Drinking Alcohol As a Teenager Could Have Lasting Effects on Metabolism, Study Suggests

Drinking alcohol as a teenager could negatively affect an individual's metabolism, a study has found.

Researchers found even drinking in moderation can have a negative affect on how the body generates energy. The work built on a previous study by the same team at the University of Eastern Finland, which suggested drinking can reduce gray matter volume in the brains of teens, leading the team to believe the two may be associated.

Noora Heikkinen, a researcher at the University of Eastern Finland’s Institute of Clinical Medicine, told Newsweek: "Despite [the participants'] alcohol use being 'normal,' their metabonomic profile and brain gray matter volumes differed from those in the light-drinking participant group." This raises the question of whether there is a safe limit for drinking, she argued. 

The paper published in the journal Alcohol is the result of a follow-up to a study on teenagers aged between 13 to 17 years old living in eastern Finland. Fresh data was collected on the original cohort who were assessed between 2004 and 2005.

teenagers-drinking-alcohol-party-solo-cups-stock Researchers in Finland have investigated the impact alcohol has on the teenage brain. Getty Images

The teenagers filled out questionnaires relating to their family, hobbies, lifestyle and substance use. They also took a version of a test designed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to identify alcohol use disorders. Questions included how much alcohol they consumed on a typical day of drinking; and how often they had six or more drinks on one occasion.

For the study carried out between 2013 and 2015, researchers recruited and quizzed 40 moderate to heavy-drinking and 40 light-drinking subjects. Light drinking was defined as a maximum score of two on the WHO test; equivalent to drinking two to four times per month. A total of four or more in males and three in females was considered moderate to heavy, which amounted to drinking two to three times or four or more times per week.

The researchers measured the metabolisms of participants, and used an MRI scanner to reveal the gray matter volume in their brains.

They found individuals who drank moderately to heavily had changes in their amino acids and how they processed energy compared to those who didn’t. And heavy drinkers also saw an increase in levels of 1-methylhistamine, which is associated with a reduction in brain gray matter volume.

The team are believed to be the first to combine data on metabolite profiles and grey matter volumes to uncover the effects alcohol has on the adolescent brain.

Heikkinen explained in a statement: "Our findings suggest that the production of histamine is increased in the brains of heavy-drinking adolescents.

Read more: Binge-drinking Alcohol Just Once Could Disturb Gene That Regulates Sleep

“This observation can help in the development of methods that make it possible to detect adverse effects caused by alcohol at a very early stage. Possibly, it could also contribute to the development of new treatments to mitigate these adverse effects."

"Although adolescent drinking is declining on average, we can see polarization: Some adolescents are very heavy drinkers and they also use other substances," Heikkinen added.

Currently, "safe limit" drinking recommendations for adults in Finland stand at seven portions of alcohol for women and 14 portions for men, with a portion defined as a small glass or wine or beer. Heikkinen told Newsweek "[the] human brain develops well into the twenties, and it could be argued whether even alcohol use within these safe limits truly is safe for young adults. 

"There is evidence that at least some of the changes are reversible if the heavy drinking is discontinued. Therefore all hope is not lost for those who have had their share of parties and binge-drinking in the twenties. However, if the heavy drinking is continued for decades, there is a real chance that irreversible brain atrophy will result."

This article has been updated with comment from Noora Heikkinen. 

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