Cortisol May Help with Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery

New studies suggest that cortisol, a stress hormone produced in the adrenal glands, may play an important role in recovery from addiction to opiates.

Released by the body in times of danger, cortisol helps us make snap decisions that keep us safe -- a reaction commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. It may also serve as a stress buffer, thus minimizing cravings and reducing the risk of relapse.

This is important news for drug and alcohol treatment centers and rehabs. Addiction to opioid drugs, including heroin, morphine and medications such as hydrocodone, codeine and oxycodone, affect 13 to 22 million people around the world. With addiction comes an increased risk of infection, violent crime and death due to overdose.

Cortisol in various forms is used to treat a number of disorders, including arthritis, blood system disorders, certain eye and skin conditions, allergic reactions, respiratory problems and some types of cancer.

Cortisol, Memory and Cravings

Researchers think cortisol is associated with cravings because addiction and memory share common brain circuits and cortisol affects retrieval of memories. When cortisol interferes with the process, opiate cravings aren’t stored in the mind’s memory banks.

Additionally, it appears that cortisol may affect the release of dopamine, which washes over the brain in large quantities during use of drugs and alcohol. If cortisol limits release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter sometimes known as the “happy hormone,” it may also decrease the euphoria produced by opiates.

Although it has yet to be proven, cortisol may also help individuals with anxiety disorders by interfering with the brain’s ability to store frightening or painful memories.

Cortisol: The Study

The research study, performed at University of Basel in Switzerland, involved 29 heroin addicts who were given either cortisol or a placebo 105 minutes before receiving a dose of heroin.

Compared with the placebo, cortisol reduced cravings by 25 percent.

Although the findings show great promise for drug and alcohol addiction treatment and rehab in the future, more extensive studies are needed to determine if cortisol will mitigate cravings for individuals who use large amounts of heroin. The study involved relatively low amounts of the drug.

More research is also needed to understand if cortisol will help people stay clean longer, or if it may help with gambling addiction or cravings for other drugs, including nicotine. Plans for further studies are currently in place.

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