Are you destined for alcohol tonight?

How gender, genes and your mom influence your decision.

Posted Jan 17, 2011

Alcohol may have been the first anxiety-reducing agent. There is evidence that distillation of grains to make alcohol-containing beverages may have begun in the Caucasus region by about 8000 BCE. The ancient Egyptians produced alcoholic beverages and there are some passages within their texts referring to the social problems associated with drunkenness.

Alcohol abuse and our patterns of drinking change significantly as we age and according to well characterized genetic and environmental risks. Some of us have more problems than others. Why? Are there behaviors that appear when we are teenagers that herald future alcohol abuse issues when we're older? Yes, but it's complicated. One recent study of these behaviors investigated the drinking behavior of 373 Caucasian, well-educated men in the San Diego area. Beginning at age twenty and continuing for the next thirty years, the men were interviewed every five years. The majority of these men never developed any problems with alcohol use while about one quarter of them developed a serious alcohol use disorder by age thirty that continued throughout the next twenty years. As expected, a family history of alcohol abuse was an important risk factor for these young men. A higher degree of novelty seeking behavior at age twenty years was also highly predictive of developing an abuse problem by age thirty. In addition, those men who attained a lower level of education or were divorced by middle age were also more likely to develop alcohol dependence and abuse behaviors.

Gender matters. A common motive for drinking alcohol for both men and women is coping with stress or depression, or escaping from negative thoughts and emotions. Overall, women tend to be more vulnerable to stressful events than men; women also experience more depression, anxiety and neuroticism than men. Both men and women report that heavy drinking offers an expectancy of increased power over others and aggression. Women also expect that alcohol will reduce tension and increase their social and physical pleasure as well as facilitate social interactions. In contrast, many men reported preferring to drink alone. One recent study focused upon young women and their drinking behaviors in relation to their perceived relationship with their mothers. As might be expected, having a negative perceived relationship with their mother induced young women to drink excessively and also have poor outcomes during their subsequent treatment for alcoholism. The authors concluded that women who seek treatment for their problem drinking must have assistance with their both their quitting drinking and finding some coping mechanism to relieve inner pressures from their relationships.

Where you choose to drink will also influence your drinking behavior. The people who make a profit on the sale of alcoholic beverages are well aware of this fact and clearly take advantage of the knowledge in designing their environments. When studies were made of the behavior of people in bars, time is a big predictor of alcohol abuse; for example, the shorter the stay in the bar the faster the rate of consumption. People drinking alone stay the shortest time and drank the most; thus there are always plenty of single barstools available. Many studies have reported a correlation between the sipping rate and the beats per minute of the music. Fast paced music was associated with the slowest drinking rate. Music that was closest to a person's resting heart rate produced the fastest drinking. Live bands and action photography flashing on the walls also increase drinking rates. Without us ever noticing, our behavior is being controlled so that you'll spend the most amount of money in the shortest period of time.

Thus, deciding whether to drink, how much to drink, where to drink and with whom to drink requires some additional insight into the age or your peers, your relationship with parents, particularly the mother, your genetics, and whether your chose to go a Country & Western bar with soft lights and slow music or to a Rock & Roll bar with flashing lights and faster live music. And you thought that choosing what to where was difficult!

© Gary L.Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010)

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