Alaska Natives abuse alcohol at a higher rate than all ethnic groups in the U.S., mirroring those of all the Native American tribes in the lower 48 states. Even for non-native Alaskans, drinking runs deep in the state’s way of life, so for a population as vulnerable as tribal residents, the problem becomes magnified.
In 2015, the Daily News-Miner wrote that Alaska is among the national leaders in per capita alcohol consumption, and with high rates of drinking come some serious consequences, such as high rates of violent crime, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and suicide, all of which have been linked to the dangerously high rate of drinking in the state. Alaska’s remote geographic location has contributed to the “Last Frontier mythology,” where fur-trading, gold mining, logging, oil, and fishing contributed to the modern Alaska economy but, in many cases, are no longer viable. Drinking – and drinking heavily – has been a part of that image, especially among men who keep isolation and boredom at bay by engaging in risky behavior like substance abuse.
Figures from the Centers for Disease Control point out that the state had the national highest rate of fatal incidents involving firearms, and as many as 80% of the firearm fatalities “ were from intentional self-inflicted injuries.” On the whole, Alaska averages 136 suicide deaths every year, meaning that in this state, there are ten people taking their own lives every month. Native Alaskans have the highest rate of suicide across all demographics in our country. These are “crisis level” numbers, says the Huffington Post, where tribes become so overwhelmed with the grief of losing their members that the traditional process of grieving is replaced by more self-destructive behavior, like substance abuse.
Why Alaska? Some have blamed it on the long, dark winters of the Arctic Circle, where “darkness and depression descend,” in the words of The New York Times. In 1992, the American Journal of Psychiatry noted that almost one in 10 Alaskans suffers from the seasonal affective disorder, a form of clinical depression that is triggered by the changing of particular seasons. Some Alaskans, notes the Times, cope with the use of bright-light therapy (artificial lights that dim and brighten to simulate natural sunlight patterns); others move away; and yet others turn to drugs and alcohol.
Some blame Alaska’s struggles on the state’s remoteness. The state’s most rural communities, where many native tribes have their reservations, do not have highways; the only access in or out is by aircraft or snowmobile, and only during good weather. This makes medical care hard to come by in the best of times; specialized care, like mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment, is all but impossible for many.
The isolation and barren landscape make for a perfect storm of what the Seward Times calls “a recurring theme of tragedy in the Last Frontier.” At 571,951 square miles, Alaska is the largest state in the U.S., but with less than 750,000 residents, it is also one of the least populated states in the country. When problems develop, they develop in isolation and silence, especially among rural communities.
A 2006 report published in the American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research journal noted that indigenous Alaskans have experienced an increase in alcohol availability from bars and liquor stores outside of tribal areas but a lack of easily accessible and culturally responsive treatment programs. Survey respondents report regular binging, followed by loss of consciousness, domestic violence, suicide, legal problems, and “feelings of intergenerational grief.” The researchers wrote that the Native Alaskans they talked to called for rehabilitation approaches that combine family with tribal customs and values.1
Alaska also has the heaviest alcohol drinkers in the animal kingdom living in their state. They are much punier than you might expect. Elephants, for example, are massive, but they are relative lightweights – they lack a gene for alcohol metabolism. Humans actually rank pretty highly, thanks to our ancestors’ propensity for picking fermented fruit off the ground. But to find the real champs, you have to think smaller. Think the mighty hamster. In the wild, hamsters hoard ryegrass seeds and fruit in their burrows, then eat this stockpile as it ferments and becomes alcoholic over the winter.
In the laboratory, rodents prefer 190 proof Everclear spirits to sweetened or regular water – they seem to drink not for pleasure but calories. Everclear is a brand name for rectified spirit (also known as grain alcohol and neutral spirit) produced by the American company Luxco (formerly known as the David Sherman Corporation). It is made from grain and is bottled at 60%, 75.5%, 94.5%, and 95% alcohol by volume (120, 151, 189, and 190 U.S. proof, respectively). There are 190 calories per ounce in 95% proof. With seven calories per gram, alcohol is an extremely concentrated source of calories. In fact, it’s second only to pure fat, which has nine calories per gram. Protein and carbs, meanwhile, come in at four calories per gram.
Research suggests a low to moderate amount of alcohol may have certain protective factors for the cardiovascular system. However, a robust 2018 study published in The Lancet suggests the only truly “safe” level of drinking alcohol is zero. As phrased in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “If adults age 21 years and older choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drinking less is better for health than drinking more.”
The guidelines suggest that men who choose to drink should limit drinking to no more than two drinks per occasion, and women should have no more than one. The reason being that a woman’s body absorbs more alcohol and reaches higher blood alcohol concentrations than men who drink the same amount. This is because their bodies take longer to metabolize, break down and remove alcohol. One reason is that women, pound for pound, have less body water than men, and alcohol resides mainly in water. Drinking less is better for your health, and among those who do drink, higher average alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes compared with lower average alcohol consumption.2
“You just put a bottle of unsweetened Everclear in the cage, and they love it,” says Gwen Lupfer, a psychologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has studied alcohol consumption in hamsters. They regularly down 18 grams per kilogram of body weight a day, the alcoholic equivalent of a human drinking a liter and a half of 190-proof Everclear. In the wild, hamsters hoard ryegrass seeds and fruit in their burrows, and they eat this fermenting store as it becomes more and more alcoholic over the winter. In the lab, well, they’re pretty happy with Everclear. Given the choice between water and alcohol, they go for the booze.
Humans have known about hamsters’ affinity for alcohol since at least the 1950s, when scientists in Texas found that hamsters could outdrink the common lab rat. Rats can be made to drink alcohol – either by selectively breeding genetic lines or by feeding them a mix of sugar and ethanol until they develop a taste for the latter. (Ethanol is the specific type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks.) But with hamsters, “you could take a hamster right from the pet store and give it grain alcohol,” says Danielle Gulick, an addiction researcher at the University of Florida. “It would happily drink.”
And they can drink a lot before getting drunk. When Lupfer was studying dwarf hamsters, she and her students rated the animals’ drunkenness on a literal wobbling scale. They scored the hamsters from zero, for “no visible wobbling,” to four, for “falls onto the side and does not right itself.” (They had previously, unsuccessfully, tried to track the hamsters’ walking by dipping their paws in watercolor – they couldn’t tell the drunk and sober hamsters’ paw prints apart.) The hamsters never averaged above 0.5 on the wobbling scale—even at the highest oral doses. But when Lupfer and her team instead injected the ethanol directly into the hamsters’ abdomens, the animals didn’t do so well. They started wobbling and falling over at much, much lower doses.
Consumed orally, Lupfer explains, alcohol goes straight from the gut to the liver, which starts breaking down the mind-altering toxin that is ethanol. Hamster livers are “so efficient” at processing ethanol that very little ends up in their blood, says Tom Lawton, a critical-care doctor in Bradford, England. But when the hamsters got injected with ethanol, the substance could bypass the liver and go into their bloodstream and then their brain – hence much wobbling and falling over.
Hamsters’ alcohol tolerance is likely an adaptation to their hoarding lifestyle. (Other animal hoarders might have evolved a similar tolerance, but they haven’t been as easy to study in a lab.) They would have a tough time getting through the winter if they didn’t like their own food that they’d hoarded or if they got sick from the alcohol in it.
Hamsters don’t just tolerate alcohol, though; they prefer it to water – and that might be because they’re drinking for the calories. (Alcohol has seven calories per gram, almost as many as does fat, which clocks in at nine.) Gulick has found that giving hamsters sucrose water can suppress their boozing, but calorie-free saccharin water cannot. And in the ’90s, scientists investigating whether hamsters could be a good model for alcoholism studies decided to test ethanol against carefully calorie-matched offerings of tomato juice, peach juice, mango juice, sugar water, and a chocolate Ensure Plus nutrition shake. The hamsters indeed started drinking less alcohol when given sweet, calorie-rich alternatives. Chocolate Ensure Plus worked the best, which the researchers chalked up to a preference for its taste.3
Human ancestors may have begun evolving the knack for consuming alcohol about 10 million years ago, long before modern humans began brewing booze, researchers say. The ability to break down alcohol likely helped human ancestors make the most out of rotting, fermented fruit that fell onto the forest floor. Therefore, knowing when this ability developed could help researchers figure out when these human ancestors began moving to life on the ground, as opposed to mostly in trees, as earlier human ancestors had lived.
“A lot of aspects about the modern human condition — everything from back pain to ingesting too much salt, sugar, and fat — goes back to our evolutionary history,” said lead study author Matthew Carrigan, a paleogeneticist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. “We wanted to understand more about the modern human condition with regards to ethanol,” he said, referring to the kind of alcohol found in rotting fruit and that’s also used in liquor and fuel.
To learn more about how human ancestors evolved the ability to break down alcohol, scientists focused on the genes that code for a group of digestive enzymes called the ADH4 family. ADH4 enzymes are found in the stomach, throat, and tongue of primates and are the first alcohol-metabolizing enzymes to encounter ethanol after it is imbibed.
The researchers investigated the ADH4 genes from 28 different mammals, including 17 primates. They collected the sequences of these genes from either genetic databanks or well-preserved tissue samples.
The scientists looked at the family trees of these 28 species to investigate how closely related they were and find out when their ancestors diverged. In total, they explored nearly 70 million years of primate evolution. The scientists then used this knowledge to investigate how the ADH4 genes evolved over time and what the ADH4 genes of their ancestors might have been like.
Then, Carrigan and his colleagues took the genes for ADH4 from these 28 species, as well as the ancestral genes they modeled, and plugged them into bacteria, which read the genes and manufactured the ADH4 enzymes. Next, they tested how well those enzymes broke down ethanol and other alcohols.
This method of using bacteria to read ancestral genes is “a new way to observe changes that happened a long time ago that didn’t fossilize into bones,” Carrigan said.
The results suggested there was a single genetic mutation 10 million years ago that endowed human ancestors with an enhanced ability to break down ethanol. The scientists noted that the timing of this mutation coincided with a shift to a terrestrial lifestyle. The ability to consume ethanol may have helped human ancestors dine on rotting, fermenting fruit that fell on the forest floor when other food was scarce.
Just because they were adapted to be able to ingest it doesn’t mean ethanol was their first choice, nor that they were perfectly adapted to metabolize it.4
Like other addictions, alcoholism appeals to the pleasure centers of the brain. When you drink alcohol regularly, your brain begins to associate the drinks with sensations like euphoria, relaxation, and loss of inhibitions. This results in cravings and, in some cases, dependency.
Alcohol triggers your brain to release the reward-system chemical dopamine. This leads your brain to link positive feelings with drinking and motivates you to crave more. It also affects serotonin, which plays a role in things like mood and sleep.
As you drink more and addiction takes hold, you will develop tolerance and experience less pleasure, and you may have withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop drinking. Heavy drinkers will begin to drink even more in an attempt to keep withdrawal at bay.
Early signs of problem drinking or alcohol misuse can be subtle. It often starts by starting to prioritize activities that involve alcohol, which leads to a shift in daily routines and relationships. Latter changes such as sleep patterns, mood, energy, and interests occur because alcohol intake increases in an attempt to alleviate the very challenges it is creating.5
An interesting story about overcoming addictions to coffee and alcohol is recorded about Heber Jeddy Grant (November 22, 1856 – May 14, 1945). He was an American religious leader who served as the seventh president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Grant worked as a bookkeeper and a cashier, then was called to be an LDS apostle on October 16, 1882, at age 25. After the death of Joseph F. Smith in late 1918, Grant served as LDS church president until his death.
He was born twelve years after Section 89 of the Doctrine of Covenants revelation on The Word of Wisdom that was given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Kirtland, Ohio, February 27, 1833.
According to Paul H. Peterson, “Interpretations and attitudes have changed toward the Word of Wisdom over the years. Before 1840 many Mormons considered abstinence important though Joseph Smith stressed moderation. Observance became lax as Mormons trekked westward to settle Utah territory. Brigham Young stressed obedience to the revelation in the 1860s but never made observance obligatory. Under John Taylor in 1883, a Word of Wisdom reformation began. Taylor stressed that Church officers should obey the revelation, as did successors Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith. None of them required rigid compliance for procurement of a Temple recommend. Heber J. Grant preached the Word of Wisdom with zeal, and during his administration, the strict observance became a criterion of orthodoxy. Attitudes have changed little since Grant’s time, and today Word of Wisdom adherence is a distinguishing characteristic of Mormon society.” 6
Young Heber J. Grant had greater difficulty overcoming the habit of drinking beer over coffee. Fearing an early death like his father’s and convinced of the virtues of insurance, Salt Lake City’s youngest agent repeatedly sought coverage to protect his mother. Nineteenth-century actuarial tables, however, discriminated against slender girths, and no company would issue Heber a policy. Determined to gain weight, Heber sought out Dr. Benedict, who had an immediate solution. If Heber would drink four glasses of beer daily, Dr. Benedict prescribed, within two years, he would have the additional twenty pounds necessary for coverage.
At first, Heber found beer “bitter and distasteful” like his mother’s herbal “kinnikinnick” tea. But he quickly acquired both a business and a personal taste for it. Within a year, he secured the fire insurance business of most Salt Lake City saloons and Utah breweries, an additional ten pounds, and a growing relish for the savor of hops; his daily four glass limit became five and occasionally grew to six.
He warred with his acute sense of conscience rereading the word of wisdom; he resolved to abandon his drinking and place his health and his mother’s future with the lord, “insurance or no
Insurance.” But resolutions were easier made than kept. “I wanted some beer so bad that I drank it again,” he confessed. Finally, he found strength in the same formula he had used with coffee by
telling himself he was free to take a drink whenever he wished. He overcame his obsession and ceased drinking. As quickly, he lost his insurance trade with the saloons and breweries of the territory.7
Experiencing the addictive effects of alcohol and coffee on the pleasure centers of the human brain during President Grant’s youth must have left a deep impression on the value of the teachings in the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. “Heber J. Grant preached the Word of Wisdom with zeal, and during his administration, the strict observance became a criterion of orthodoxy.” 6
I remember my father, the MD confronting his mother about how she needed to gain some body weight. He brought her a six-pack of beer and told her the calories would help put some weight on her. She told him that she was not going to disobey the scripture’s teachings on abstinence from drinking alcohol as stated in the Word of Wisdom and refused his offer.
I also remember him overcoming his dependence on alcohol and how his family life and general disposition improved.
I also remember being an underage college student getting into Mort’s Club in downtown Moscow Idaho. I ordered a beer and sat down at a table. Sheryl, the future mother of my children and cousin, came over and sat down beside me. Good thing he promised not to tell, or I may have had children that don’t look so much like her. Also, I still remember the taste I got in my mouth after drinking Jack Daniel’s Whiskey with a couple of friends. Both events helped me stay away from developing alcohol dependence.
I also remember a mouse that a roommate caught in our dorm. We fed it only beer and leftover snacks. It became friendly, fat, and had a beautiful haircoat. As I recall, it went home with my roommate for summer break.
Looking back – maybe a mouse alcohol tolerance study in my animal science experimental lab studies class would have placed some light on rodent alcohol metabolism years before the hamster studies. After all, an M.D. named Lawton’s comments were mentioned in the hamster study, “who recently tweeted about hamsters and alcohol in a delightful thread, told me that he bred hamsters in his youth in Yorkshire. He did not learn until medical school that very serious scientists had studied hamsters’ alcoholic preferences. But as a teenager, he made a related discovery of his own. When his house got so cold that the hamsters would start hibernating, a spot of brandy would perk them right back up. Cheers.” 3
1-Native Alaskans Alcohol Use, Statistics, Editorial Staff, July 5, 2019.
2-The Lancet, Vol 132, Issue 10152, P987-988, 09/22/2018.
3-You Have No Idea How Hard It Is to Get a Hamster Drunk, “You just put a bottle of unsweetened Everclear on the cage, and they love it.”, by Sarah Zhang – staff writer at The Atlantic & Tom Bingham, December 26, 2021, SHARE.
4-Origins of Human Alcohol Consumption Revealed, Charles Q. Choi published December 01, 2014, journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
5-What Causes Alcohol Addiction?, WebMD, By Marta Manning.
7-BYU Studies Quarterly, Young Heber J. Grant’s Years of Passage, pages 144-145, Ronald W. Walker, 04-01-1984.