Many of us have heard that alcohol can affect hormones. But, aside from reproductive health, what does this really mean? Could excessive drinking be throwing one of your body’s most crucial systems out of whack? Can alcohol cause hormonal imbalance?
Hormones—produced and released by the endocrine system—have an impact on almost all aspects of our health and lives. Hormones regulate our ability to manage stress, are responsible for our energy levels, and ensure that we can grow and reproduce. Hormonal imbalances can wreak havoc on our health, and have a significant impact on our overall well-being and quality of life.
There are many ways our hormones can be thrown off, but heavy alcohol use is a significant factor. Fortunately, with treatment and time, our bodies can often rebalance themselves.
Below, we’ll discuss some of the main ways alcohol can affect people’s hormones, and what you can do about it.
Does Drinking Affect Hormones?
Alcohol is noteworthy for its ability to enter and affect nearly every system in the human body. The endocrine system, and our hormones, are no exception.
While small amounts of alcohol may not have any serious impact, chronic alcohol abuse can cause significant changes to a person’s hormones. In extreme cases, hormonal imbalances due to alcohol addiction can lead to a number of serious illnesses, and cause reproductive and mental health problems.
Hormones affected by alcohol include:
- “Feel good” hormones, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin
- Stress hormones, such as cortisol
- Hormones linked to bone growth
- Hormones that regulate blood sugar
- Sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone
“Feel Good” VS “Feel Bad” Hormones
What hormones are released when drinking alcohol? There are many, but a main reason people enjoy alcohol is that it affects the release of “feel good” hormones—including dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. In excess, however, drinking can actually have the opposite effect on a person’s hormone system.
Chronic alcohol abuse and binge drinking can alter a person’s natural production of these “feel good” hormones. Levels of cortisol, one of the body’s key stress hormones, also rise with increased alcohol consumption, and with alcohol withdrawal. This can contribute to a feedback loop, in which a person seeks more alcohol to counteract these negative effects. For some, this can lead to alcohol dependency.
Some evidence suggests that alcohol has a greater impact on dopamine in men than women, possibly contributing to higher rates of alcoholism among men.
Increased production of the stress hormone cortisol due to heavy alcohol use can also impact bone health and blood sugar. Cortisol can stunt bone growth, and lead to bone deterioration. Cortisol also has an impact on insulin production and glucose levels. The relationship of alcohol and stress hormones can therefore have a significant impact on your overall well-being.
Alcohol and Bone Health
Heavy alcohol use can interfere with the natural production of certain hormones essential to bone health. This can contribute to weaker bones, as well as chronic diseases like osteoporosis.
Several hormones that influence calcium regulation, including parathyroid hormone (PTH), calcitonin, and Vitamin D metabolites, are negatively impacted by excessive drinking. Proper calcium absorption is essential to your body’s maintenance of your skeletal structure.
Since intoxication puts people at a higher risk of accidents and falls, this is especially concerning—particularly for older drinkers. To make matters worse, calcium and Vitamin D deficiencies linked to alcohol abuse may slow the healing and recovery process following an accident.
However, some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption increases the production of estrogen, which can actually improve bone density. This is particularly true in postmenopausal women, who are at an increased risk for osteoporosis, due in part to lower estrogen levels.
Alcohol and Blood Sugar
Alcohol use also interferes with hormones that regulate blood sugar. These include both glucagon and insulin.
Blood sugar distributes the energy from the food you eat throughout your body. Glucagon prevents blood sugar levels from dropping, while insulin prevents them from becoming elevated. Blood sugar imbalances related to alcohol use include:
- Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. This may occur immediately after a period of heavy drinking due to a lack of nutritional intake, and also because alcohol processing impacts glucose production. Signs include shakiness, hunger, and anxiety.
- Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. This can result from long-term heavy drinking, which can increase insulin resistance, leaving more glucose in the bloodstream. Signs include thirst, fatigue, and headaches.
Heavy alcohol use is especially dangerous for people with diabetes, and can reduce the efficacy of diabetes medication. However, a moderate amount of alcohol may be safe for those who have their diabetes under control.
Read More: Alcohol and Diabetes
Alcohol and Sex Hormones
Heavy alcohol use can have a significant impact on sex hormones, including both estrogen and testosterone. This can affect reproductive health and sexual performance in both men and women.
For starters, alcohol negatively impacts fertility in both sexes, making it more difficult to conceive. Alcohol also interferes with oxytocin, a hormone linked to feelings of love, closeness, and bonding. Low oxytocin can lead to difficulties in maintaining close relationships, and impact social skills.
Alcohol abuse can also have specific impacts on both men and women:
Impacts on Men
- Reduced testosterone levels
- Higher estrogen levels, which can alter secondary sex characteristics
- Decreased sexual arousal and sexual dysfunction
- Altered sperm structure, function, and development
Impacts in Women
- Increase in estrogen and related hormones
- Increase in testosterone and androgen, also leading to altered secondary sex characteristics
- Increased sexual arousal, but also increased sexual dysfunction
- Menstrual cycle disruptions in premenopausal women
- Increased risk of endometriosis
- Increased breast cancer risk
- May worsen symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, insomnia, and night sweats
On the other hand, because alcohol increases the production of estrogen, moderate drinking might actually help with some health issues faced by women post-menopause.
Read More: How Alcohol Affects Women’s Hormones
How Long Does It Take For Hormones To Balance After Quitting Alcohol?
The good news is that, in many cases, the impacts of heavy drinking on hormones can be reversed.
The time it takes to correct hormonal imbalances varies. But in some studies, improvements were seen within only a few weeks of starting treatment. In fact, one study showed improvement in calcium-regulation in a group of heavy drinkers after just 10 days.
Other studies show improvements in insulin production, appetite-inducing hormone levels, and thyroid activity within 12 weeks of recovery from alcohol. As for mood and stress-related hormones, the process appears to be longer—sometimes taking months to a year. This can cause difficulties for many people in recovery, and influence issues such as Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS).
No matter the effects of alcohol on your health, the sooner you get help, the sooner your system can focus on repairing and rebalancing itself. Ria Health offers support for alcohol addiction from home, through an app on your smartphone. Members get access to expert medical advice, weekly coaching meetings, anti-craving medications, digital tools, and much more.