Scientists Uncover Connection Between Alcohol-Protective Genes and Numerous Health Issues

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A new study reveals that genes providing protection against excessive drinking, and the related health risks, are also connected to other health conditions such as heart disease and mental health. An international team of researchers conducted a thorough analysis of over 3.2 million DNA records, focusing on single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are specific changes in the genetic code.

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Certain SNP variants or alleles offer protection from alcohol consumption and alcohol use disorders (AUDs). These variants may, for example, cause nausea during drinking, effectively working as an instant hangover. “The people who have the minor allele variant of the SNP convert ethanol to acetaldehyde very quickly,” explains Sandra Sanchez-Roige, a psychiatric geneticist at the University of California (UC) San Diego. “That results in several negative effects.”

People with these protective genes generally consume less alcohol and have a lower risk of alcohol use disorders because these variants are associated with how much alcohol someone consumes. These genes are also linked to fewer chronic health problems and reduced need for daily assistance, but they carry increased risks in other areas, such as tobacco use, emotional eating, Graves’ disease, and hyperthyroidism.

Despite the increased risks, these individuals tend to have better overall health. The protective genes are also associated with a higher risk of malaria, lung cancer, and skin cancer. While these findings don’t prove cause and effect, they offer insights for further research. It is unclear if these results stem from the genetic variants or from alcohol consumption patterns.

“Do these genetic differences influence traits like malaria and skin cancer in a manner that is independent of alcohol consumption?” asks Abraham Palmer, a behavioral geneticist at UC San Diego. This question requires further exploration.

Large-scale data analyses like this enable researchers to detect patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed. To ensure accurate results, the study’s team categorized individuals by ancestry, including European, Latin American, and African American, to avoid biases due to different genetic backgrounds and varying health risks.

Ultimately, the study’s findings may pave the way for new treatment options or preventative strategies targeting various health issues, including those related to alcohol abuse. “Understanding the underlying mechanisms of these effects could have implications for treatments and preventative medicine,” says Sanchez-Roige.

The research was published in eBioMedicine.

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