‘Hunger Hormone’ Stimulates Cravings for Alcohol

'Hunger Hormone' Stimulates Cravings for Alcohol

Increased levels of a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates hunger, known as ghrelin, make it more likely that a person addicted to alcohol will experience strong alcohol cravings, a new study finds.

We know that overconsumption of calories in general or of specific types of food can harm the body’s overall function rather than provide needed support. Two naturally occurring hormones help a person consume enough food to maintain health and well-being without veering into excessive eating. The first hormone, called ghrelin, is essentially the “on” switch for calorie consumption; when present in sufficient amounts, it makes you hungry. The second hormone, leptin, is the body’s “off” switch for calorie consumption; when present in sufficient amounts, it helps signal a temporary end to hunger. Ghrelin comes primarily from the stomach, while leptin comes from your body’s fat cells.

Alcohol Cravings

Any person who regularly consumes alcohol in large amounts can start to undergo changes in normal brain chemistry that ultimately result in the onset of a physical dependence on drinking. Alcohol dependence is the functional equivalent of alcoholism, one of the two overlapping conditions that experts in the field refer to collectively as alcohol use disorder. A physically dependent drinker is highly motivated to consume enough alcohol to meet the brain’s minimum requirements and avoid the onset of unpleasant, potentially dangerous alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol cravings are strong drinking urges that help supply this motivation and ensure a pattern of continued, characteristically excessive alcohol intake. Reminders of previous alcohol use, known as alcohol cues, often accompany and intensify alcohol cravings.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added alcohol cravings to the official list of 11 possible symptoms of alcohol use disorder. A person diagnosed with the disorder must have at least two of these 11 symptoms. Not all affected individuals experience alcohol cravings; however, the presence of such cravings can push a drinker from an at-risk pattern of alcohol consumption to a diagnosably harmful pattern of consumption.

Does Ghrelin Support Cravings?

In the study published in November 2014 in Biological Psychiatry, researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and several universities and private institutions used a project involving 103 people affected by alcoholism to help determine the role that appetite-stimulating ghrelin can play in intensifying alcohol cravings. None of the study participants was seeking treatment for their alcohol use at the time of their enrollment. Forty-five of the participants received relatively small or relatively large intravenous doses of ghrelin, while the remainder received an intravenous placebo substance. The researchers used a screening tool called the Alcohol Visual Analogue Scale to measure the alcohol craving levels in both groups of study participants.

After comparing the outcomes for the two groups, the researchers concluded that increased levels of ghrelin do lead to an increase in alcohol craving levels in people affected by alcoholism. They also concluded that the level of alcohol craving rises as the body’s levels of the hormone rise. Interestingly, the amount of ghrelin supplied to the study participants did not produce an increase in the urge to eat.

The study’s authors believe that they are the first group of researchers to examine ghrelin’s connection to alcoholism.  They also believe that their work demonstrates the role that the hormone may play in maintaining an abusive pattern of alcohol consumption in people affected by alcoholism. In addition, the authors believe that knowledge of ghrelin’s possible role may ultimately lead to the development of new medications that basically “turn off” alcohol cravings and thereby help people recovering from alcohol use disorder stop drinking and establish ongoing sobriety.

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