How binge drinking alters your genes

"Binge drinking can create an inflammatory response in the liver that is like a cluster bomb, sending out various damaging signals to other organ systems in the body," says Shivendra Shukla. (Credit: David Pettersson/Flickr)

Scientists say binge drinking causes epigenetic changes in histone structures in the liver.

“Epigenetic alterations are changes in genes that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence or genetic code,” says Shivendra Shukla, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks or women consume four or more drinks over a two-hour period.

“Approximately one in six American adults binge drinks about four times each month.”

“We know that chronic alcohol use is damaging to the liver, but binge drinking amplifies that damage,” says Shukla, lead author of the new study.

Why histones are so important

Histones are proteins that act like a spool to compact and organize the thread-like DNA strands that wrap around them. Histones work to protect the DNA strand and help it function correctly.


Although histone modification does occur naturally, Shukla and his team found that binge drinking results in unnatural modifications to histones. In turn, these changes adversely affect how a person’s genetic code is interpreted and how it is regulated.

“Every response in the body is due to alterations in proteins,” Shukla says. “Binge drinking is an environmental trigger that negatively affects histones by altering the correct binding of DNA. The result is unnecessary replication in the copied structure.

“This initially causes inflammation and damage to the cells as they form, but it is also eventually the cause of more serious diseases such as cirrhosis and cancer.”

Not just the liver

Because the liver is the main metabolic site in the body, it is the first organ to experience damage from binge drinking. But because the liver is responsible for nutrient and drug metabolism and distribution, as well as the production of multiple agents that are needed for the heart, kidney, blood vessels, and brain to function properly, liver damage can affect many other systems in the body.

“It is important to specify that binge drinking should not be associated only with liver damage,” Shukla says. “Binge drinking can create an inflammatory response in the liver that is like a cluster bomb, sending out various damaging signals to other organ systems in the body. If those organs are working at a lower level of function, then a whole host of physiological processes are affected as a consequence of binge drinking.”

Shukla says that excessive alcohol consumption with a binge drinking pattern is emerging as a major public health concern globally. In the US, binge drinking is the most common form of excessive alcohol use―so common in fact, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports approximately one in six adults binge drinks about four times each month.

“This is not a problem that is going away,” says Shukla. “It is actually growing. More work is needed on the research we are doing, but findings such as these are very promising and may lead to future treatments for alcohol-related liver damage.”

The study was recently published in Hepatology International.

Source: University of Missouri