Friday, January 16, 2015

Beyond the Brain - Part 2

by Courtney Harden, FNP

Last week, we dove into how opiate and alcohol dependency can affect your gastrointestinal system. In keeping with the theme, today, we will look at the effect of drug and alcohol abuse on your endocrine system which regulates hormones.

Hormones are the master communicators in our bodies - they send messages between organs   and tissues - and are responsible for just about every bodily function you can think of, i.e. sleep, digestion, behavior, mood, reproduction. That being said, it is not a surprise when before and after detox, our patients report fatigue, irritability, mood swings, low sex drive, and, of course, weight loss or weight gain.

When we think of hormones, estrogen and testosterone jump to the front of our minds. These are just the tip of the hormonal iceberg. Adrenaline hormones - epinephrine and norepinephrine are stress hormones that signal our body to go into "fight or flight" mode. These are cranked up before detox as patients experience the highs and lows of drugs and alcohol. 

The constant fluctuation of hormones and neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, affects the way our body produces all other hormones, including the big two mentioned above, estrogen and testosterone, as well as thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). As a result, we commonly see fatigue, women with irregular or no periods and men with low sex drive or even the development of male breast tissue which is called gynecomastia. 

During detox, adrenaline production spikes and we often use medications like Clonidine, essentially an adrenaline-blocker, to keep patients relaxed. In early recovery, keeping your stress level low is imperative to keep your adrenaline levels stable. Yoga, meditation, sleeping 8 hours nightly, taking a walk or a bath at the end of a work day, watching a funny movie are all great ways to recharge your adrenal batteries. I highly recommend "8 Minute Meditation" by Victor Davich as a way to jump start a new meditative practice. For additional reading, I recommend "The Mood Cure" by Julia Ross or "Mindfulness for Beginners" by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Clean eating, drinking plenty of water and exercise should be high on your priority list to repair your gut, but it will also help to restore hormonal homeostasis. Junk food produces very similar affects in the brain that drugs and alcohol do. Things that are high in sugar and carbohydrates will artificially excite dopamine and adrenaline, followed by an inevitable crash. Sticking to a balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise will help your weight get back to its natural state. The return of normal menstrual cycles, improvement in energy level, and increased sex drive are all good indicators of hormonal balance.

Persistent symptoms beyond the first two to three months in recovery may warrant a visit to your primary care provider for additional tests. Visit for more information about the endocrine system.

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