Hormones and Alcohol
Hormones are chemicals that are released by a cell or gland in the body that affects cells in other parts of the body. Hormones are responsible for growth, mood, immune system function, metabolism, reproduction, hunger cravings and sexual arousal. Hormones are secreted from particular glands that are located throughout the body to affect tissues or organs. The brain contains two primary glands, the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands. The thyroid, pancreas and gonads are also hormonal glands.
A hormone imbalance can cause serious medical conditions including growth problems, diabetes, digestive issues and sexual problems. Hormonal imbalances are defined as chemical messengers in the body which are failing to function properly. The dysfunction can be either overproduction or underproduction of specific hormones. Hormone imbalances occur for a number of reasons but can include obesity, stress, alcoholism and sedentary lifestyle. Most imbalances happen due to elevated levels of estrogen in the body and not enough progesterone.
Chronic alcohol consumption has been found to interfere with pancreatic functioning, cause liver disease and can cause malnutrition which all affect hormone functions. Sexual hormones which are testosterone and estrogen are also impacted and at the most severe, alcohol causes inadequate functioning of testes and ovaries which causes hormonal deficiencies, sexual dysfunction and infertility. Alcohol can also affect sperm structure, menstruation, ovulation and increase the risk of miscarriage and fetal development.
The Role of The Liver
The liver is important to the survival of humans and is important in over 500 different functions in the body. The processes the liver is responsible for include:
- Immune system functions
- Manufacture of certain proteins and cholesterol
- Regulation of specific hormones
- Storage of excessive glucose
- Removal of toxins from the blood stream
- Excreting waste products from the body
The liver also synthesizes and secretes at least four important hormones:
- Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1)
The liver is the largest organ in the body and can withstand a lot of abuse and toxins before it begins to become sick or fail to function properly. Alcoholism is known to be a factor in damaging the liver. Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, known as hepatocytes, and it causes inflammation of the liver. The effect of alcohol on hepatocytes is immediate. However, in most healthy non-alcoholic people, the body repairs itself. Repeated high levels of exposure to alcohol however, causes chronic and continuing inflammation of the liver, which causes scarring to the liver. This scarring is the beginning of alcoholic liver disease. Alcoholic liver disease is the leading cause of alcohol-related death worldwide. It contributes up to 50 percent of the total burden of liver disease and is a factor in up to 15 percent of liver transplants. Once alcoholic liver disease is established in the body, abstinence from alcohol use is essential to improve health outcomes. There is no other accepted treatment of alcoholic liver disease.
Permanent Damage to Health
Chronic abusers of alcohol are at risk of permanently damaging their health. When the liver has damaged beyond repair it is known as cirrhosis. This is a serious condition, and the individual will not survive long if they continue to abuse alcohol. It is not possible to reverse the damage of cirrhosis, but it can be managed so long as the individual remains abstinent. Most heavy drinkers are in denial about the risks of developing alcoholic liver disease. It is estimated that about 90% of them will experience at least the early stages of this condition. Cirrhosis is a real risk for anyone who abuses alcohol.
Once the liver is damaged, individuals are at a greater risk of developing secondary illness’ including neurological disease, autoimmune disease, adverse drug reactions and hormonal imbalances. The liver is responsible for the cleaning of hormones from the blood stream and disposing of them into the intestines for excretion. If the liver is not able to function properly due to damage caused by alcoholism, hormone levels in the body can reach critical levels. If levels of hormones are at excessive levels a person can become sick and experience adverse health problems.
The hypothalamus, the anterior pituitary gland and the adrenal glands are all important in the regulation of hormones in the body. Together these systems function as the hypothalamic-pituitary (HPA) system. Cells in the hypothalamus produce a hormone called corticosteroid-releasing factor (CRF) which binds to specific receptors in the pituitary gland. When this occurs, a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is produced which stimulates the adrenal hormones, particularly glucocorticoids.
Glucocorticoids have many physiological effects; they influence carbohydrate, lipid, protein, and nucleic acid metabolism; the cardiovascular system; bone and calcium metabolism; the central nervous system; and growth, development, and reproduction. Alcohol has been found to increase the amount of glucocorticoid and ACTH in the body. This can cause a disorder known as alcohol-induced pseudo Cushing’s Syndrome in humans. Symptoms of the disorder include:
- Obesity of the torso
- Rounding and reddening of the face
- High blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Psychological disturbances
- Menstruation problems
Alcoholics who develop this disorder can recover through abstaining from further consumption of alcohol. It is believed that the syndrome is the result of the alcohol’s effects on the brain or at the pituitary or adrenal levels, but further research is required. Nonetheless, the existence of alcohol-induced pseudo-Cushing’s syndrome indicates that alcohol consumption somehow leads to a clinically significant activation of the HPA axis in humans.