Single episode of binge drinking adversely affects health

New UMMS study shows negative effects of heavy drinking

By Jim Fessenden

UMass Medical School Communications

May 15, 2014
Gyongyi Szabo, MD, PhD
Gyongyi Szabo, MD, PhD, led a study that has found that a single instance of binge drinking can have adverse consequences resulting in bacteria leaking from the gut.

It only takes one time. That’s the message of a new study on binge drinking by Gyongyi Szabo, MD, PhD. She found that a single episode of binge drinking can have significant negative health effects resulting in bacteria leaking from the gut, leading to increased levels of toxins in the blood. Published online in PLOS ONE, the study showed that these bacterial toxins, called endotoxins, caused the body to produce immune cells involved in fever, inflammation and tissue destruction.

“We found that a single alcohol binge can elicit an immune response, potentially impacting the health of an otherwise healthy individual,” said Dr. Szabo, professor of medicine, vice chair of the Department of Medicine and associate dean for clinical and translational sciences. “Our observations suggest that an alcohol binge is more dangerous than previously thought.”

Binge drinking is defined by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08g/dL or above. For a typical adult, this corresponds with consuming five or more drinks for men, or four or more drinks for women, in about two hours, depending on body weight.

Binge drinking is known to pose safety risks associated with car crashes and injuries. Over the long term, binge drinking can damage the liver and other organs, but this study finds key evidence that a single alcohol binge can cause damaging health effects such as bacterial leakage from the gut into the blood stream, according to a statement released by George Koob, PhD, director of the NIAAA.

To assess the impact of binge drinking, 11 men and 14 women were given enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol levels to at least .08 g/dL within an hour. Blood samples were then taken every 30 minutes for four hours after and again 24 hours later.

Szabo and colleagues found that the alcohol binge resulted in a rapid increase in endotoxin levels in the blood. Endotoxins are toxins contained in the cell wall of certain bacteria that are released when the cell is destroyed. They also found evidence of bacterial DNA in the bloodstream, showing that bacteria had permeated the gut. Compared to men, women had higher blood alcohol levels and circulating endotoxin levels.

Earlier studies have tied chronic alcohol use to increased gut permeability, wherein potentially harmful products can travel through the intestinal wall and be carried to other parts of the body. Greater gut permeability and increased endotoxin levels have been linked to many of the health issues related to chronic drinking, including alcoholic liver disease.

Funding for this study was provided by the NIAAA, one of the 27 institutes and centers that comprise the National Institutes of Health.