Even moderate consumption of alcohol may have an adverse effect on your DNA, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of the Basque Country in Spain and the Autonomous University of Nayarit in Mexico have determined that a weekend of casual drinking is sometimes enough to induce oxidative DNA damage. The discovery suggests that even young and healthy people should be mindful of the risks associated with drinking.

While this type of oxidative damage has been explored in similar scientific capacities in the past, most of these studies have focused on seasoned alcoholics, in whom ethanol has been wreaking havoc for years. It follows that teens, young adults, and healthy people have received limited attention. The new study, which is aptly published in the journal Alcohol, sought to illuminate this statistical blind spot by surveying hung-over college kids.

To do this, the researchers divided their students into two groups: those who drank and those who did not. The students who did drink reported an average weekend consumption equivalent to three pints of beer (118g g). Their ages ranged from 18 to 23. After administering the survey, the researchers collected DNA samples from all subjects.

What the team was looking for was oxidative stress — a tremendously complex type of cellular damage caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS), a type of free radical. Previous studies have shown that alcohol promotes the generation of these abrasive molecules. Similarly, long-term alcoholics often display strong signs of this type of damage.

According to lead researcher Adela Rendón-Ramírez, DNA samples revealed a stark difference between the treatment group and the control. "We saw that the ones who drank sustained twice as much oxidative damage compared with the group that did not consume alcohol," she said in a press release. This was visible from the so-called halos the drinkers' sampled cell nuclei exuded in the lab medium.

That said, there’s no reason to panic, as these halos did not exceed 20 nanometers. In other words, they could not be tied to “considerable damage.” The researchers, however, are quick to point out that even nascent damage is bad news. “The fact is, there should not have been any damage at all because they had not been consuming alcohol for very long, they had not been exposed in a chronic way."

According to a set of sobering statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 1,825 U.S. college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries. Upward of 500,000 sustain injuries. Half of these students say they consume alcohol through binge drinking, or by drinking four to five drinks within two hours.

The team hopes that their results will help young people realize that the consequences of drinking are not limited to full-blown alcoholism. "When we talk about youth alcohol abuse, we are referring to youngsters who drink alcohol without having become addicted,” the team wrote. “Addiction involves a more complex issue socially and psychologically speaking. This is social alcohol abuse, but which causes damage in the long term and you have to be aware of that."

Source: Rendón-Ramírez A, Cortés-Couto M, Martínez-Rizo AB, Muñiz-Hernández S, Velázquez-Fernánde JB. “Oxidative damage in young alcohol drinkers: A preliminary study.” Alcohol. 2013.