Alcoholics have Sweet Tooth

A sweet tooth may be a “marker” for the genetic risk for developing alcoholism

  • Prior research has found an association between a liking for sweets and alcohol intake.
  • New research indicates that a liking for sweets precedes alcoholism.
  • A liking for sweets, among individuals with a family history of alcoholism, may serve as a “marker” for the genetic risk for developing alcoholism.

Researchers know that genes can influence who may develop alcoholism. Although both animal and human research has also found an association between a liking for sweets and alcohol intake, it has been unclear if a liking for sweets among humans was caused by years of drinking or was linked to a genetic predisposition for alcoholism.

Findings of a new study by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine indicate that a liking for sweets precedes alcoholism and may in fact serve as a “marker” for the genetic risk for developing alcoholism. The study was published in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

“Previous research has established that in mammals such as mice, rats and monkeys, the preference for and consumption of sweet fluids are strongly correlated with voluntary alcohol intake,” said Alexei B. Kampov-Polevoy. “It is thus possible to measure the amount of sweet solution that an animal drinks per day and accurately predict how much alcohol it will drink if given a chance.”

Dr. Kampov’s prior research also showed that alcoholic patients prefer stronger sweet solutions than do non-alcoholics. “However,” he said, “it was not clear whether the increase in sweet preference was caused by a long history of drinking or if a higher sweet preference existed before the onset of alcoholism and somehow reflects predisposition for this disease. Our present manuscript is focused on resolving this issue.”

Individuals with male history of alcoholism were 2.5 times more likely to like sweets than those who did not have a paternal history of alcoholism.
This finding indicates that sweet liking precedes alcoholism and suggests that the association previously reported is unlikely to be due to differential histories of alcohol exposure. This finding adds further weight to the hypothesis for the association between the liking for sweets and the genetic risk for alcoholism. However, it does not provide definitive proof.

“Pleasurable reactions to both alcohol and sweet substances are regulated by the same mechanism, namely, the brain’s opioid system. Activation of this system results in increased consumption of both alcohol and sweets, while blockade of this system causes the opposite effect.

The latter is used in medicine when opioid antagonists such as Naltrexone™ are prescribed to alcoholics to reduce their drinking. We believe that children of alcoholics have a genetic abnormality of the brain opioid system, which leads to an increased sensitivity to the rewarding effects of alcohol. The same abnormality of the brain opioid system may also lead to a preference for stronger sweet solutions.

“These studies imply that a person whose relatives are alcoholics may be at greater risk for developing alcoholism if he or she likes sweets. “By demonstrating that a liking for sweets is dependent on the family history of alcoholism in young individuals, this paper has provided one further step in developing ‘sweet-liking’ as a ‘marker’ for alcoholism. However, there are still problems to overcome, since some sweet likers are observed in families without a history of alcoholism, and some sweet dislikers are observed in families with a history of alcoholism.”

Adapted from a story from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine

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