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Alcohol Recovery Linked to Stress Hormones and Stress Reactions

A quick walk, calling a friend, and possibly new drug treatments that target the effects of stress hormones – all of these can be powerful tools in curbing the cravings that can cause a recovering alcoholic to have a relapse.

Daily stressors, says a University of Liverpool study, can trigger biological responses that make it harder to conquer the temptation to pick up a drink. Combating stressors before they happen may be critical to a successful recovery from alcohol, say researchers, and could include new medications that impact the effects of cortisol.

Under stress, the body produces the hormone cortisol from the adrenal gland. Dr. Abi Rose, University of Liverpool School of Psychology, Health and Society, says alcoholics often have significant amounts of cortisol in the body, which can interrupt functions like memory and the ability to focus on a situation or make a decision. Cortisol levels seem to be highest when the person is experiencing withdrawal from alcohol.

The effects of cortisol can not only weaken a recovering alcoholic’s resolve to remain sober, but can also interfere with the person’s capacity to respond to alcoholism treatments. Called both a disorder and a disease, alcoholism affects 12 million people in the U.S., and alcohol remains one of the most abused drugs in the world.

Nearly every bodily organ bears the effects of alcohol. In the brain, changes to the processes that allow a person to remember the reasons they want to quit, and to make sound decisions toward recovery, can be especially detrimental to maintaining sobriety. Researchers suggest that the extra cortisol produced by the adrenal glands of an alcoholic may contribute to the difficulty of recovery.

Published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers believe that even after a period of sobriety or abstinence, the cortisol levels in the body may cause strong cravings for alcohol to return. Dr. Rose says drugs that reduce the action of cortisol could lessen the likelihood of a relapse, and may also help with attention and decision-making skills needed for recovery that are negatively impacted by the hormone.

Additional research on stress and alcoholism recovery points to the ability to deal with stressors on a daily basis as a strong indicator of a person’s likelihood for relapse. Researchers at Penn State University and Texas Tech’s Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery studied 55 college-aged participants who were actively recovering from substance addiction.

The students recorded their feelings related to stress in handheld journals, and related the feelings to their level of cravings for drugs or alcohol. Those who faced stress head on had fewer and less strong cravings than those who tried to escape from stressful situations.

Taking a proactive approach to stress, and thinking of ways to solve problems before they occur, may be powerful tools for recovering alcoholics. Making a list of ways to handle stress – including exercise, journal writing or a social activity in a non-alcoholic setting – can also be helpful.

As researchers continue to explore the link between stress, the body’s processes and avoiding cravings that lead to relapse, recovering alcoholics from a spectrum of life situations may find themselves even closer to freedom.

Posted on November 16th, 2010

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