Researchers have found that a stomach hormone known as ghrelin stimulates strong alcohol cravings in people who are alcohol-dependent heavy drinkers.
Investigators at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) conducted a study of 45 alcohol-dependent men and women who were regular heavy drinkers. The study subjects were randomly placed into three groups, and each group received a different dosage of ghrelin, one of which was a placebo.
Alcohol Is a High-Calorie Food, Not Just a Drug
While we tend to think about the psychoactive (mind-altering) properties of alcohol, alcohol is also a beverage that typically contains a significant quantity of calories. The NIAAA researchers wanted to see if ghrelin increased alcohol cravings, while also determining whether ghrelin did not simply stimulate appetite and cause cravings for any caloric substance.
The 45 subjects were administered the differing doses of the hormone intravenously, and given tasks to perform during which they were stimulated by alcohol cues and neutral cues. During these tasks, the subjects were repeatedly assessed for a desire to consume juice or a desire to consume alcohol.
The results revealed that ghrelin had a significant effect on alcohol cravings but did not impact the subjects’ desire to drink juice. This told the researchers that although ghrelin plays a role in stimulating appetite when it is released by the stomach, it appears to have a special role in alcohol craving and may influence alcohol seeking behaviors in people with alcohol dependence.
Targeting Signals That Trigger Alcohol Cravings
Currently, there are relatively few medications that can be used to aid successful alcoholism recovery. Even fewer of these target the actual cravings for alcoholism that people have to fight when they stop drinking. There are drugs like naltrexone that block the positive feelings associated with alcohol, and drugs like disulfiram that discourage people from drinking by making them feel ill if they do consume alcohol.
However, these drugs cannot lessen the cravings that make it so difficult for people with alcoholism to remain in recovery. Understanding and targeting the signaling processes that transmit alcohol cravings to the brain could allow patients to target the driving force behind their heavy drinking and alcohol seeking behaviors.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorders Needs Continued Improvement
While we know far more about alcoholism and other substance use disorders than we did not that long ago, further research and the development of new treatments is critical. Alcohol remains the most commonly abused addictive substance in the U.S., and alcohol use disorders affect approximately 17.6 million people nationwide. Furthermore, excessive drinking results in approximately 88,000 alcohol-related deaths each year and shortens the lives of those who died from excessive alcohol use by an average of 30 years.
Despite the dangers and the widespread nature of alcohol abuse and alcoholism, it remains very difficult for many people to both start and continue the process of sober recovery. Part of the problem is the stigma that continues to surround the disease of alcoholism, discouraging many people from disclosing their struggles and seeking treatment. However, the difficulties are not over once a person enters treatment for alcoholism, and the process of getting sober and staying sober can be very challenging. Developing medications to target alcohol cravings could be a great tool for physicians and patients to use against this difficult disease.
The results of the NIAAA study appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry.