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Stress Hormone Complicates Recovery for Alcoholics

Posted in Relapse Prevention

Alcoholics undergo a difficult recovery process when they decide to give up drinking and pursue a better quality of life. Unfortunately, for many, the process includes multiple relapses back into drinking behaviors. Often there are several attempts at recovery and feelings of frustration and defeat at each relapse point.

Some treatment options include learning to recognize emotions or other triggers that lead the individual to drink alcohol. Patients often learn to recognize certain social cues or even which people in their social networks can be factors in their drinking behaviors.

A new study says that there may be a biological factor involved with relapse. Researchers at the University of Liverpool have identified a pattern showing that a high level of the stress hormone cortisol may increase the risk of relapse for recovering alcoholics.

Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in response to stress in the adrenal gland. The study found that chronic alcoholics tend to have a high level of cortisol. The condition can lead to problems with impaired memory, attention and decision-making. These circumstances can create difficulty for the alcoholic in remaining engaged in treatment.

Those struggling to overcome alcoholism struggle with compulsive consumption of alcohol with very little control exhibited in their consumption. Though alcoholism can affect social relationships, physical health and academic or professional success, alcoholics are often unable to limit their exposure to alcohol.

Excessive alcohol consumption can result in severe physical consequences. Every organ of the body is affected, but the impact on the brain can be very devastating. Alcoholics often experience memory loss and impaired decision-making skills.

The study, led by Dr. Abi Rose of the School of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool, showed that a high level of cortisol may be impairing the ability to completely recover from chronic alcoholism. Cortisol, Rose explains, regulates emotions, learning, attention, energy utilization, and the immune system.

The study showed that not only is the cortisol level high in patients undergoing treatment for alcoholism, but it continues to be elevated while the patient is going through withdrawal and during long periods of abstinence after treatment.

The study is published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Its results are important because they may introduce a possible area of examination for treating alcoholism with drugs. A medication that could manipulate the effects of cortisol during treatment and after treatment is finished may be effective at reducing the rate of relapse after treatment.