Binge drinkers get positives from alcohol

June 17, 2002 at 5:38 PM
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CHICAGO, June 17 (UPI) -- Binge drinkers may engage in excessive drinking because they get a stimulatory and positive effect from alcohol, whereas light drinkers are more prone to the sedative effects, a study released Monday revealed.

"People who were binge drinkers seemed to show a very different pattern of response to alcohol" compared with light drinkers, lead author Andrea C. King, a psychologist at the University of Chicago's department of psychiatry, told United Press International.

Binge drinkers "felt the good effects, positive, stimulatory effects of alcohol and they probably don't feel internal cues to put the brakes on," King said. The findings "may explain why some people continue to drink heavily" and help prevent binge drinking in younger people, she added.

In the study, 20 binge drinkers -- defined as four-to-five drinks or more per session, one to four times a week -- received either alcohol or a drink that contained no alcohol.

The binge drinkers, who ranged in age from 24-38, reported increased stimulation and euphoric feelings as their blood alcohol concentrations rose. This was in contrast to the 14 light drinkers -- defined as five or fewer drinks per week -- who reported feeling sedate and did not report positive mood changes.

The binge drinkers said they liked the feelings they were experiencing and wanted more of what they were drinking. In addition, levels of cortisol, a brain hormone that responds to stress, increased in the light drinkers but not in the binge drinkers.

"These findings seem to be consistent with what we know," Rob Turrisi, a psychologist at Boise State University, in Idaho, who studies decision-making tendencies of binge-drinking college students, told UPI.

"When people make decisions about wanting to go drinking, part of the influence is that they anticipate positive things to come out of it," said Turrisi, who is director of family studies at the University. "They have positive expectations."

Previous research Turrisi conducted found binge drinkers had much more favorable attitudes toward events that involved drinking than toward non-drinking events. They anticipated having "more fun, meeting more people, more sex" and fewer negative events, "which is why they like it more and are more likely to do it," he said.

Light drinkers, on the other hand, did not see heavy drinking as a positive. "They saw the non-drinking events as more fun," Turrisi said.

The results "could help us predict who ... may continue to go on and have long lasting problems with alcohol," King said. Although some people who binge drink in college may stop after they graduate, many will continue to engage in the behavior, she said.

Many people think binge drinking is benign but it can really have both short and long-term consequences, King said. In the immediate term, binge drinking may increase the propensity for accidents and play a role in date-rape. In the long-term, it may have negative effects on the cardiovascular system, the liver and relationships.

King added that heavy bouts of drinking can also lead to lessened productivity on the job.

The findings also could help binge drinkers curtail their own alcohol consumption. Many heavy drinkers think they can drink large amounts because they can hold their liquor, but it really may just be they are "not getting those cues to stop," King said.

"If they could be aware of those responses, it might help them change their behavior," she said.

The study results appear in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

(Reported by Steve Mitchell, UPI Medical Correspondent, in Washington)

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