The Biology of Booze Hounds

By Dirk Hanson 04/06/11
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High tolerance = high risk.
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One of the few reliable signs of early alcohol trouble is the classic “hollow leg.” Young drinkers with alcoholic tendencies tend to be really good at holding their liquor. “Normal” people can not, generally, drink everybody under the table, or smoke 20 or 30 cigarettes in an evening. But just because an alcoholic drinker can really toss it back, that doesn’t mean he or she isn’t experiencing the alcohol buzz differently than “normal” drinkers do. A study just published in the Archives of General Psychiatry by a group of University of Chicago researchers spells out this “double whammy” effect: For heavy drinkers, “alcohol produced both greater stimulant and rewarding responses, and lower sedative and cortisol responses” than it did for lighter drinkers.

What this means is that the conventional wisdom has it backwards: Young binge drinkers don’t start out with a hollow leg because of a weaker response to alcohol. (Binge drinking is defined as four or five drinks in less than two hours). Young drinkers tending towards alcoholism don’t just drink more--they also manage to feel the pleasurable effects of liquor more keenly, and suffer less from its sedating effects. Which means that while others are sliding under the table, our budding alcoholic is wide awake and ready to move on to Hooters. For certain drinkers, this is the beginning of a horrifying snowball effect: The sharpened positive effects and the blunted sedative effects of alcohol—combined with an innately high tolerance—make binge drinking both possible and enjoyable for budding addicts. Not surprisingly, binge drinking as a teenager is statistically associated with a greater likelihood of alcoholic drinking as an adult. As lead author Andrea King of the University of Chicago explains: “It’s not just overall tolerance that increases the risks of excessive drinking, but also an individual's particular sensitivity to alcohol’s euphoric effect.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]