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Researchers and doctors are fully aware that people with longstanding histories of alcoholism can develop serious cell and DNA damage caused by chronic exposure to the breakdown products of alcohol. Experts in the field call this form of damage oxidative stress or oxidative damage. In a study published in late 2013 in the journal Alcohol, a team of Mexican and Spanish researchers investigated the potential for the development of oxidative stress and DNA damage in young adults who have fairly short histories of alcohol use and only drink on weekends. These researchers concluded that young, weekend drinkers do indeed appear to have an unusual tendency to develop such stress-related cell damage.
Alcohol begins to break down as soon as it enters the human body. Because the body achieves this breakdown by stripping oxygen from alcohol molecules, scientists call the process oxidation. The first breakdown product of alcohol is a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. The body does what it can to contain this substance in the liver and break it down into a less harmful state. However, a person who drinks significant amounts of alcohol can outstrip the liver’s ability to achieve this goal; as a result, acetaldehyde flows into the bloodstream and produces damage in a range of cell types. Areas especially susceptible to the harm caused by this process include the cells’ energy centers and the DNA that makes up each person’s genetic master code.
Alcoholism is an entrenched disease process triggered by long-term chemical changes in the brains of people who regularly consume large amounts of alcohol. Current guidelines in the U.S. designate this disease as one specific form of a condition called alcohol use disorder. (A pattern of non-addicted alcohol abuse also falls under the heading of this disorder.) Since, as a rule, untreated alcoholics maintain an ongoing routine of heavy or excessive alcohol consumption, they constantly expose their bodies to the harmful effects of oxidative stress. In fact, oxidative stress largely accounts for the presence of cirrhosis, a permanent scarring of liver tissue commonly found in people affected by long-term, unaddressed alcoholism. Doctors detect oxidative damage in their alcoholism-affected patients by looking for small but significant changes in normal cell function called biomarkers.
In the study published in Alcohol, researchers from four Mexican institutions and one Spanish institution sought to find out if young adults who only drink on the weekends and haven’t been drinking for very long show any signs of the same types of alcohol-related oxidative damage found in people affected by alcoholism. The study included one group of individuals between the ages of 18 and 23 who did not drink on weekdays but consumed about 118 grams of alcohol on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays. This is roughly the amount of alcohol contained in 51 ounces (1.5 liters) of beer. For the sake of comparison, the study also included a second group of young adults in the same age range who did not drink during the week or on the weekends. On average, the drinking participants had engaged in their pattern of weekend alcohol consumption for four to five years. The researchers used several biomarkers to measure exposure to oxidative stress in both the drinking and non-drinking groups.
After completing their comparisons, the researchers concluded that neither the weekend drinkers nor the non-drinkers enrolled in the study showed signs of the liver damage characteristic of long-term, alcohol-related oxidative stress. In addition, the participants in both groups lacked some of the key biomarkers that point toward the presence of such stress. However, the researchers also concluded that the weekend drinkers showed signs of oxidation-related DNA damage much more frequently than their non-drinking age counterparts. In fact, while only about 8 percent of the non-drinkers had biomarkers for this type of damage, fully 44 percent of the weekend drinkers had biomarkers for damaged DNA.
The authors of the study published in Alcohol note that the DNA damage found in the group of young, weekend drinkers was not severe or necessarily long-lasting. However, they also note that, given these drinkers’ level of alcohol intake and time of involvement in alcohol use, there is no preexisting reason to expect any degree of this kind of damage. In light of this fact, they believe that they may have discovered previously undetected evidence of the types of damage that can potentially appear in drinkers who never develop diagnosable cases of alcohol use disorder, or only do so at a much later point in time.