Alcoholism and the Effects of Cortisol on Relapse

One of the most difficult things for recovering alcoholics to face is the risk of relapse. After admitting to the problem and going through difficult detox and treatment, the thought of relapsing back to alcoholism is sometimes what keeps some people from even attempting sobriety. A new study has linked relapse to a hormone found in the body, possibly explaining why some people continue to relapse, and maybe giving hope for some of these people.

Relapse Studies

Scientists at the University of Liverpool studied the connection between cortisol and alcoholism. Cortisol, normally released by the adrenal gland as a response to stress, has a direct impact on emotion, energy utilization, learning, and the immune system. But cortisol levels are also found to be higher in patients with alcoholism, as well as those that have been sober for  many months. In the Liverpool study, individuals that had the higher levels of cortisol were more likely to relapse. Therefore, we can understand why people that are put in a stressful situation would relapse back into alcoholism.

A second study, done by the VA North Texas Health Care System, followed victims of disasters to see the likelihood of alcohol abuse after a traumatic event. The study could not link increased alcoholism with experiencing a traumatic event, expect for those that had previous problems with alcohol. But the fact that relapse is common among victims of disaster helps solidify the conclusion that stressful situations increase the risk of relapse.

Managing with Medication

The question is what to do with this information. We do know that the fear of relapse is very real to someone trying to recover from alcoholism, as well as their family members who want so much for them to be well again. Keeping a recovering alcoholic sheltered from stress may help them in their goal of sobriety. More realistically is the goal of helping these individuals learn to manage their stress. But along with a lifestyle modification is the possibility of one day using medications to reduce the levels of cortisol. These medications could target the adrenal gland’s production of cortisol, or modify the effects of cortisol on the brain.

While research on medications to aid in the recovery process is valid, we need to be careful not to put our hopes in a miracle drug. There is no magic pill to take addiction or alcoholism away. Anyone who tries the latest quick-fix method without considering treatment and counseling, is setting themselves up for a fall. Lives are healed best by hard work and determination. Patients need to possess a desire to be sober, as well as recognition of past failures and weaknesses. Maybe someday more medications will make it easier to become sober or prevent relapse, but the hard work and resolve still be necessary.

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