Research over the past 20 years indicates that there is some association between having a sweet tooth and alcoholism. In fact, animal studies have shown that alcohol-preferring animals eat more sweets, says researcher Alexey B. Kampov-Polevoy in a news release. Even human studies have shown that people with alcoholism or cocaine dependence prefer highly sweet substances.
But could this link be caused by genetics? That's exactly what the Kampov-Polevoy and colleagues sought to discover. Kampov-Polevoy is assistant professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
The researchers wanted to tease out whether a tendency for having a sweet tooth precedes the development of alcoholism -- suggesting a genetic tendency for both -- or if the sweet tooth is merely caused by years of excessive drinking.
Sweet Tooth, Alcoholism Link
The researchers studied 163 men and women who had no personal history of alcoholism or drug abuse. On average, they had had about three drinks of alcohol per week.
About half of the study participants had a positive family history of alcoholism and the other half had no family history of alcoholism. Having a family history of alcoholism -- possibly coming from genetics -- is known to increase the chance of developing alcoholism.
The researchers gave the study participants a choice between several different sugar solutions.
They found that people with a family history of alcoholism were much more likely to have a sweet tooth compared with those with no such family history. Those with a family history were 2.5 times more likely to have a sweet tooth. In addition, those with the family history of alcoholism disliked the less sweet solutions while those without a family history rated them as neutral.
"This finding indicates that a [sweet tooth] precedes alcoholism," says David Overstreet, PhD, in a news release. "The finding adds further weight to the hypothesis for the association between the liking for sweets and the genetic risk for alcoholism." Overstreet is associate professor of psychiatry with the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Brain Controls Like for Sweets, Alcohol
The researchers say their findings may provide an explanation of the association between having a sweet tooth and risk of alcoholism.
"Pleasurable reactions to both alcohol and sweet substances are regulated by the same mechanism, namely, the brain's opioid system," says Kampov-Polevoy. "Activation of this system results in increased consumption of both alcohol and sweets, while blockade of this system causes the opposite effect." In fact, the medication naltrexone, which blocks this system in the brain, is prescribed to alcoholics to reduce their drinking.
"We believe that children of alcoholics have a genetic abnormality of the brain opioid system, which leads to an increased sensitivity to the rewarding effects of alcohol." The same abnormality of the brain opioid system may also lead to a tendency to have a sweet tooth, says Kampov-Polevoy.
"These studies imply that a person whose relatives are alcoholics may be at greater risk for developing alcoholism if he or she likes sweets," says Overstreet. Future research will help determine if this is indeed the case.