by James MacLachlan
Eating a takeaway pizza, a colossal burger and chips at a restaurant, or enjoying a Frappuccino at your nearest Starbucks, makes us feel good when we consume them, but sadly, with this pleasure comes a price.
These comfort foods, delicious as they may be, are high in calories. On the one hand, this means that they satisfy our hunger, but unfortunately, eating too much of this calorific food coupled with a thirst for alcoholic beverages can create serious problems for our health.
Binge Eating Disorder, or simply: binge eating, is more prevalent in modern society than one might imagine. It’s more common that breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia.
A group of scientists from University College London have discovered that consuming large amounts of alcohol, which is the second most calorie-dense nutrient (after fat), can trigger overeating in humans. Ordinarily, the intake of calories suppresses brain appetite signals, satiating our need to eat. The fact that alcohol intake increases the desire to eat had puzzled the scientists.
Previous studies in the area had recognised that stimulating agouti-related protein neurons, which are found in the hypothalamuses of both mice and humans, can cause over-eating even when the animal does not need this extra energy.
In a statement about the experiment, researcher Sarah Cains stated that they ‘were thinking about how alcohol is associated with eating in cultural situations in humans, and wanted to see if there was something neurological underlying that behaviour.’
Through research on mice, they discovered that this occurs because the alcohol activates a particular set of hypothalamic neurons associated with feeding behaviour. This reveals a hitherto unseen connection between binge drinking and binge eating.
Mice were used because their biological composition closely resembles that of humans, and many symptoms of human conditions can be replicated in mice, thus providing a reliable end result.
Initially, the scientists examined whether the presence of alcohol compelled the mice to binge eat. In what they call an ‘alcoholic weekend’ experiment, the researchers injected both male and female mice with a single dose of alcohol equivalent to an adult human drinking one and a half bottles of wine, every day over a three-day period. Three days prior to the experiment as well as three days after, the ‘alcohol mice’ were given a saline solution, while control mice were given the saline solution for the entirety of the experiment. To ensure a fair test, as well as to dissuade any ‘group mentalities’, the mice were housed individually.
The researchers found that, on the days they were given alcohol, both male and female mice consumed larger amounts of food within one to four hours of being injected. This revealed that increased alcohol levels directly contributed to the overeating in individual mice.
Analysis taken from the deceased, ‘alcoholic mice’ displayed that deep-brain ethanol levels increased and activated agouti-related protein cells, mimicking how hunger hormones are known to affect these neurons.
The research proves that there is a direct correlation between alcohol consumption and binge eating and may pave the way towards our better understanding, and perhaps treatment, of eating disorders.