Twin study suggests genetic link between craving alcohol, sweets

November 05, 2000

CHAPEL HILL -- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have found a strong correlation between men's preference for sweet tastes and whether their twin brothers liked sweets too. The finding suggests that genes play a central role in that preference, which the scientists believe is linked to the urge to drink alcohol.

"Several years ago, we found the first clinical evidence linking sweet liking with alcoholism in a study that involved subjects tasting a wide range of concentrations of table sugar in water,"said Dr. David H. Overstreet, associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC-CH School of Medicine and a member of Skipper Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies. "In this new study, we found that despite different life experiences, twin brothers continue to share sweet and alcohol preferences."

Twins also may share similar emotional responses to eating sweets, Overstreet said. To researchers' questions they offered similar responses like "having something sweet to eat makes me feel happier," and "I am less irritable if I have something sweet to eat."

Preliminary results of the continuing research, which included 19 pairs of twins, are being presented Monday (Nov. 6) at a Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans.

"The twin study also allowed us to collect additional information about the association between different characteristics of sweet liking and alcohol intake in non-alcoholic subjects since none of our twins were alcoholics," Overstreet said.

"For example, those individuals who reported drinking more alcohol on occasion and having more alcohol-related problems also had problems with controlling how many sweets they ate," he said. "They were more likely to report urges to eat sweets and craving for them. They also were more likely to report this craving when they were nervous or depressed, and they believed eating sweets made them feel better."

Other investigators were Drs. Alexey B. Kampov-Polevoy, formerly of UNC-CH and now with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York; James C. Garbutt, associate professor of psychiatry at UNC-CH; and Lenn Murrelle and Lindon Eaves, both of the Medical College of Virginia.

The new UNC-CH study extends earlier work in rodents showing that preference for sweeter solutions reliably predicts the propensity to consume alcohol. It also extends the first published human research of its kind in which UNC-CH scientists asked 20 abstinent alcoholic men and 37 non-alcoholic men to taste five sugar solutions. The solutions ranged from not sweet at all to very sweet, with the strongest being more than twice as sweet as the soft drink Coca-Cola Classic.

Sixty-five percent of alcoholics preferred the sweetest solution compared to only 16 percent of non-alcoholics. All subjects could distinguish among the different concentrations.

"Sweet liking is a basic pleasurable reaction that may be seen in humans and other mammals within minutes after birth," Kampov-Polevoy said. "Disturbance in pleasurable response to sweets may reflect a dysfunction in the brain's system of positive reinforcement, which is also involved in development of alcoholism."

The Bowles center team has been exploring the relationship between liking stronger sweets and alcohol craving for more than a decade.

"Our findings are interesting given the advice found in the early writings of Alcoholics Anonymous that eating and drinking sweets allays the urge to drink," said Kampov-Polevoy, a physician instrumental in bringing the AA program to the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The researchers hope to design a test to predict who is at greatest risk of developing alcoholism.

"Perhaps a benign and inexpensive sweet test, which takes only 10 minutes to perform, may be a first step in developing such a test," he said. "This test could be used to screen youngsters to detect those with a predisposition to alcoholism, which might allow early education and prevention rather than waiting until alcoholism develops."

Obviously, most people like sweets and most will not become alcoholics, Kampov-Polevoy said. Alcoholics, however, like stronger concentrations, and such a test may help us better understand who might be at risk of alcohol dependence.

Further study of the effects of sweets on alcohol intake may help develop better treatments for alcoholism, such as special diets for recovering alcoholics, and in understanding the genetic risk for alcoholism in humans, Overstreet said. The latest finding suggests it may be possible to turn off alcohol craving with the help of sweets or by controlling the mechanisms that make both alcohol and sweets desirable to some people.
Note: Overstreet can be reached at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Nov. 3 at (504) 586-0300. Between Nov. 4 and 8, he can be reached through the Society for Neuroscience meeting's message board at (504) 670-7000. Beginning Nov. 9, his number is (919) 966-1159.

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Related Alcohol Articles from Brightsurf:

Alcohol use changed right after COVID-19 lockdown
One in four adults reported a change in alcohol use almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued: 14% reported drinking more alcohol and reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than those who did not drink and those whose use stayed the same.

Changes in hospitalizations for alcohol use disorder in US
Changes over nearly two decades in the rate of hospitalizations and in-hospital deaths from alcohol use disorder in the US were examined in this study.

Associations of alcohol consumption, alcohol-induced passing out with risk of dementia
The risk of future dementia associated with overall alcohol consumption and alcohol-induced loss of consciousness in a population of current drinkers was examined in this observational study with more than 131,000 adults.

New alcohol genes uncovered
Do you have what is known as problematic alcohol use?

Does estrogen influence alcohol use disorder?
A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that high estrogen levels may make alcohol more rewarding to female mice.

Sobering new data on drinking and driving: 15% of US alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities involve alcohol under the legal limit
A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier, found that motor vehicle crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) below the legal limit of 0.08 percent accounted for 15% of alcohol-involved crash deaths in the United States.

Alcohol-induced deaths in US
National vital statistics data from 2000 to 2016 were used to examine how rates of alcohol-induced deaths (defined as those deaths due to alcohol consumption that could be avoided if alcohol weren't involved) have changed in the US and to compare the results by demographic groups including sex, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status and geographic location.

Cuts in alcohol duty linked to 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England
Government cuts to alcohol taxes have had dramatic consequences for public health, including nearly 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England since 2012, according to new research from the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).

Integrated stepped alcohol treatment for people in HIV care improves both HIV & alcohol outcomes
Increasing the intensity of treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time improves alcohol-related outcomes among people with HIV, according to new clinical research supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The Lancet:Targets to reduce harmful alcohol use are likely to be missed as global alcohol intake increases
Increasing rates of alcohol use suggest that the world is not on track to achieve targets against harmful alcohol use, according to a study of 189 countries' alcohol intake between 1990-2017 and estimated intake up to 2030, published in The Lancet.

Read More: Alcohol News and Alcohol Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to