Alcohol, stress, a family history of alcoholism, and the β-endorphin system

  • An individual's ability to cope with stressful situations may indicate their vulnerability to alcoholism.
  • Both alcohol and stress are known to have an impact on the β-endorphin system.
  • New findings show that dysfunction in the activity of the pituitary β-endorphin system predates the development of alcoholism among individuals with a family history of alcoholism; dysfunction develops following alcohol dependence among individuals without a family history of alcoholism.

A number of sociocultural studies indicate that stress may increase the risk of alcoholism. In other words, an individual's ability to cope with stressful situations may indicate his or her vulnerability to alcoholism. A study in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has found that individuals with a family history of alcoholism exhibit a dysfunction in their stress response prior to the development of alcohol dependence, while individuals without a family history of alcoholism exhibit a dysfunction in their stress response following the development of alcohol dependence.

"It is not well understood how stress increases alcohol consumption, or what the relationship is between stress and alcohol," said Christina Gianoulakis, a professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University and corresponding author for the study. "One of the questions we wanted to ask is whether alcohol induces a number of biological responses that help the individual cope with a stressful situation. If that is the case, then the alteration of the activity of biological systems by both alcohol and stress may help us to understand the relationship between stress and alcohol. One such biological system is that of brain and pituitary β-endorphin."

Both Gianoulakis and Maurice Dongier, professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, agree that the effect of stress on β-endor


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