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Some alcoholics may self-medicate with carbohydrates between drinks

  • Alcoholics have reduced levels of serotonin, a brain chemical.
  • Alcohol increases serotonin levels, as do carbohydrates.
  • Those alcoholics with high cravings for carbohydrates have a unique response to specific diets.
  • Carbohydrate craving may be an important clue in developing treatments for alcoholic populations.
Alcoholics likely have reduced levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter believed to regulate sleep, dreaming, mental illness, craving, and eating. Because alcohol increases serotonin levels, some researchers speculate that alcohol-dependent individuals are using alcohol to self-medicate their reduced serotonergic function, bringing it up to a 'normal' level. Like alcohol, carbohydrates increase serotonin levels. A study in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research may have found a sub-group of alcoholics who self-medicate low levels of serotonin with carbohydrates when they're not drinking.

"More and more, we appreciate that alcoholism and alcohol problems are complex disorders that involve physiological and psychological factors," said David J. Drobes, assistant professor of psychology at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Research is now beginning to uncover specific genetic factors and neurobiological mechanisms that contribute to alcoholism. This study helps us to understand how disturbances in one of the important neurochemical systems, the serotonergic system, may be related to increased alcohol craving among certain alcoholics."

"We know that impaired serotonin function can lead to depression, anxiety, aggression, and sleep problems," said Mona Moorhouse, clinical dietician at the Royal Ottawa Hospital and lead author of the study. "Many anti-depressants will enhance serotonin, for example. In addition, we know that serotonin affects food intake, specifically, carbohydrate intake." Moorhouse's study was prompted by observations of patients attending a local addiction trea
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Contact: Mona Moorhouse, R.D.
mmoorhou@rohcg.on.ca
613-722-6521 x6241
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
21-May-2000


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