For some time, common belief in the psychiatric world has been choice B – an elevated tolerance to alcohol’s effects. However, a new study from the University of Chicago is challenging this long-held assumption. While increased tolerance is likely part of the picture, it seems that another piece of the puzzle is a fundamental difference in the way that heavy drinkers respond to intoxication.
In her study, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience Andrea King brought in 190 young adults to have a drink. But first, the participants were split into two groups, light drinkers who have but 1-5 drinks per week and rarely binge and heavy drinkers, those light-hearted do-gooders who drink between 10 and 40 drinks per week and can tolerate the drug Charlie Sheen.
I shouldn’t talk. I fall into the latter category.
The young adults – all aged like a fine wine between 21 and 35 years, but with a lower ABV – were given a fruity cocktail. Some were virgin drinks, some lightly spiked and others more potent than the high school prom’s punch. A short time later, they were asked to fill out a survey about their general feelings and perceptions.
But here’s the kicker: none of them knew they were drinking alcohol. Hell, they didn’t even know the experiment was even related to alcohol.
The results showed that while the light drinkers were much more sensitive to alcohol’s effects, what effects they experienced were quite different. While the goody-two-shoes reported feelings of sluggishness and sedation, the heavy drinkers felt like thing lords of all creation out for a night on the town.
After following them for four years, another trend developed. Whether or not a person in the heavy drinkers group developed alcohol dependency or alcohol-related problems in the following years was heavily correlated with how much they reported enjoying the drink and low levels of sedation. The same was true for the heavy drinkers with lower reports of positive side-effects, but the link wasn’t as strong.
At first this seemed pretty intuitive to me. Obviously those whose body react positively to alcohol are going to be more susceptible to abusing it. But then I thought about how rarely we stop to think about how the exact same experience or substances can have a completely different effect on other people. We don’t empathize very well. In fact, it rarely ever occurs to me that others get tired and cranky from a couple of beers.
But here’s my question: were the heavy drinkers who reported positive effects having those feelings because they were already heavy drinkers whose bodies had acclimated somewhat to the substance, or is there something in their DNA that changes how they react to alcohol? The study doesn’t delve into that at all, and I think it’d be an interesting study. You already have all of the participants’ information, just go get some of their DNA and run some comparison tests.
At the bar.