Genetic Link Alcoholism Eating Disorders
August 21, 2013

Common Genes At Root Of Alcohol Abuse And Binge Eating

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Alcoholics and gluttons may have more in common than you might think, according to a new study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Researchers studied nearly 6,000 adult twins and found that people with alcohol dependency may be more genetically susceptible to certain types of eating disorders, such as binge eating or purging.

"This supports the idea that there are common genetic factors contributing to alcohol dependence and these eating disorder symptoms," said lead researcher Melissa Munn-Chernoff of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Previous studies showed that women who binge eat or purge have a higher-than-average rate of alcohol abuse problems. These studies also showed that this group of women had even higher rates than women with other types of eating disorders.

Munn-Chernoff and colleagues studied both identical and fraternal twins for the new study, which helped them separate out the effects of genes from the effects of environment. Based on a standard diagnostic interview, the researchers found that nearly a quarter of men and six percent of women in the study had been alcohol dependent at some point, while about 11 percent of men and 13 percent of women had a problem with binge eating.

“Those numbers suggest that there are shared genetic risk factors for these behaviors, such as purging and fasting,” said Munn-Chernoff. “It appears that some genes that influence alcohol dependence also influence binge eating in men and women, and compensatory behaviors in women.”

The team found that some of the genetic risk factors that made people susceptible to alcoholism also made them vulnerable to bingeing or purging. Munn-Chernoff said that the findings emphasize that alcohol dependence and eating disorder symptoms share common roots.

"We need to be aware that these problems can occur together, in both men and women," she said.

For starters, Munn-Chernoff suggests that when health care providers see someone with a drinking problem, they may also want to ask about any eating disorders, or vice-versa. She said it is important to keep studying the risk factors for alcohol and eating disorders in order to get a better understanding of the links.

“When you go to an eating disorder treatment center, they don’t often ask questions about alcoholism. And when you go for alcoholism treatment, they don’t generally ask questions about eating disorder symptoms,” she said. “If centers could be aware of that and perhaps treat both problems at the same time, that would be a big help.”

The team would like to expand the study further by adding other ethnic groups. The dataset used in this study were Caucasian, so Munn-Chernoff said she would like to study different races as well to see whether these genetic relationships hold true in other ethnic groups as well.

A separate study released in July found that the brain's response to sweets could be an indicator of alcoholism. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine that the response to an intensely sweet taste in the left orbitofrontal area of the brain correlated significantly with subjects' who have drinking problems.