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That First Drink, Stimulant or Sedative?

Reaction to Alcohol Can Predict Binge Drinking

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Updated December 26, 2007

It really is the first drink that gets you.

How drinkers respond to the first drink of the day -- whether it effects them as a sedative or as a stimulant -- is a good indicator if they will be light drinkers or tend to abuse alcohol, new research suggests.

A study published in February 2002 issue of Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research demonstrated that those drinkers who experience "euphoria and stimulation" from their first drink are more likely to drink excessively, while those who experience a "sedative" effect will drink lightly.

The study, conducted at the University of Chicago, examined 34 people ages 24-38, who were divided into two groups based on their drinking patterns: Light drinkers consumed a maximum of five drinks a week while heavy drinkers regularly had a minimum of 10 drinks a week.

The subjects reported their moods after drinking alcohol, and were tested to see how their body reacted to moderate-to-high doses of alcohol.

"We really see a lot of the differences between those who are binge drinkers compared to those who are historically light drinkers," study lead author Dr. Andrea C. King of the University of Chicago, told reporters.

The results of the research included:

  • Within 15 minutes of their first drink -- when blood-alcohol levels had just begun to rise -- the heavy drinking group demonstrated a rapid increase in feelings of euphoria, vigor, talkativeness and excitement. The light drinking group did not show any such changes in stimulation.

  • Over 55 percent of the heavy drinking group said they liked the feeling they had shortly after beginning to drink -- and said they wanted to drink more. Only 30 percent of the light drinkers felt the same way.

  • As their blood-alcohol levels rose, the light drinking group reported a greater and quicker sense of being high and drugged than the heavy drinkers.

  • Heart rates did not differ in response to alcohol between the two groups, but stress levels increased in the light drinkers and not in the heavy drinking group.

King told Reuters Health that her research indicates that those who drink moderately as young men and women may be benefiting from a so-called "protective effect," with their short-term response to drinking perhaps lowering their long-term risk of developing any lingering alcohol abuse problems.

"Most people in college who binge think they're doing it at that time, and that they're going to grow out of it and it's not a big deal," King said. "But certainly there's a percentage that goes on to be alcohol dependent. So it's possible that these individual response mechanisms can help us to understand why some people go on to have long-term drinking problems and other people don't."

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