How Alcohol Can Impair the Body's Hormone System

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The body's hormones work together in a finely coordinated and complex system to keep us healthy and functioning. Alcohol can interfere with the operation of the hormone system and cause serious medical consequences.

Hormones act as chemical messengers to control and coordinate the functions of the body's tissues and organs. When the hormone system is working properly, the exact amount of hormone is released at exactly the right time and the tissues of the body accurately respond to those messages.

Drinking alcohol can impair the functions of the glands that release hormones and the functions of the tissues targeted by the hormones, which can result in medical problems.

When alcohol impairs the hormone system's ability to work properly, it can disrupt these major bodily functions:

  • Production, utilization, and storage of energy
  • Reproduction
  • Maintenance of blood pressure and bone mass
  • Growth and development

By interfering with the hormone system, alcohol can affect blood sugar levels, impair reproductive functions, interfere with calcium metabolism and bone structure, affect hunger and digestion, and increase the risk of osteoporosis.

How Alcohol Impairs Regulation of Blood Sugar Levels

The main energy source for all body tissues is sugar glucose. The body gets glucose from food, from synthesis in the body, and from the breakdown of glycogen which is stored in the liver.

The body's blood sugar levels are controlled by insulin and glucagon, hormones secreted by the pancreas. They work together to maintain a constant concentration of glucose in the blood. Insulin lowers glucose levels, while glucagon raises it.

Other hormones from the adrenal glands and the pituitary gland back up the function of glucagon to make sure the body's glucose level doesn't fall low enough to cause fainting, passing out or even brain damage.

Alcohol Interferes With Glucose Levels

Alcohol interferes with all three sources of glucose and interferes with the hormones that regulate glucose levels. There are many ways alcohol consumption affects the body's glucose levels:

  • Limits intake of glucose by not eating properly when drinking.
  • Inhibits glucose production while alcohol is being metabolized.
  • Augments insulin secretion, causing temporary hypoglycemia.
  • Impairs the hormonal response to hypoglycemia with heavy consumption.

How Chronic Heavy Drinking Increases Glucose

Chronic heavy drinking, on the other hand, can increase the body's glucose levels. Alcohol can:

  • Reduce the body's responsiveness to insulin.
  • Cause glucose intolerance.
  • Increase secretion of glucagon and other hormones that raise glucose levels.
  • Alter the effectiveness of medications for diabetes.
  • Cause both hypoglycemic and hyperglycemic episodes in alcoholics.
  • Lower survival rates for alcoholics with diabetes.

A review published in 2015 reported that chronic heavy drinking can cause glucose intolerance in healthy people.

How Alcohol Impairs Reproductive Functions

There are many hormones in the body that regulate the reproductive system. The two main hormones—androgens (e.g. testosterone) and estrogens (e.g. estradiol)—are synthesized in the testes and ovaries.

These hormones affect various reproductive functions. In men, they are responsible for:

  • Sexual maturation
  • Sperm development and therefore fertility
  • Aspects of male sexual behavior

In women, hormones perform many functions:

  • Development of secondary sexual characteristics
  • Breast development
  • Distribution of body hair
  • Regulate the menstrual cycle
  • Help maintain pregnancy

Chronic drinking can interfere with all of these functions. Alcohol can impair the adequate functioning of the testes and ovaries and result in hormonal deficiencies, sexual dysfunction, and infertility.

Some of the problems that alcohol consumption can cause by interfering with the male hormonal system include:

  • Reduced testosterone levels
  • Male breast enlargement
  • Altered normal sperm structure
  • Impaired sexual and reproductive functions

In premenopausal women, chronic heavy drinking contributes to many reproductive disorders, including:

  • Cessation of menstruation
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Menstrual cycles without ovulation
  • Early menopause
  • Risk of spontaneous abortions

Although most of the above reproductive problems were found in women who were alcoholics, some were also found in women considered social drinkers.

How Alcohol Impairs Calcium Metabolism and Bone Structure

Hormones play an important role in maintaining calcium levels in the body, which is necessary not only for strong bones and teeth but also for communication between and within cells of the body.

Several hormones—parathyroid hormone (PTH), vitamin D-derived hormones, and calcitonin—work to regulate calcium absorption, excretion, and distribution between bones and body fluids.

Acute alcohol consumption can interfere with these hormones and therefore calcium and bone metabolism in several ways:

  • Cause PTH deficiency and increase calcium excretion
  • Disturb vitamin D metabolism
  • Limit adequate absorption of dietary calcium
  • Inhibit activity of bone-forming cells
  • Adversely affect bone metabolism via nutritional deficiencies
  • Alter reproductive hormones, affecting bone metabolism

All of these can cause calcium deficiency which can lead to bone diseases, such as osteoporosis, a loss of bone mass and therefore an increased risk of fractures.

This is a serious health threat for alcoholics due to the greater risks of falls and therefore fractured or broken bones. The good news is studies have found that alcohol's effect on bone metabolism and bone-forming cells are at least partially reversible when alcoholics stop drinking.

Alcohol Increases Cortisol Levels

Researchers have found that alcohol consumption also increases the body's production of cortisol, not only while the person is drinking, but also later when the drinker is withdrawing from the effects of intoxication.

In the short-term, cortisol can increase blood pressure, focus alertness and attention, but in the longer term can adversely impact body functions such as bone growth, digestion, reproduction, and wound repair.

Hormones May Influence Alcohol-Seeking Behavior

Research with laboratory animals has revealed that alcohol can affect hormonal pathways that can influence alcohol-seeking behavior. Scientists believe that alcohol-seeking behavior is regulated in part by the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis.

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