Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Blame it on the Alcohol.

jmstuart's picture


Julia Stuart
Biology 103
Web Paper #2
Blame it on the Alcohol-Alcoholism in Native American Populations
Alcoholism is the disease associated with an addiction or dependance to alcohol that, like most addictions, is manifested physically, mentally, and emotionally. Alcohol itself has both acute and chronic effects, but this discussion will be focused on those who use alcohol on a continuing basis, which ultimately affects many different organs and bodily systems, including the cardiovascular system, the nervous system, the digestive system, and the reproductive system. (1) Alcoholism can be incredibly destructive to both the individual and their relationships with others, including the affected person’s family or their ability to maintain a job.  So why are some people, or even certain ethnic groups, such as Native Americans, more suceptible to alcohol abuse? 
Although it’s hard to specifically quantify the rate of alcoholism, looking at alcohol-related deaths shows an astunding difference for Native Americans. According to MSNBC, 12% of mortalities in those of Native American descent are directly related to alcohol, which is three times the rate of the general population. (2) When looking at any sort of addiction, the origin can be incredibly difficult to trace. The continuing debate of nature vs. nurture, or whether a disease can be attributed to environment or genetics, is incredibly complex and even differs with each individual case. In a scientific sense, environmental factors are much harder to quantify, since variables such as availibility, cultural acceptability, family influences, or history of abuse can all lead to a higher probability of alcoholism. (3) When looking at generalizations about a certain ethnic group, it is more helpful to look at what genes may be related to alcoholism, and why certain populations possess genes for protection against alcoholism. 
As far as I could identify in my research, reward systems have a partial effect on alcohol consumption. Alcohol really is toxic to the human system; it is processed into acetaldehyde and then acetate, but both alcohol and acetaldehyde produce negative reactions within the body, including the symptoms often associated with drunkeness such as headaches and nausea. The rate at which the body converts acetaldehyde into acetate is largely responsible for the drinking experience. The breakdown into acetate is done by a specifc enzyme, and so the rate at which alcohol is metabolized by the body is directly related to the genes that code for this protein. (4) Thus, a person possessing these genes would have more of a reward system associated with drinking, while another person lacking this gene would have a negative response to alcohol. While this may not explain the physiological science of addiction, it certainly lends itself to further exploration of the emotional addiction faced by many sufferers.
To account for this genetic divergence, the history of human development plays a larger role than I expected. In The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (5), which is actually the history of cholera in London during the mid 1800’s, Johnson discusses how the dynamics of cities played a major role in determining the tolerance levels of different people groups. Societies composed mainly of city-dwellers, such as those in Europe or the Middle East, had to constantly struggle for clean sources of water due to water-borne illnesses such as typhoid fever. Even though these people did not specifically know about germs and pathogens, alcoholic beverages became the drinks of choice, because “dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentry in your twenties.” (130.) Therefore, those that could tolerate that much alcohol in their daily lives were more likely to survive and pass along those genes. (Even though evolution itself is by no means a guided force, alcohol did present an evolutionary pressure on the species.) Populations such as the Native Americans, who never had a similar struggle to find clean water, did not have to go through this theoretical evolutionary bottleneck. 
Susceptibility to a disease is still only one factor in a complex equation involving many elements. The epidemiology of human diseases is intricate and interesting, but is also necessarily subjective and limited. Before the advent of potential biological explainations, alcoholism contributed to the European’s belief of inferiority because it was seen as a weakness. (6) In addition to debunking social stigmas, further research into the genetics of alcoholism could lead to more information about prevention and treatment. For example, the benefits of identifying the gene that creates the enzyme responsible for processing alcohol not only means that at risk people could be more easily identifies, but also potentially lead to a synthetic version of the enzyme. While this is just speculation, advancing the scientific community’s knowledge of this disease is one step in overcoming alcoholism.
  5. Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map. New York City: Riverhead Books, 2006. (selections availible on Google Books online.)


Paul Grobstein's picture

alcohol in context

Interesting to have alcohol use thought of in terms of both cons and pros, with the balance being a function of context.  As is true of sickle cell anemia.  As is true perhaps of all biological/psychological characteristics?