Genes and environment have long been cited in attempts to describe what causes some people to drink more than others— and, why some people develop an alcohol dependency and others do not. Now, two new studies have shed more light on the genetics and “climatology” (environmental causes) of alcoholism. The findings come at a time when the upcoming holidays mean that Americans will have more excuses to drink than ever.
What, then, has new research revealed about alcohol intake, alcohol dependency and the factors that put you at higher risk for both? Read on to find out.
The Link Between Colder Weather, Alcohol Intake and Alcoholic Cirrhosis
First, research recently published in the journal Hepatology and conducted at the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology found that where you live can determine not only how much you drink but also whether you are more likely to contract alcoholic liver disease. In the study, the researchers collected data from 193 countries, in addition to 50 states and 3,144 counties in the United States. The data they were after included the following:
- Key climate parameters like average annual sunshine hours and average annual temperature
- Metrics regarding drinking habits and related health issues (alcohol consumption, pattern of drinking, health indicators, and alcohol-attributable fraction of cirrhosis)
What the researchers discovered, in the end, was that a colder climate did indeed contribute both to a higher alcohol intake and to a higher incidence of alcoholic cirrhosis.
In a summary of the findings on its site, the University of Pittsburgh gave two explanations for these results:
- Alcohol acts as a “vasodilator,” meaning that alcohol increases the flow of warm blood to the skin, thereby increasing feelings of warmth. It therefore goes without saying that someone living in a very cold place, like Wisconsin, will be more likely to seek out these warming sensations than someone living in a warm place like Florida.
- Drinking is also associated with depression, which itself is more prevalent in colder, darker environments.
The Genetic Cause of Alcohol Dependence
Alcohol dependence is a condition that reportedly affects one in eight Americans. Now, in the largest study of genetic factors related to alcohol dependence—the study was published November 26 in the journal Nature Neuroscience—an international team of researchers has identified a gene that conclusively raises susceptibility to alcohol dependence. The gene ADH1B regulates how quickly the body metabolizes alcohol, specifically by regulating how the body converts alcohol into a substance known as acetaldehyde. (While other genes were found to affect risk for developing alcohol dependence, their causal strength was nowhere on a par with that presented by ADH1B.)
The scientists made another important discovery, too: they found a whole set of genetic factors associated with alcohol dependence that they were able to link to other psychiatric disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, and ADHD; and they also found that the same genetic factors that predict cigarette and marijuana use predicted higher risk for alcohol dependence.
A news release from the Washington University School of Medicine detailed these findings. There the senior author of the study, Dr. Arpana Agrawal, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, clarified that ADH1B “by no means” is the only thing affecting risk of alcohol dependence. She pointed to environmental factors which also play a role.
“We also think the genetic susceptibility to alcohol dependence stems from the small, cumulative effects of a very large number of variants across the genome,” Dr. Agrawal said.
Are you worried about your alcohol intake? End your dependence on alcohol, starting today.