Genetic Research Could Lead to a Breakthrough in Alcoholism Treatment

Across the globe, alcohol consumption is consistently on the rise. Research shows that the total volume of alcohol consumed each year has increased by nearly 70% between 1990 and 2017. Major beverage companies are making alcohol more accessible than it’s ever been before, marketing products to every gender, age group, and audience. With drinks like alcoholic seltzer, low-calorie beers, and craft spirits, people that choose to drink can easily find something that fits their preferences.

Over the years, alcohol has become a focal point of many cultures, and people are faced with alcohol in situations they encounter every day—dinner parties, book club meetings, or happy hours with co-workers. And when alcohol is present, many people find it challenging to decline a drink, in order to avoid the stigma associated with not drinking when everyone else is. But the increase in global alcohol consumption isn’t just troubling from a health perspective. As the rate of drinking rises around the world, so does the rate of alcoholism.

 The Link Between GPR39 and Alcoholism

 According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are more than 15 million people struggling with an alcohol use disorder in the United States alone. A separate study published in JAMA Psychiatry determined that one in eight American adults—about 13% of the population—meets the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. But although external factors play a major role in the development of alcoholism, new research shows that one gene may be closely associated with alcoholism.

Researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU have determined that the gene GPR39, which is also linked to depression, has a direct effect on alcohol consumption volume. To test this hypothesis, researchers used a commercially available substance that mimics the activity of the GPR39 protein in mice. When levels of GPR39 encoded protein were increased, alcohol consumption in mice reduced by nearly 50%. In order to determine whether the same function affects humans, the researchers are studying postmortem brain tissue samples from people who suffered from alcoholism

Of the 15 million people living with alcoholism in the United States, less than 8% of those suffering receive treatment. Currently, there are only a handful of treatments for alcoholism on the market that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If the GPR39 protein mechanism can be successfully replicated in humans, the results could help scientists develop a pharmaceutical drug that both prevents and treats alcoholism in humans.

How GPR39 is Tied to Depression

 Before the OHSU study was published, the GPR39 gene was widely associated with depressive levels. Several prominent research studies proved that low GPR39 expression, which is generally caused by low levels of zinc in the body, is linked to severe depression and related disorders. Given its biochemistry with GPR39, zinc is often prescribed for people with depression, as a result of its ability to improve mood in even some cases of treatment-resistant depression. Additionally, a link between zinc and serotonin has been uncovered by researchers, which suggests that serotonin may modulate GPR39 expression, as well.

Why Depression Can Lead to Alcohol Overuse

 Research shows that between 30-50% of people who overuse alcohol also have depression. In the United States and in other countries, alcohol is viewed as a way to self-medicate and temporarily relieve stress. It’s convenient, inexpensive, and widely available at all times. Culturally, people have been led to believe that using alcohol as a way to relax is acceptable socially and doesn’t have a serious impact on overall health. In fact, some research studies have shown that alcohol can actually have positive health benefits, like improved longevity.

However, depression is often a catalyst for alcoholism. Many people suffering from depression neglect to seek professional treatment for various reasons, whether it’s too expensive or inaccessible. On top of that, many people with depression, anxiety, and related mood disorders believe that they can control their drinking effectively. But alcohol is by nature a depressant, and drinking alcohol is proven to fuel depression, and increase depressive feelings. Drinking alcohol may relieve symptoms of depression for a short period of time. But over time, people with depression need more and more alcohol to feel relaxed, which quickly leads to an alcohol use disorder.

Getting Treatment

 In comparison to drug addiction, alcohol use disorders can take longer to develop. In some cases, a bout of depression or anxiety can bring on alcoholism. But even after a person is feeling back to themselves, their drinking can continue. Overusing alcohol comes with serious consequences, both health-related, and socially. Prolonged alcohol use can impact brain function and brain structure. Drinking heavily causes the heart to weaken, and it can lead to a sudden heart attack or stroke. Some cancers are thought to be fueled by the presence of alcohol is the liver, pancreas, and other major organs.

In order to avoid the serious consequences of alcohol overuse, people suffering should seek treatment from a licensed professional or rehabilitation center. Therapy sometimes involves behavioral analysis, group treatment, and educational sessions. Many holistic alcohol rehabilitation centers offer activities, such as hiking, swimming, and acupuncture, to help patients heal and recover from their addiction. Alternative therapies build healthy habits that people can take with them once they leave a treatment program.

For many people, depression and alcoholism go hand-in-hand. When daily responsibilities become a stressful burden, it’s common to fall into a pattern of depression and alcohol use which magnifies over time. But depression and alcohol use don’t just affect the person suffering. Family members, friends, colleagues, and even pets are significantly impacted when loved ones around them abuse alcohol.

Understanding the symptoms and getting necessary treatment is the only way to beat alcoholism at its core, and it will help heal your depression and other mood disorders associated with heavy drinking. Learn how Windward Way’s personalized alcohol treatment program helps people overcome their addiction, improve their health, and maintain their sobriety. Contact us today to get started.


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