What heavy drinking does to your DNA

Lately, there’s been a lot of debate about the health benefits and side effects of marijuana.

Is it good for you? Bad for you? Should it be legal? Illegal?

But while everyone’s busy debating the merits of marijuana, more than three million people worldwide killed themselves with a substance that’s not only legal but an expected part of our social experience — alcohol.

Now, I’m no teetotaler. But I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the dangers of alcohol. Especially since it’s so pervasive in our culture. It’s not just socially acceptable… it’s practically required. If you’re sober or you ever stopped drinking for a brief time, you know what I’m talking about.

You go to a party, bar, club or even just a barbecue, and people are baffled by your decision not to drink. It only takes one ginger ale or mocktail order for someone to question your decision. And if your answer’s not good enough in their eyes, the pushy ones might even give you a hard time.

That’s because drinking is an expected part of social life in America and many other countries. Depending on your social circle, that may mean having a margarita with friends once a month at your favorite Mexican restaurant. Or it may mean binge-drinking beers every weekend at the closest dive bar.

But if you hang with a social circle that brings out the heavy drinker in you, there’s something you should know…

Even though you’re (hopefully) not an alcoholic now, that could very easily change. Because heavy drinking and binge drinking trigger long-lasting genetic changes that make you crave alcohol more than ever before.

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This is your DNA on alcohol

A new study from researchers at Rutgers and Yale Universities shows that heavy drinking changes your DNA.

Researchers homed in on two genes that control drinking behavior: PER2 (a gene in charge of biological clock regulation) and POMC (a stress response gene). They monitored these genes in moderate, binge and heavy drinkers. And here’s what they found…

People who were binge or heavy drinkers experienced genetic changes. Their genes went through methylation, a process your cells use to control gene expression. They had less gene expression in these two genes, so their genes were creating fewer proteins.

What does that mean?

Basically, drinking a lot of alcohol directly alters the genes that determine how much alcohol people want to drink… and based on their self-reported alcohol cravings, not for the better.

Related: Steer clear of wine and beer?

Researchers showed study participants containers of beer and had them taste the beer. Those who experienced DNA changes had a greater desire for alcohol.

How to know if you’re a heavy drinker… and what to do

The qualifications for being a “heavy” drinker or a “binge” drinker are probably lower than you realize. If you’re a woman who’s had four drinks within two hours or a man who’s had five drinks within two hours, you’re binge drinking.

If you’ve participated in binge drinking five or more times in the last month, you’re considered a heavy drinker

Binge drinking is incredibly common. The CDC reports that one in six adults binge drinks four times per month. That means a lot of people are changing their genes and setting themselves up for serious alcohol cravings. They’re also setting themselves up for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, liver disease, and cancer.

So, the question you need to ask yourself is… can I drink in moderation? Can I drink one or two drinks when I go out with friends instead of six or seven?

If the answer is no, then you’re better off avoiding alcohol. Because moderation is more than a good idea when it comes to alcohol, it’s a must if you want to stay healthy.

But if you’ve been binge drinking for a while, making the change to less (or no) alcohol won’t be easy. After all, your genes may have already changed to make you crave it more. It’s going to take dedication to keep your alcohol intake down, but you can start by:

  • Setting a goal. Decide the exact amount of alcohol you want to drink per day or week and hold yourself to it… just like you hold yourself to other goals in your life, like exercising five days per week or limiting dessert to two nights per week.
  • Savoring your drinks. When you do drink, drink slowly. One to two drinks can last quite a while when you sip instead of chug. The longer each drink lasts, the less likely you are to overdo it. Plus, you’ll also enjoy each drink more.
  • Saving drinking for special occasions. If you drink a lot at home, you can cut back by saving drinking for special occasions. Have a drink when you go out to dinner with friends or at a birthday party, rather than every night in front of the TV.
  • Avoiding pushy friends. When you cut back or stop drinking, people in your life may give you a hard time. I’m not a fan of pushy people who don’t respect my decisions. Maybe you feel the same way. But beyond finding their behavior obnoxious, it can really damage your health. If someone continuously prods you to have another drink, you may eventually give in. So, even though it sounds harsh, you probably need to push pushy friends out of your social circle.
  • Not abandoning your goals when you experience minor setbacks. This is the best advice you can follow when you’re working toward any goal. If you go out one night and drink six drinks instead of two, don’t give up. We all slip up occasionally. It’s not a big deal… unless you use it as an excuse to stop trying altogether.

Sources:

  1. Heavy drinking may change DNA, leading to increased craving for alcohol — MedicalXpress
  2. Hypermethylation of Proopiomelanocortin and Period 2 Genes in Blood Are Associated with Greater Subjective and Behavioral Motivation for Alcohol in HumansAlcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
  3. Binge Drinking — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  4. Drinking Levels Defined — National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  5. 11 ways to curb your drinking — Harvard Health Publishing

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Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.