Low Sensitivity to Alcohol, Impulsivity Predict Drinking Problems in Young Adults

Posted on July 2nd, 2015
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

A low or high sensitivity to the effects of alcohol may make a young adult more likely to react to distressing or pleasant emotions in ways that support problematic drinking, according to new findings from a team of Canadian researchers.

Some people have personality traits that increase their likelihood of acting impulsively when they experience “down” emotional states or upbeat emotional states. In some cases, such traits may make a person more susceptible to a loss of control over alcohol intake. In a study published in March 2015 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from two Canadian institutions explored the impact that sensitivity to the mind-altering effects of alcohol has on the link between impulsive, emotion-based reactions and the chances of drinking in risky ways.

Alcohol Use and Sensitivity

Any person can develop a condition called alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or diagnosable alcohol abuse) if he or she regularly consumes alcohol above moderate levels of intake. Guidelines established by institutions such as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism set an upper limit on moderate drinking of four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week for men. Women have a moderate drinking upper limit of three drinks per day and seven drinks per week. People who repeatedly exceed their gender-specific limits for moderate intake qualify as heavy drinkers. At the lower end of the risk spectrum, an individual who drinks heavily once a month has a roughly one in five chance of eventually meriting an alcohol use disorder diagnosis. An individual who drinks heavily more than once a week has approximately a 50/50 chance of meriting such a diagnosis sooner or later.

Some people are unusually sensitive to alcohol, while others can consume unusually large amounts before experiencing the effects of intoxication. A genetically inherited ability to efficiently break down and eliminate alcohol in the bloodstream is a main determining factor of the average person’s sensitivity level. An individual with high alcohol sensitivity may tend to shy away from drinking, while an individual with low alcohol sensitivity may tend to increase drinking participation.

Positive and Negative Urgency

Some adults have an unusual tendency to act impulsively before considering the potential negative outcomes of their behavior. In some cases, impulsive behavior is more likely to occur when a person feels good; psychologists call this personality trait positive urgency. In other cases, a “down” or negative mood promotes impulsive behavior: psychologists call this trait negative urgency. A detailed screening tool called the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale can help identify these and other impulsivity-related traits, including a tendency to act without planning, a preference for highly stimulating experiences and a tendency to leave prior commitments unfulfilled.

Impact of Alcohol Sensitivity

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from Canada’s University of Toronto and Centre for Addiction and Mental Health used data gathered from 172 young adults to help determine the impact of alcohol sensitivity on the odds that positive or negative urgency will contribute to excessive alcohol consumption. All of the young-adult participants qualified as heavy drinkers. Each participant took a test, called the Self-Rating of the Effects of Alcohol scale, designed to determine sensitivity to alcohol’s effects. In addition, each participant took tests designed to determine their levels of positive and negative urgency, tendencies to seek out highly stimulating experiences, patterns of alcohol use, abilities to control alcohol intake and levels of exposure to potentially diagnosable alcohol problems.

The researchers concluded that young adults with a low level of alcohol sensitivity have an increased tendency to consume alcohol in large amounts when they are affected by positive urgency (i.e., impulsive behavior motivated by a notably good mood) or negative urgency (i.e., impulsive behavior motivated by a notably bad mood). They also concluded that the combination of positive or negative urgency, low alcohol sensitivity and heavy alcohol intake helps set the stage for potentially diagnosable alcohol problems. In addition, the researchers found that impulsive behavior related to positive urgency plays a larger role than impulsive behavior related to negative urgency in determining the level of alcohol-related risk for young adults with low alcohol sensitivity. Finally, the researchers concluded that young adults with a relatively high sensitivity to alcohol’s effects have increased alcohol-related risks when they experience negative urgency.

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