Binge Drinking Reduces Impulse Control, Increases Risky Sex Behavior

Binge drinking is a common form of problematic alcohol consumption in the U.S., especially among young adults. Public health officials are well aware that people who engage in this practice have significantly increased chances of participating in risky, unplanned sexual conduct. In a study published in April 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of British and Australian researchers sought to clarify the reasons young adult binge drinkers have these elevated risks. These researchers concluded that binge drinking-related changes in impulse control and decision-making largely account for the connection to risky sexual behavior. Binge drinkers participate in an on/off cycle of alcohol consumption featuring episodes of heavy drinking that produce legal drunkenness in roughly two hours or less. Current figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that roughly 17 percent of U.S. adults take part in four such episodes per month; on average, these regular participants consume much more alcohol than they need to reach an intoxicated state. Binge drinking is particularly common among young adults between the ages of 18 and 34. However, even when adults of all ages are taken into consideration, over 50 percent of alcohol consumption throughout America takes place in a binge-drinking context. In addition to risky sexual practices that result in unplanned pregnancies or exposure to a sexually transmitted infection, well-established potential consequences of binge drinking include purposeful or accidental injury, nonfatal or fatal cases of alcohol poisoning and serious short- or long-term health problems such as strokes, liver damage, hypertension and nerve dysfunction.

Impulse Control

As human beings grow older and transition from early childhood and adolescence into adulthood, they gradually develop the mental ability to do such things as control impulsive behavior, make decisions and logical judgments, set long-term goals and make the plans required to bring goals to fruition. Collectively, these critical brain skills are known as executive function. However, not all adults have the same executive function capabilities, and some people have an unusually hard time controlling impulsive behavior or otherwise exercising their higher mental faculties. Adults affected by uncommonly high levels of impulsivity tend to act with relatively little or no consideration for the consequences of their actions. Poor impulse control is a known potential factor in the development of diagnosable cases of substance abuse and substance addiction (known together as substance use disorder).

What’s the Connection?

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Great Britain’s University of West London and Australia’s Deakin University used an examination of 92 young adults to explore the role that poor impulse control and decision-making have in fostering sexually risky conduct among people who binge drink. They chose their topic, in part, because previous research has shown that the stop/start nature of heavy alcohol consumption in binge drinkers can damage the parts of the brain required to control impulses and make decisions. All of the study participants were enrolled in college. Each of these participants completed questionnaires designed to identify involvement in binge drinking, levels of a form of impulsive behavior called reflection impulsivity, expectations about the effects of alcohol and extent of engagement in risky sexual practices. Based on the results of the questionnaires, the researchers divided the study participants into a group with high binge-drinking involvement and a group with low binge-drinking involvement. When they compared these two groups, they found that the frequent binge drinkers had substantially less control over their impulsive behaviors and also had significantly higher chances of engaging in risky, unpremeditated sexual encounters. After examining the alcohol-related expectations of the participants, the researchers concluded that binge drinkers who use alcohol to build up their social courage are particularly likely to engage in risky sex. The authors of the study believe that their work adds to the growing consensus on binge drinking’s negative impact on the brain’s ability to control impulses and make sound decisions. The results of their impulse control testing suggest that binge drinking has a harmful effect on these essential skills that roughly equals the effect produced by alcoholism. For this reason, the authors believe that loss of impulse control may be a critical component of the damaging impact that any form of excessive drinking can have on an affected individual’s behavior.

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