Thyroid Health Affects Alcohol Cravings, Study Finds

An alcohol-dependent individual’s thyroid health appears to have an impact on his or her tendency to crave alcohol and may also serve as an early warning sign for future alcohol-related issues, research suggests.

Thyroid Gland and Thyroid Hormones

The thyroid gland sits at the base of the neck between the trachea (i.e., windpipe) and the surface of the skin. It produces two main hormones, known by the nicknames T3 and T4. While the gland releases mostly T4, T3 has a larger impact on body function. The thyroid hormones’ primary function is regulating the breakdown of the fats, proteins and carbohydrates you consume every day and converting these food sources into forms that the body can use. In addition, the gland and its hormones play an essential role in such critical body functions as maintenance of a consistent heart rate, growth and repair of bone tissue, maintenance of immune function, maintenance of respiratory function and maintenance of the various components in blood. A number of health problems are linked to abnormalities in thyroid function. These problems include an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism), an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), a form of damaging inflammation called thyroiditis and thyroid cancer. A pituitary gland hormone called TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) helps determine the thyroid gland’s baseline output of T3 and T4.

Alcohol and Thyroid Health

Despite its widespread status as a legal recreational substance, alcohol is toxic to the human body when consumed at a rate as low as one standard drink per hour. All told, 260-plus health problems are directly or indirectly related to excessive alcohol intake. People who actively consume heavy amounts of alcohol may not necessarily experience notable changes in their thyroid hormone levels. However, when a person addicted to alcohol stops drinking at least temporarily and goes through withdrawal, his or her thyroid hormone output can drop substantially. As a rule, the amount of hormone disruption increases along with the seriousness of withdrawal-related symptoms. When an alcohol-dependent individual makes it through withdrawal and enters a period of drinking abstinence, his or her thyroid hormone levels will typically gradually return to normal.

Impact on Alcohol Cravings

In the study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers from Brown University, the Veterans Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Italy’s Catholic University of Rome used a small-scale project involving 42 people affected by alcoholism to gauge the impact that changes in thyroid health can have on the presence and severity of alcohol cravings. The onset of such cravings is one of the 11 possible symptoms of alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or non-addicted alcohol abuse). All of the study enrollees were participants in a three-month course of treatment for their drinking problems. Each enrollee took two screening tests designed to reveal crucial aspects of alcohol craving: the Penn Alcohol Craving Scale and the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale. In addition, each enrollee took screening tests for anxiety, aggression and depression. For each individual, the researchers checked levels of T3 and T4, as well as levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone. After reviewing all of the available data, the researchers concluded that, at the beginning of the study, relatively low levels of T3 in the participants helped determine the intensity of impulsive and compulsive behaviors that support a craving for continued alcohol consumption. Reductions in T3 levels were linked to reductions in the output of the pituitary gland’s thyroid-stimulating hormone or TSH. Over the course of three months of alcohol treatment, the participants’ TSH levels gradually improved. The biggest positive changes in TSH levels occurred in those individuals who successfully managed to avoid further alcohol intake. Lesser changes occurred in those individuals who temporarily achieved abstinence but later relapsed back into active alcohol consumption. The study’s authors believe their findings indicate that problems with thyroid hormone output and TSH output in a person who consumes alcohol may serve as a warning sign for serious alcohol-related issues.

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