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.

The Effect of Alcohol on Hormones

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:

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

Research with laboratory animals has also revealed that alcohol's impact on hormonal pathways can influence alcohol-seeking behavior. Scientists believe that alcohol-seeking behavior is regulated in part by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis.

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.

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 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. Alcohol is known to:

  • Augment insulin secretion, causing temporary hypoglycemia.
  • Inhibit glucose production while alcohol is being metabolized.
  • Impair the hormonal response to hypoglycemia with heavy consumption.
  • Limit intake of glucose by not eating properly when drinking.

Chronic heavy drinking can increase the body's glucose levels. A review published in 2015 reported that chronic heavy drinking can cause glucose intolerance in healthy people.It can also:

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

Reproductive Functions

There are many hormones in the body that regulate the reproductive system. The two main hormones—androgens (testosterone) and estrogens (estradiol)—are synthesized in the testes and ovaries. These hormones affect various reproductive functions. In men, they are responsible for:

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

In women, hormones perform many functions, including:

  • Breast development
  • Development of secondary sexual characteristics
  • Distribution of body hair
  • Help in maintaining pregnancy
  • Regulating the menstrual cycle

Chronic drinking can interfere with all of these reproductive 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:

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

Although many reproductive problems were found in women who were alcoholics, some problems were also found in women considered social drinkers. In premenopausal women, chronic heavy drinking contributes to reproductive disorders, including:

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

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, including:

  • Adversely affect bone metabolism via nutritional deficiencies
  • Altering reproductive hormones, affecting bone metabolism
  • Causing PTH deficiency and increase calcium excretion
  • Disturbing vitamin D metabolism
  • Inhibiting activity of bone-forming cells
  • Limiting adequate absorption of dietary calcium

All of these problems 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.

Alcohol-related bone health problems pose 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.

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.

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