New research out of Belgium shows bacteria found in the human gastrointestinal tract not only promotes inflammation, it can also spark dangerous alcohol cravings among problem drinkers. This is an alarming piece of information, as it seems to indicate cravings can be spurred on by our own bodies.
The Research Phase
The study, published in last month’s issue of Biological Psychiatry, was conducted at Université Catholique de Louvain. Using 63 alcohol-dependent patients and 14 healthy volunteers, scientists found that when gut-derived bacterial products cross the intestinal barrier, it resulted in inflammatory pathways being activated in blood mononuclear cells.
This inflammation severity was correlated with alcohol consumption and cravings experienced by the dependent participants, which could promote continued heavy drinking episodes within this population. The silver lining, however, is that the damaged inflammatory tissues seemed to recover as soon as the patients were detoxed.
"This establishes a new concept where events having their origin at peripheral sites in the body could modify central brain mechanisms that ultimately influence behaviour [sic] in alcohol dependence," said co-author Dr. Peter Stärkel.
“This study…also identifies new targets for developing novel treatment and management approaches for alcohol dependence. Targeting the gut-brain axis either at the level of the gut itself or at the level of effector cells such as blood mononuclear cells in order to influence behaviour [sic] could become a potential option in the care of alcohol-dependent patients.”
Looking Toward the Future
New treatments for alcohol addiction are essential, as many problem drinkers try quitting cold turkey – with very limited success.
A study released last May in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that only 10 percent of alcoholics were prescribed medication to help overcome their addiction. The findings were culled from over 120 research studies involving 23,000 patients who were in the process of being treated for alcoholism.
Naltrexone, which blocks brain receptors from receiving pleasure from certain drugs, and acamprosate, which helps regulate brain chemicals during withdrawal, showed the most promise. However, most of the study participants were never prescribed any of these medications. What’s more, many physicians are unaware these drugs are even an option for treating alcoholism.
“In the long term, most people need some kind of behavioral intervention, whether it’s group or individual therapy or mindfulness or religion, if you will,” said Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “But I think medications help you along the way.”
Learn more about alcohol detox and withdrawal.
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