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Alcohol Sensitizes Brain to Food Aroma

Alcohol exposure appears to sensitize the brain’s response to food aromas, thereby increasing one’s consumption of food, according to a new study that measured the brain’s role in regulating caloric intake following alcohol consumption among women.

The findings are published in the journal Obesity published by the Obesity Society.

The research adds to the current body of knowledge that alcohol increases food intake, also known as the “aperitif effect,” but shows this increased intake does not rely entirely on the oral ingestion of alcohol and its absorption through the gut.

“The brain, absent contributions from the gut, can play a vital role in regulating food intake. Our study found that alcohol exposure can both increase the brain’s sensitivity to external food cues, like aromas, and result in greater food consumption,” said Dr. William J. A. Eiler II, Ph.D., of the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Departments of Medicine and Neurology.

“Many alcoholic beverages already include empty calories, and when you combine those calories with the aperitif effect, it can lead to energy imbalance and possibly weight gain.”

The study involved 35 female participants who were non-vegetarian, non-smoking, and at a healthy weight. To test the direct effects of alcohol on the brain, the researchers skipped the digestive system by intravenously administering alcohol to each participant at one study visit and then a placebo (saline) on another study visit, prior to eating.

Participants were observed and brain responses to food and non-food aromas were measured using blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) response via fMRI scans. After imaging, participants were offered a lunch choice between pasta with Italian meat sauce and beef and noodles.

When participants were given intravenous alcohol, they ate more food at lunch, on average, compared to when they were given the placebo. There were individual differences, however, with one-third of participants eating less after alcohol exposure when compared to the placebo exposure.

Also, the area of the brain responsible for certain metabolic processes, the hypothalamus, responded more to food odors, compared to non-food odors, after alcohol infusion vs. saline.

The findings suggest that the hypothalamus may therefore play a role in mediating the impact of alcohol exposure on our sensitivity to food cues, contributing to the aperitif phenomenon.

“This research helps us to further understand the neural pathways involved in the relationship between food consumption and alcohol,” said Martin Binks, Ph.D., FTOS, TOS Secretary Treasurer and Associate Professor of Nutrition Sciences at Texas Tech University.

“Often, the relationship between alcohol on eating is oversimplified; this study unveils a potentially more complex process in need of further study.”

“Today, nearly two-thirds of adults in the U.S. consume alcohol, with wine consumption rising, which reinforces the need to better understand how alcohol can contribute to overeating,” said Binks.

Source: Obesity Society


Alcohol Sensitizes Brain to Food Aroma

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Alcohol Sensitizes Brain to Food Aroma. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 4 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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