Drinking context has a significant impact on perception of alcohol effects


Newswise — Alcohol is a complicated beverage; it can have stimulating, sedating, and various subjective effects. Theseeffects can, in turn, predict future drinking behavior as well as risk for alcohol problems. A recent study that provided a smartphone application to young adults to record their alcohol responses found that drinking context –with others or alone, in a bar/restaurant or at home – can influence individual differences in the perceived effects of alcohol. These results and others will be shared at the 42ndannual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in Minneapolis June 22-26.

“Drinking alcohol can have different effects for different people,” explained Daniel Fridberg, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago.“Some people might have a few drinks and feel stimulated or energized, whereas others might feel sedated or sleepy. Individuals may also differ in terms of how rewarding they find drinking to be – that is, how much they like the effects of drinking, or how motivated they are to continue drinking once started. These types of effects – stimulant, sedative, and rewarding – are called ‘subjective responses’ to alcohol.”

Fridbergwill discuss his research at the RSA meeting on Tuesday, June 25.

Most of the studies on alcohol subjective response have been conducted in laboratories, generally finding that a greater sensitivity to alcohol’s stimulating and rewarding effects, coupled with a lower sensitivity to its sedating effects, are associated with the highest risk for hazardous drinking and alcohol use disorder (AUD). This study distributed a smartphone app to 83 young adult drinkers so they would input information about their real-world drinking habits and associated subjective responses.

“Young adult heavy drinkers are at high risk for the development of AUD and drinking-related consequences,” said Fridberg. “Participants for this study were generally healthy, 21 to 29 years old, with one to four heavy drinking episodes per week. We defined ‘heavy drinking episode’ as five or more drinks per occasion for a man, or four or more drinks per occasion for a woman. Participants used a smartphone app to record their alcohol consumption, information about their environment, such as their location or presence/absence of others, and subjective responses during the first three hours of a drinking episode.”

Findings showed that differences in drinking context may not only affect consumption, but also how people feel when they drink. “Drinking with others, as well as drinking in a bar or restaurant versus at home, was associated with higher total consumption,” said Fridberg.“Participants who drank with others reported higher alcohol stimulation than those who drank alone, while participants who drank in a bar or restaurant reported lower alcohol sedation than those who drank at home. Both drinking with others and drinking in a bar or restaurant were associated with a greater desire to continue drinking.”

Fridbergsuggested that members of the public who choose to drink become mindful of how alcohol affects how they feel in the moment, and consider which situations may contribute to over-indulgence.

“I hope that my research will inform the work of other scientists who study risk factors for excessive drinking and AUDs,” he said, “and also contribute to better interventions for people struggling with addiction to alcohol. Our hope is that a better understanding of how subjective responses affect drinking behavior and alcohol-related risk will result in better treatment options.”

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