The Hormones That Make Alcoholics Want to Drink

The Hormones That Make Alcoholics Want to Drink

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This post was originally published on November 25, 2014.

Drugabuse.com just published an article about a study that found that the hunger hormone ghrelin might also make alcoholics want to drink. Ghrelin, for the uninitiated, is a hormone that tells the body to eat; in other words, when the stomach is empty, the hormone spreads out and when you eat, it stops pumping through your veins.

How it Broke Down

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Dr. Lorenzo Leggio studied 45 alcoholics, giving them doses of ghrelin and placebos. He discovered that alcoholics who were given ghrelin had a significant desire to drink alcohol compared to the ones that were not. When presented with the opportunity to drink juice that would satisfy their “hunger,” those alcoholics said screw that, opting for alcohol instead. This could be linked to the fact that alcoholics see alcohol as a food group that serves multiple purposes: in can get them drunk and fill their stomachs since it’s so high in calories. Leggio believes that if they can figure out the pathways in the brain that do this, they can help make medications that can cure alcoholism and make a billion dollars as well. (I just assumed that last part.)

Leggio’s study was published in Biological Psychiatry and it starts off by explaining that an empty stomach is, more common than not, a characteristic people have when they hunger for stimulation. According to the study, a full stomach is linked to “dullness” and “contempt,” a fact that can help people understand why alcoholics who are given ghrelin seek out the main thing that satisfies them—alcohol.

What’s a Love Hormone Got to Do with It?

The “love hormone” oxytocin, not to be confused with the drug Oxycontin (though they both feel good), is another one that is linked to alcoholism. A study done at the University of Adelaide in Australia found that giving alcoholics doses of oxytocin can help with recovery.

Oxytocin is a hormone that rises when we hug or kiss (or do more with) someone. According to Psychology Today, prairie voles (small rodent mice) produce it by the bucket load and are one of nature’s most monogamous animals so the hormone doesn’t just tell us to have sex with everything; it tells us who to do it with in more of a survival-of-the-fittest way. People with less of it get more pleasure from drugs, which is why we need it to battle addictive behaviors. (It can, by the way, be bought in nasal spray form for $60 on Amazon; good luck with that.)

Oxytocin helps us create life and move it forward in a healthy way. If we don’t have the normal amount of it, our decision-making can be affected when it comes to drinking and using drugs. In short, oxytocin is the opposite of ghrelin, which is to say that low amounts of oxytocin and large amounts of ghrelin can create alcoholics. 

The oxytocin lead researcher, Dr. Femke Buisman-Pijlman, found that childhood abuse, severe illness or a difficult birth could lead to low levels of the hormone. The lack of a normal amount of it leaves a huge gap of time and space in the brain for us to be “subject to a range of influences” that could impact decision-making later in life and be dangerous in the face of alcohol.

I applaud these studies and the information gleaned from them. Sure, knowing what sparks alcoholism isn’t the same as discovering ways to reverse it but it certainly is a start.

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Carlos Herrera

Carlos Herrera is a comedian and writer whose work can be found on TheFix.com and has been written about in LA Weekly. He has performed at The Hollywood Improv among other places and his TV and movie writing can be found in trash cans in Beverly Hills. He resides in Laurel Canyon with his fiancé, designer Jennifer Armstrong, and their dog Ike.