can be associated with an increase in binge drinking in older adults.

“The association of binge drinking with cannabis use has important health implications. Using both may lead to higher impairment effects. This is particularly important as cannabis use is becoming more prevalent among older adults, and older adults may not be aware of the possible dangers of using cannabis with alcohol,” said researcher Joseph Palamar, the study’s senior author.

The study also revealed that binge drinkers had a lower prevalence of two or more chronic diseases compared to non-binge drinkers. The most common chronic disease among them was hypertension (41.4%), followed by cardiovascular disease (23.1%) and diabetes (17.7%).

“Our results underscore the importance of educating, screening, and intervening to prevent alcohol-related harms in older adults, who may not be aware of their heightened risk for injuries and how alcohol can exacerbate chronic diseases,” said Han.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Credit: Pixabay.

The dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Alcohol is commonly used at the same time with over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs. However, doing so can have unpredictable and unwanted consequences — and some of these are extremely dangerous. Here’s a brief description of the general effects that can occur by combining alcohol and various classes of drugs.

Alcohol and antidepressants

Antidepressants are medications that can help relieve symptoms of depression, social anxiety disorder, anxiety disorders, seasonal affective disorder, and dysthymia, or mild chronic depression, as well as other conditions. An increasing number of people are turning to such drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of people aged 12 years and over using antidepressant in the United States rose from 7.7 percent in 1999-2002 to 12.7 percent in 2011-2014.

There are many classes of antidepressants and the effects of the use of alcohol, also known as ethanol (ETOH), in conjunction with these drugs will depend on their class.

Generally, the symptoms of using alcohol in conjunction with most antidepressant drugs include:

  • Inhibiting the medicinal effect of the antidepressant drug (Zoloft, Prozac, Lithium, etc.);
  • Drowsiness, dizziness, and even an increase in depression; alcohol itself is a depressant and can exacerbate the symptoms of the condition.
  • Amplification of alcohol’s effects, particularly on motor function, coordination, and reduced reaction time.
  • Increase potential for damage to organs, such as the liver.

Alcohol and medication for diabetes

There are various prescription medication designed to control diabetes, such as insulin for type I diabetes and metformin for type II diabetes. Drinking alcohol in such a situation can lead to all sorts of serious consequences due to the high sugar content of many alcoholic beverages. When combined with diabetes medication, alcohol can lead to effects such as:

  • Rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure;
  • Fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, and/or vomiting;
  • Potentially dangerous alterations in blood sugar levels;

Alcohol and opiates

The most dangerous combination of alcohol and drugs is with opiates, such as heroin or painkillers.

Opiate painkillers like OxyContin, Hydrocodone and Vicodin depress the central nervous system to dampen pain, as well as inhibit breathing. When mixed with alcohol, the risk of overdose spikes. About 22% of prescription painkiller fatalities involve alcohol.

Alcohol and stimulants

While alcohol suppresses the functions of the central nervous system (CNS), there are numerous drugs that stimulate CNS functions. Some examples of such stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines;
  • Prescription medications for the treatment of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), such as Ritalin and Concerta (methylphenidate) or Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine);
  • Caffeine and several drugs classified as antihistamines or decongestants;
  • Illicit drugs, particularly cocaine and methamphetamine (crystal meth).

People mix alcohol with stimulants in order to ‘take the edge off’ of the stimulant. This practice is particularly common among college students who abuse ADHD medication to help with studying and people who use cocaine at parties. The main problem is that stimulants conceal the effects of alcohol, which means people can no longer gauge their level of intoxication, leading to overconsumption. Some common problems associated with mixing stimulants and alcohol include:

  • The effects of stimulants are negated by alcohol.
  • Taking stimulants and alcohol in combination leads to a significant reduction in the overall effects of both drugs. This makes it easier to overdose on one or both drugs.
  • Higher risk of developing seizures, psychotic behavior, hallucinations, or delusions.
  • Emotional problems, such as increased symptoms for depression, anxiety, loss of motivation, etc.
  • Damage to organs such as the liver, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system if alcohol and stimulants are mixed chronically.

Alcohol and over-the-counter medication

Just because some medication doesn’t require a prescription, that doesn’t make it harmless. Tylenol, for instance, contains acetaminophen which can cause liver damage if a user takes too much or combines it with alcohol. Other medications, such as cough syrup and laxatives, already contain as much as 10% alcohol, which can interact with just a drink or two.

In conclusion, the safest thing is to avoid combining drugs and alcohol. Always contact your doctor or local pharmacist before you mix any kind of drugs, legal or not, with alcohol.

Man despair.

Indicators of despair on the rise for Gen X-ers entering middle age, paper reports

New research reports that depression, suicidal ideation, drug use, and alcohol use — all ‘indicators of despair’ — are rising among Americans in their late 30s to early 40s.

Man despair.

Image via Pixabay.

The increase in “deaths of despair” seen among low-educated, middle-aged white Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) may be heavily mirrored among the youngest members of Generation X (born 1974-1983) in the years to come, the authors state. They hope the findings will be used to inform “efforts to reduce these indicators of despair”.

On a mid-age, dark and dreary

“What we wanted to do in this paper was to examine whether the factors that may be predictive of those causes of death — substance use, suicidal ideation and depression — are isolated to [the white non-Hispanic] population subgroup, or whether it’s a more generalized phenomenon,” says lead author Lauren Gaydosh, an assistant professor of Medicine, Health and Society and Public Policy Studies at Vanderbilt University.

In 2016, the U.S. saw its first decline in life expectancy in almost three decades. The prevailing theory at the time was that this decline was the product of a marked increase in deaths due to drug overdose, alcoholic cirrhosis, and suicide among middle-aged whites with low education or in rural areas. This group was struggling in the throes of “deaths of despair”, pushed to the brink by worsening employment prospects, a declining perception of socioeconomic status, and an erosion of social supports, the theory went.

However, studies aiming to understand those mortality trends did not definitively show that low-income rural whites were actually experiencing more despair than other groups. In order to get to the bottom of things, the team of this present study turned to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (or ‘Add Health’), directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina. Harris is also a co-author of this study. Add Health tracked the physical and mental health of thousands of Americans born between 1974-1983 from adolescence through their late 30s and early 40s (in 2016-18).

“We found that despair has increased in this cohort, but that increases are not restricted to non-Hispanic whites with low education,” Gaydosh said. “Instead, the increase in despair that occurs across the 30s is generalized to the entire cohort, regardless of race, ethnicity, education, and geography.”

The exact patterns of drinking, drug use, and mental health symptoms varied across races and education levels, the team reports: whites were more likely to binge-drink in adolescence; Hispanics and African Americans of all ages were more likely to report depressive symptoms.

However, the overall trends were roughly the same across cohorts, the authors add. Adolescence was a rocky time for everyone, followed by a period of improvement in their twenties. By the time those monitored under Add Health reached their late 30s, however, indicators of despair were trending back up across the board. In some cases, these indicators were higher for minority populations than they were for low-educated whites or rural adults.

The team says these results should concern us, as they suggest that midlife mortality may begin to increase across a wide range of demographic groups.

“Public health efforts to reduce these indicators of despair should not be targeted toward just rural whites, for example,” Gaydosh said, “because we’re finding that these patterns are generalized across the population.”

The paper “The Depths of Despair Among U.S. Adults Entering Midlife” has been published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Credit: Pixabay.

Why drinking alcohol gives you the munchies

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Closing time at the bars usually sends scores of intoxicated men and women to the nearest diner or fast-food restaurant. In a new study, researchers at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine investigated what makes alcohol and high-fat junk food go so well together, finding that this union seems to be mediated by a shared brain circuit in the brain.

“Obesity and alcoholism, two of the most common chronic disorders in the United States, may be behaviorally linked as binge intake of palatable diets, such as diets high in fat, and binge alcohol intake may utilize the same neurocircuitry,” the researchers wrote.

The new findings agree with previous studies which found that alcohol consumption affects the same areas of the brain that control overeating.

For their study, the researchers experimented with three groups of adult male mice, each with different eating and drinking patterns. One group had unlimited access to a high-fat diet and had limited access to drinking water mixed with alcohol; the second group ate normal rodent food and had limited access to the same kind of alcoholic beverage as the first group; the third group had limited access to both high-fat foot and alcohol beverage. Over the course of eight weeks, the ratio of alcohol to drinking water was incrementally increased from 10% to 20%. Throughout the trial, all the animals were offered access to drinking water.

Animals in the third group, also known as the “binge diet”, had a weight-gain and weight-loss cycle associated with binge eating and drank more alcohol than water during their access period. The other groups consumed less alcohol than the binge diet group.

The results suggest that limited access to high-fat food promotes binge-like eating patterns, which also primes the brain for more alcohol consumption.

“Given the increasing rates of binge drinking and overall obesity rates in the U.S. in recent years, we think this new mouse model will be of critical importance in the near future,” wrote Caitlin Coker, MS, first author of the study which was presented at the American Physiological Society’s (APS) annual meeting at Experimental Biology 2019 in Orlando, Fla.

This wasn’t the first time that scientists have identified a link between alcohol consumption and eating behavior. Alcohol adds calories to your daily intake without offering much nutritive value in return. However, instead of filling you up and making you eat less, alcohol seems to have the opposite effect. For instance, one study identified the so-called apéritif effect, whereby consuming an alcoholic beverage (with 20 g of alcohol) before lunch led to an 11% increase in total food intake during the meal, and a 24% increase in high-fat savory foods.

Too much alcohol can lead to health problems, including being overweight. However, light to moderate alcohol intake can be healthy since its rich antioxidant content can offer protection against heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and more.

Heavy drinking may stunt brain growth

The heavy use of alcohol among adolescents and young adults may slow down the rate of brain growth, according to a new study on non-human primates.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center measured brain growth through magnetic resonance imaging in 71 rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) that consumed ethanol or alcoholic beverages. In order to rule out other possible factors, the researchers monitored the animals’ precise alcohol intake, diet, daily schedules, and general health.

The results suggest that heavy alcohol consumption (the equivalent of 4 beers per day for humans) reduced the rate of brain growth by approximately 0.25 millimeters per year for every gram of alcohol consumed per kilogram of body weight. Normal brain growth in adolescent rhesus macaques is 1 millimeter per 1.87 years, the authors reported in the journal eNeuro

The adolescent brain is more sensitive than the adult brain to alcohol because connections between brain cells are not yet as robust, which makes them more easily disturbed. One part of the brain that is affected by alcohol is the hippocampus — the seahorse-shaped area deep inside your brain that is responsible for learning and memory. Alcohol is known to damage or even destroy brain cells in this brain area, which isn’t surprising knowing that many people experience fuzzy memories or even ‘blackouts’ after consuming alcohol.

Human brain imaging studies showed that the volume of white matter — which is important for pathways connecting neurons located at farther distances from each other — increases during adolescence, presumably reflecting enhanced brain connectivity and improved communication between areas. However, macaque monkeys that consumed alcohol experienced a slower growth of cerebral white matter, the researchers wrote.

“Human studies are based on self-reporting of underage drinkers,” said co-author Christopher Kroenke, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the primate center. “Our measures pinpoint alcohol drinking with the impaired brain growth.”

The brain is plastic, which in the context of this study means that it should recover at least partly after a person stops drinking alcohol. However, it’s not clear whether there are long-term effects on cognitive abilities and mental functions once the adolescent brain ends this growth phase. In the future, the researchers would like to investigate this question.

“This is the age range when the brain is being fine-tuned to fit adult responsibilities,” lead authors Tatiana Shnitko, a research assistant professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the primate center, said in a statement. “The question is, does alcohol exposure during this age range alter the lifetime learning ability of individuals?”

Whatever your drinking strategy is, you’ll get equally hungover

“Beer before wine, you’ll be fine; wine before beer, you’ll feel queer” — similar variations of this advice are passed down in surprisingly many cultures. There’s the French (Bière sur vin est venin, vinsur bière est belle manière), the German (Wein auf Bier, das rat ich Dir — Bier auf Wein, das lass sein), and even the Romanian (Berea dupa vin e un chin) version. But does the folk saying actually have any truth to it? A new study says ‘no‘ — it doesn’t really matter in what order you have your drinks, you’ll still get equally drunk and equally hungover.

Most of us are familiar with the scourge of hangovers — perhaps too familiar. But despite all this, hangovers remain somewhat of a mystery: we don’t know what they are or even how to manage them.

“Alcohol-induced hangover constitutes a significant, yet understudied, global hazard and a large socio-economic burden,” researchers write in a new study.

Kai Hensel, M.D, has been thinking about hangovers for a long time. Not because he has a history of them, but because he wanted to see how accurate folk sayings about hangovers really are. In particular, he was curious about the different variations of “grape or grain, but never the twain” (twain being an archaic term for “both”).

He sought advice from older professors, scoured the literature, but couldn’t find any information. So he came up with a plan. After carefully laying out a study design and seeking ethical approval, he got 90 volunteers drunk — for science.

The study was simple but ingenious in its approach. The participants were split into two groups. The first group consumed two and a half pints of lager beer (graciously donated by Carlsberg), and then had four large glasses of white wine. The second group had the same but in the opposite order, while the third group was a control group, only drinking either wine or beer. A week after the first drinking session, participants were asked to come back and switch the drinking order, and they were also asked to grade how hungover they were. Hangover intensity was scored on an 8-item compound score (including thirst, fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea, stomach ache, tachycardia, and loss of appetite)

The results were very telling: there was basically no difference between how hungover the different groups were. So regardless of wine before beer or beer before wine, people were equally drunk and equally hungover. Just because it rhymes doesn’t mean it’s true — who knew?

No tactical drinking — just red flags

Instead, the only predictor of how hungover people were the next day was how drunk they got. For instance, women had more and stronger hangovers, something which is in line with previous research.

“After doing all the blood tests, urine tests, and the marginal regression analysis, the only thing that was actually a predictor of a hangover the next day was the participants feeling drunk,” Hensel pauses, “and then vomiting.”

Another saying is that you shouldn’t mix drinks — but this also turned out to not be the case. Vomiting occurred more often in the control group (6 for wine only and 5 for beer only than in the study groups (4 in total for both groups). More women than men vomited both on study day 1 (5 to 4) and on study day 2 (8 to 4).

There was substantial difference between participants. Different people have different hangover predisposition, depending on body mass, individual tolerance, and habituation to alcohol intake. Colorings, flavorings, and sugar can also make hangovers more severe. But tactical drinking is not a thing, researchers warn.

“Although this should rob tactical drinkers of the belief that they can reduce the aftereffects of a heavy night out by careful ordering of beverages, our findings suggest that “perceived drunkenness” and “vomiting” are useful predictors of misery in the morning after the night before. Furthermore, this is in line with the recent observation that no level of alcohol consumption improves health,” the study concudes.

Researchers say that the best thing to do in order to avoid hangovers is to look for red flags. Drinking too much alcohol is associated with severe dehydration (so it’s always good to have some water when drinking a lot of alcohol), but essentially, if you want to not feel bad the next day, you should realize when you’re drunk and stop drinking. Of course, the irony is (as drunken people all around the world can attest) that realizing you’re drunk is pretty much the hardest thing to do when you’re drunk.

Hensen also discussed another strategy employed by some drinkers: the pre-emptive puking. There is some merit to it, he says, but if you’ve reached that point, you’re in trouble anyway.

“If you arrive at a point where you need to be sick you’ve probably passed the point of no return,” he added.

The study “Grape or grain but never the twain? A randomized controlled multiarm matched-triplet crossover trial of beer and wine” has been published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Just a few drinks can change the way memories form, eventually leading to cravings

Credit: Pixabay.

The messy thing about addiction is that it changes the brain in a lot of ways at the molecular level, making relapse easy and common. But at least we’re constantly learning new things. According to a recent study, alcohol — and very likely other addictive substances such as cocaine or opiates — hijacks a memory pathway in the brain, which can eventually lead to the cravings that underpin addiction.

“One of the things I want to understand is why drugs of abuse can produce really rewarding memories when they’re actually neurotoxins,” Karla Kaun, assistant professor of neuroscience at Brown University said in a statement. “All drugs of abuse — alcohol, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine — have adverse side effects. They make people nauseous or they give people hangovers, so why do we find them so rewarding? Why do we remember the good things about them and not the bad? My team is trying to understand on a molecular level what drugs of abuse are doing to memories and why they’re causing cravings.”

Although they only have 100,000 neurons, versus 100 billion found in the human brain, fruit flies have much of the same molecular signals involved in the formation of reward and avoidance memories as we do. For their new study, Kaun and colleagues used genetic tools to selectively turn off key genes while training the flies where to find alcohol. By selectively tweaking genes, researchers were able to find out which proteins were required for the rewarding behavior of alcohol consumption.

One of the proteins identified by the researchers is Notch, a fundamental molecule in a signaling pathway that kicks off embryo development, brain development, and adult brain functions in humans and many other animals. Researchers say that such pathways resemble “falling dominos”, where each signal triggers the activation of other signals in a cascading effect.

Kaun’s team eventually found that one of the signaling pathways downstream of these dominos is a gene called dopamine-2-like receptor. This gene is responsible for triggering the production of a protein that enables neurons to recognize dopamine — the “feel good” neurotransmitter that plays a starring role in motivating behavior.

The pink areas are the fly's memory centers and the green dots are where the first molecular signaling "domino" Notch has been activated. Credit: Kaun Lab/Brown University.

The pink areas are the fly’s memory centers and the green dots are where the first molecular signaling “domino” Notch has been activated.
Credit: Kaun Lab/Brown University.

Previous research showed that the dopamine-2-like receptor is responsible for encoding whether a memory is pleasing or aversive. What alcohol seems to do is it hijacks this pathway so that the brain rewards alcohol consumption, despite its intoxicating effects. What essentially happens is the brain learns to enhance the formation of cues associated with alcohol, making it more likely to pursue the drug in the future.

Interestingly, alcohol did not switch the dopamine receptor on or off, or even increase or decrease the amount of protein made. Instead, the effect was much more subtle, changing the version of a protein made by a single amino acid “letter”.

“We don’t know what the biological consequences of that small change are, but one of the important findings from this study is that scientists need to look not only at which genes are being turned on and off, but which forms of each gene are getting turned on and off,” Kaun said. “We think these results are highly likely to translate to other forms of addiction, but nobody has investigated that.”

Kaun plans to continue to work by investigating similar effects triggered by opiates.

“If this works the same way in humans, one glass of wine is enough to activate the pathway, but it returns to normal within an hour,” Kaun said. “After three glasses, with an hour break in between, the pathway doesn’t return to normal after 24 hours. We think this persistence is likely what is changing the gene expression in memory circuits.

“Just something to keep in mind the next time you split a bottle of wine with a friend or spouse,” she added.

The findings appeared in the journal Neuron.