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The Alcohol-Sugar Connection

By Elaine Cassel

In a study that included 19 pairs of male identical twins, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers found that brothers who had a strong preference for sweet tastes were more likely to have an identical twin brother who shared that preference. The finding suggests that the genes that play a central role in preferences for sweets may also be linked to the urge to use alcohol to alter mood.

The study is a continuation of earlier animal and human research linking preferences for sweets and alcohol. Animal studies concluded that rodent preferences for sweeter solutions predicted the propensity to consume alcohol. In an earlier non-twin study conducted by UNC-CH researchers, 65 percent of alcoholics preferred sweeter drinks compared to 16 percent of non-alcoholics.

In the recent twin study, subjects reported craving sweets when they were nervous or depressed, noting that eating sweets made them feel better. Obviously, most people like sweets and most people don't become alcoholics, but alcoholics appear to like sweets in stronger concentrations, and there appears to be a link between alcohol and sweet cravings.

Researchers note that the findings are of particularly interest in view of the advice found in the early writings of Alcoholics Anonymous that eating and drinking sweet substances allays the urge to drink.

Further studies along this line will add to the understanding of the genetic risk for alcoholism. Research has focused on the dopamine receptor gene found on chromosome 11, known as DRD2. About 66 percent of people who abuse alcohol have this gene, compared with 30 percent of the rest of the population. Researchers believe that the DRD2 gene marks a deficiency in the brain's reward centers, so that people who possess this gene may require more intense stimulation from substances to produce a pleasurable response. Studies have found that people with this gene smoke, drink, eat, and even gamble compulsively in order to provide greater stimulation to their brain's pleasure centers.

The latest findings may lead to better treatments for alcoholism, including development of special diets and, someday, pharmacological interventions that target the gene implicated in alcohol--and, perhaps, sugar--craving.

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