Men who have a sweet tooth and who have trouble controlling their behavior are more prone to alcoholism, and these factors combined were better predictors of the disease than any single individual trait, a recent analysis has found.
Patients with a history of alcoholism on the father’s side of the family are more likely to have a preference for sweets than those without such a history, says Alexey B. Kampov-Polevoy, M.D., Ph.D., of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Those with the strongest attraction to sweet taste were linked five times more often to a family history of alcoholism than those who disliked sweet tastes.
The research appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The 165 participants in the study were part of a residential treatment program for alcohol abuse or drug dependence. Each person took a taste test measuring response to five different concentrations of a sugar solution and also completed a personality questionnaire.
This psychological test measured “novelty seeking,” a trait that reflects a person’s inability to control harmful behavior. This trait may trigger early experimentation with alcohol, resulting in heavy drinking, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, Kampov-Polevoy says.
Among those who preferred sweets, the odds of being an alcoholic increased as “novelty-seeking” scores rose. Among those who disliked sweets, the change in personality score was minimal and there was no such correlation with alcoholism.
Combining the personality scores with sweet preference status correctly classified alcohol dependence almost two-thirds of the time, Kampov-Polevoy says.
Biologically, there may be a connection between the preferences for alcohol and sweet-tasting things, he says: “The rewarding effect of both alcohol and sweet taste is mediated by the same brain mechanism, particularly the brain opioid system.”
Genetic malfunctions of the brain opioid system inherited from an alcoholic father appear to make people more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Adding the malfunction to the behavioral control problems revealed by the personality test may predict alcoholism, although these two factors aren’t enough to make such a prediction separately.
The study was funded by the Skipper Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.