Is A Stress Hormone Key To Alcohol Dependence And Addiction?

Every day we read about the devastating consequences of alcoholism. In terms of numbers, about 30% of the 40,000 of reported deaths in the United States due to traffic-related causes involve drunk drivers. In addition to the heartbreak for the families involved, this causes a staggering amount of direct and indirect public health costs.

But not drunk drivers are alcoholics. Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive use of alcohol and loss of control over alcohol intake. It is devastating the individual, their families and to society at large. 

Nobody wants to be an alcoholic or intestinally cause a traffic accident bringing harm to themselves and others. The question has been how do people become so dependent on alcohol in the first place? The compulsion to drink is called the dark side of alcohol addiction.

It is known for a long time that people who are addicted to alcohol are not drinking because it is pleasurable but because they are trying to find relief from the stress and anxiety caused due to withdrawal. 

Research identified the actual biochemical factor that could be responsible for controlling the stress related brain reaction. 

Scientists led by Dr. Roberto at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California did experiments on animal models and found that a specific stress hormone called the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) controls the alcohol dependence. 

This CRF is a natural substance originally found in the area of the brain known as the hypothalamus. It is involved in the body’s stress responses that are expressed in the increased anxiety, withdrawal, and excessive drinking associated with alcohol dependence.

Studies such as this are important because understanding how the brain changes when it moves from a normal to an alcohol-dependent state is the key to finding answers that could reverse the changes in the brain.

Taking it a step further, the study explored if the hormone can be blocked on a long-term basis to alleviate the symptoms of alcohol dependence. The answer is “yes!”

By blocking this hormone chemically also brought down the signs of addiction. These findings are promising because they are helping in the development of a solution to the huge problem of alcohol addiction in our society. 

Another interesting and encouraging aspect of these findings is the possible association of corticotropin-releasing factor with other disorders related to stress and emotions that cause mental health issues. 

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research, and the Scripps Research Institute.

For more information about the Corticotropin-Releasing Factor and its role in alcohol dependence, check out the article in the Biological Psychiatry 

Research Explains the Behavioral and Biological Alterations of Alcohol Addiction

The brewing of alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer seems to have started at the very beginning of civilization. The effects of alcohol on the individual and its capacity to alter behavior have also been known since the beginning of its consumption by different societies. 

Although alcohol is not traditionally seen as a drug, it is considered as a psychotropic depressant of the Central Nervous System and its consumption is one of the highest among all psychoactive substances. 

The chemical compound in alcoholic beverages is ethanol. If you remember from your Chemistry lesson, ethanol is a chain of two carbons and a hydroxyl group (-OH). When a person consumes alcohol, the chemical nature of ethanol makes it to be quickly absorbed and distributed through the blood reaching the central nervous system in a record time.

To understand the biological effects resulting from alcohol consumption, a literature review was conducted where articles published in different languages over the last 15 years were studied. This study helped to identify the signaling pathways in the brain that are modified and the biological effects resulting from its consumption. A few findings include:

  • When the alcohol reaches the nervous system, it influences several neurological pathways exerting its properties as a psychotropic depressant. This influence actually is responsible for the neurological impact that leads to behavioral and biological responses observed in different degrees after consuming alcohol.
  • Alcohol, as a psychotropic depressant of the Central Nervous System, is considered to act on the receptors of neurotransmitters. This action is responsible for the effects of alcohol such as sedation, loss of inhibition, and relaxation.  
  • Studies also document that long-term usage of alcohol has the potential to cause visible memory impairments. This effect is attributed to a gradual reduction in the brain’s hippocampal mass which facilitates our explicit memories, i.e., memories we can talk about, such as the previous day’s meal or the specific date of a historical event. The hippocampus is known to be necessary for the acquisition of this type of memory and recollection of memories, damage to this region reduces the capacity of individuals from creating new explicit recollections.
  • The long-term use of alcohol also leads to an increase in glutamatergic receptors in the hippocampus, which in addition to its role in memory controls seizures or convulsions. As a result, during alcohol withdrawal, the glutamate receptors that have been exposed to the continuous presence of alcohol become hyperactive and can trigger seizures or even strokes.

After carefully reviewing a number of actions of alcohol on many central neurotransmission pathways, the researchers allude to alcohol as a potent “dirty drug” and a disorganizer of Central Nervous System.

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Alcohol Abuse Prevention


A recent survey on drug use and health reported that more than half of the U.S. population had consumed alcohol during the past month1. Binge drinking, defined by SAMHSA as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks within a couple of hours at least once during the previous month2, applied to more than a quarter of the population1. 7% of the population reported heavy drinking, described as binge drinking on at least 5 days during the last month1. More than 6% of adults suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder, along with 2.5% of youths1. Only a small percentage of these actually receive treatment1. Almost 90,000 people die every year from alcohol abuse and nearly 1/3 of driving fatalities involve drunken driving1. Alcohol abuse has a negative impact on the brain development of youths1. Alcohol abuse among college students is an especially significant problem, as it contributes to date rape, injury, assault and even death1. Clearly, alcohol abuse is a very serious problem.

Since youth are especially at risk of the negative results of alcohol abuse, the remarks below are directed towards parents and are meant to help them help their children.

Helpful Strategies

It is important that parents give their children the right message about alcohol use, both in their words and in their actions. Children need to know that they can raise questions and voice their opinions to their parents without the risk of judgement or punishment. Parents should be ready with accurate information when the time comes for their children to ask their questions. If parents don’t have accurate information, this is a great opportunity for them to learn along with their children. Information is readily available at both and which parents and children can read and discuss together. Commonly-held false beliefs include the idea that there is little risk in binge drinking almost every day and that alcohol is safe because it is less dangerous than heroin or cocaine3.

Without going overboard, parents should also be aware of where and with whom their child is spending their free time. There is an old saying: “Tell me who you run with and I’ll tell you who you are.” The point is that your peer group has a powerful impact on the choices you make, your values and your opinions. Parents should be willing to talk to their children about such things as peer pressure and help them to learn the skills they need to resist negative influences.

Setting clear guidelines and appropriate consequences will reinforce what parents teach their children. Negative consequences for breaking the rules is important, but so is positive reinforcement for making good decisions. Along with these consequences, children will benefit from learning skills and acquiring the knowledge needed to help them make good decisions for themselves. The parents’ goal is to raise children who will make good decisions for themselves without the need for consequences. In other words, parents should be able to trust that their children will make good decisions on their own.

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Alcohol abuse is a serious problem with very serious consequences. Parents have the responsibility to help their children manage the prevalence of alcohol in our society. Parents must clearly communicate to their children that they are on their child’s side in this matter.