alcohol addiction

Binge drinking in adolescence may increase risk for anxiety later in life

March 11, 2019

Science Daily/University of Illinois at Chicago

Researchers have found that adolescent binge drinking, even if discontinued, increases the risk for anxiety later in life due to abnormal epigenetic programming.


A growing body of evidence supports the idea that alcohol exposure early in life has lasting effects on the brain and increases the risk of psychological problems in adulthood. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have found that adolescent binge drinking, even if discontinued, increases the risk for anxiety later in life due to abnormal epigenetic programming. The findings of the study, which was conducted in animals, was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.


"Binge drinking early in life modifies the brain and changes connectivity in the brain, especially in the amygdala, which is involved in emotional regulation and anxiety, in ways we don't totally understand yet," said Subhash Pandey, professor of psychiatry in the UIC College of Medicine, director of the UIC Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics and lead author of the study. "But what we do know is that epigenetic changes are lasting, and increase susceptibility to psychological issues later in life, even if drinking that took place early in life is stopped."


"Epigenetics" refers to chemical changes to DNA, RNA, or specific proteins associated with chromosomes that change the activity of genes without changing the genes themselves. Epigenetic alterations are required for the normal development of the brain, but they can be modified in response to environmental or even social factors, such as alcohol and stress. These kinds of epigenetic alterations have been linked to changes in behavior and disease.


Adolescent rats were exposed to ethanol (a type of alcohol) for two days on and two days off or to the same protocol using saline for 14 days. All rats underwent an assessment for anxiety.


Pandey and his colleagues exposed adolescent rats to a regimen designed to mimic binge drinking. Those rats exhibited anxious behavior later in life, even if the binge drinking regimen stopped in late adolescence and the rats were allowed to mature to adulthood without any further exposure to alcohol.


These rats also had lower levels of a protein called Arc in the amygdala. Arc is important for the normal development of synaptic connections in the brain. Rats with less Arc also had about 40 percent fewer neuronal connections in the amygdala compared with rats that weren't exposed to alcohol.


"We believe that the decrease in Arc levels is caused by epigenetic changes that alter the expression of Arc, and an enhancer RNA, which modifies the expression of Arc. These changes are caused by adolescent alcohol exposure," said Pandey.


"Exposure to alcohol causes epigenetic reprogramming to occur, leading to molecular changes in the amygdala, which are long-lasting, even in the absence of more alcohol," said Pandey, who is also a senior research career scientist at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. "If the amygdala has deficits in its wiring or connectivity, and these modifications are long-lasting, the individual is at risk for psychological issues based on difficulties in regulating emotions, such as anxiety or depression and the development of alcohol use disorder later in life."

Health and Wellness in Addiction Recovery

Story contribution by Hailey Parks

Living a healthy lifestyle is something that can easily fall to the wayside in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven society. Health and wellness can easily become something that is taken for granted. For people in recovery from addiction or alcoholism, health and wellness can be a tool used to treat mental health and help maintain sobriety. 

Addiction and Malnutrition

Those who suffer from addiction are likely to be malnourished, lacking the essential vitamins and nutrients to fuel their bodies for various reasons. 

  • Opiate withdrawal can cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting which can lead to a lack of nutrients and an electrolyte imbalance. However, eating balanced meals during detox, including foods high in fiber, whole grain carbohydrates, and lean protein, can actually help make the detox process go smoother. 

  • Alcohol abuse is one of the top causes of nutrient deficiency in the U.S. as people who abuse alcohol tend to lack B vitamins. In addition, many people who abuse alcohol can cause damage to their liver and pancreas, leading to metabolism problems. 

  • Stimulants typically reduce user’s appetites causing weight loss, poor nutrition, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances. 

Although abusing drugs or alcohol can lead to nutrient deficiencies, eating a balanced diet and getting sober can help reverse many of these issues. 

Nutrition in Recovery 

Eating a nutritious diet in early recovery can benefit both physical and mental health. For those choosing to detox, a great way to jump-start the detox process is to eat raw foods like fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Another essential aspect of making the detox process more bearable is by staying properly hydrated. 

After detox is over, it is important to keep in mind that drug or alcohol abuse can take a toll on the heart, liver, and brain. To help keep these essential organs healthy, one should consume foods like:

  • Leafy greens

  • Berries

  • Nuts

  • Avocados

  • Almonds

  • Dark chocolate

  • Edamame

  • Whole grains

  • Green tea

  • Beans

  • Broccoli

  • Lean protein

Eating this type of diet in early recovery can be especially difficult because it is common for people in recovery to crave sugary foods. When drugs and alcohol are removed, levels of dopamine drop. Eating sugar, on the other hand, can cause a surge in dopamine levels similar to that of the effects of drugs and alcohol. However, sugar can become an addiction in itself and lead to weight gain. In addition, eating excess sugar can cause fluctuating blood sugar levels. When blood sugar fluctuates up and down, a person can become anxious or depressed, causing their mental health to become unstable. When it comes to sobriety, mental health is just as important as physical health.

Exercise for Mental Clarity

Along with nutrition, exercise can be beneficial in promoting mental health in sobriety. Exercise can help boost mental health in several ways. 

  • As little as 1 hour of physical activity a week is related to less anxiety and fewer drug cravings.

  • Those who make exercise a regular part of their routine are less likely to suffer from depression, panic disorders, and anxiety.

  • Serotonin increases during exercise which helps regulate sleep, appetite, and mood. 

  • GABA and Glutamate are responsible for processing emotions and thought patterns. These chemicals are released during exercise which can prevent depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mood disorders. 

  • Exercise lowers stress and is a great outlet for mitigating negative emotions.

Keeping one’s mental health as a top priority during sobriety can help prevent relapse. After all, those who suffer from co-occurring mental illness and addiction typically have a difficult time maintaining sobriety due to the unique obstacles they face. By enjoying an active lifestyle, people in recovery can prevent their mental health symptoms from getting worse.

Mindfulness for Relaxation and Decision Making

It’s easy to let human instincts run the show when feeling anxious, but this can be a recipe for disaster in sobriety. Instead, it is important to learn how to relax in sobriety and to be mindful about making the right decisions. Mindfulness is a useful technique for relaxation and decision making that can be easily incorporated into daily routines 

Mindfulness has been proven to help alleviate stress by improving emotion regulation. When individuals have an appropriate way of regulating and processing emotions, they will be able to think clearly about decisions that need to be made. Practicing mindfulness can be as easy as laying down in a comfortable position, closing the eyes, and focusing on breathing. Another way to practice mindfulness is through looking up free mindful meditation videos on the internet. This practice will raise a person’s awareness of their body, energy, feelings, and surroundings. 

Practicing mindfulness is also attributed to:

  • Increased attention and focus

  • Lowered anxiety

  • Relaxation

  • Higher brain function

  • Decreased heart rate and blood pressure

  • A shift in perception and mental clarity

Health & Wellness in Maintaining Long Term Sobriety

By eating a nutritious diet, getting adequate exercise, and participating in mindful relaxation exercises, individuals help keep their mind and body healthy in sobriety. After all, people don’t get sober to feel unhealthy and depressed - people get sober to change their lifestyles for the better. Taking care of mental and physical health is a key aspect of living healthy and maintaining long term sobriety 

Hailey is a recovering alcoholic and addict who enjoys writing about addiction. After years of neglecting her physical and mental health in sobriety, she began to make dramatic changes in her lifestyle to be happier and healthier. Her passions include helping others, taking hikes with her dog, and spending time by the beach. 

Hailey Parks hailey.parks01 @ g mail .com

Study overturns decade-old findings in neurobiology: Research suggests potential target for drugs to combat alcohol addiction

May 13, 2010

Science Daily/Scripps Research Institute

In findings that should finally put to rest a decade of controversy in the field of neurobiology, a team at The Scripps Research Institute has found decisive evidence that a specific neurotransmitter system -- the endocannabinoid system -- is active in a brain region known to play a key role in the processing of memory, emotional reactions, and addiction formation. The new study also shows that this system can dampen the effects of alcohol, suggesting an avenue for the development of drugs to combat alcohol addiction.


The research was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology on May 12.


"This study will change a lot in the field," said Scripps Research Associate Professor Marisa Roberto, who was first author of the paper. "I'm confident it will have a big impact."


"This is very new," said Paul Schweitzer, associate professor of the neurobiology of addiction at Scripps Research and corresponding author of the paper. "It is the first time a study has shown a direct cellular interaction between endocannabinoids and alcohol in the brain."


The Missing Link?

The new research overturns the conclusions of a paper published by a European group in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2001. This paper claimed that endocannabinoid receptors, in particular the most common type called CB1, did not exist in the brain region called the central amygdala.


"Yet CB1 receptors are very abundant," said Schweitzer. "They are almost everywhere in the brain and there are lots of them. The endocannabinoid system acts on appetite, mood, memory -- and addiction. Addiction is why we started to study it in the central amygdala."


The Scripps Research scientists began to suspect that the 2001 study, whose conclusions had been widely accepted in the field, might have missed the CB1 receptors in the brain's central amygdala. Indirect evidence from a number of subsequent studies -- including one by Scripps Research Associate Professor Loren "Larry" Parsons -- had suggested that the endocannabinoid system (and by implication its receptors) were indeed active in this brain region.


The Scripps Research team decided to take a fresh look at the whole question, and set out to conduct a new physiological study specifically looking for signs of the missing CB1 receptors in the central amygdala.


"There wasn't much physiology done before this," said Roberto. "There were a lot of behavioral studies, but very few on physiology and, aside from the 2001 study, none on the physiology in the central amygdala -- this brain region that is so important for drugs of abuse."


Back on Track

Using electrophysiological techniques in brain slices to test the response of brain cells from the rat central amygdala, the scientists indeed found compelling evidence that CB1 receptors were active there.


The cells responded to a substance (agonist) mimicking the action of endocannabinoids in the brain. Up to a point, the more of the agonist the scientists applied, the bigger the effect. An inhibitor (antagonist) reversed this response.


"We saw a big and consistent physiological effect," said Roberto. "It was beautiful. The receptor had to be there or otherwise it wouldn't have worked."


With this major milestone achieved, the researchers extended their investigation to their primary area of interest -- the brain's response to alcohol. Alcohol abuse can lead to devastating consequences for individuals and families. It is also associated with direct and indirect public health costs estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars yearly in the United States alone.


To learn more about the effect of alcohol on the biology of the brain, the scientists focused on the transmission of one particular neurotransmitter called gamma amino butyric acid (GABA). GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, and neurons in every brain region use GABA to fine-tune signaling throughout the nervous system. Previous studies by the Scripps Research scientists indicated that GABA plays a critical role in alcohol dependence and other addictions.


"We knew ethanol in these neurons increase GABA transmission, and that cannabinoids decrease GABA transmission," said Roberto. "So the question was what happens if we activate the cannabinoid system and we put ethanol on it."


When the scientists first applied the CB1 agonist on cells from the central amygdala, it decreased GABA transmission; when the scientists proceeded to put ethanol on top, the effect of ethanol was abolished. When the team reversed the order of application, GABA transmission first went up with the application of ethanol, then down with the application of the CB1 agonist.


"Alcohol and CB1 agonists have opposing effects on GABA," summarized Schweitzer. "Our feeling is that since the CB1 system is so widely expressed, there's a big role there in dampening the effect of alcohol."


While the team's research points to the endocannibinoid system as a potential target in the development of drugs to treat alcoholism, Schweitzer notes there are still many questions to be answered: Do CB1 agonists work the same way in brains that have become addicted to alcohol? What is the mechanism for this action? Can the effects of CB1 on alcohol metabolism be separated from its many other effects on mood, appetite, and memory?


Schweitzer also cautions against equating CB1 agonists and cannabis in interpreting the study's results. "This study does not have to do with marijuana, but the endocannabinoid system," he said. "On this level of analysis, the two don't have much in common."


The work was supported by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health.

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