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Stress and Drinking: Alcoholism Increases Cortisol Levels

We’re all probably a little more stressed than usual these days. After months of being isolated, facing financial difficulties, and worrying about the COVID-19 virus itself, we are struggling to deal with the stress in a healthy way. Stress and drinking do not mix well. It’s important to note that alcoholism increases cortisol levels, which can result in some unhealthy consequences.

Alcohol Consumption Increases During COVID-19

Researchers know that drinking alcohol is one way that people tend to cope with stressful situations. Particularly if a person has an alcohol use disorder, they are more likely to turn to alcohol in an attempt to deal with a traumatic event. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prolonged stressor, exposing people to ongoing trauma. The sale and use of alcohol during the pandemic has increased significantly, as people try to cope with pandemic-related stress factors.

The Stress Hormone

A naturally occurring stress hormone, cortisol, plays a role in the body’s stress response but too much cortisol can actually cause health problems. When the body receives signals from hormones and nerves related to a stressful situation, it causes the adrenal glands to release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This is what produces the “fight or flight” response. It can also result in an increase in heart rate and energy level.

Usually, once the perceived threat passes, the hormones return to their normal levels. However, for someone under constant stress, the response may not turn itself off. Long-term exposure to cortisol can be detrimental to the body’s processes, increasing the risk of health issues such as heart disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression.

The Alcohol-Cortisol Connection

Chronic drinking has also been linked to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Researchers have found that high concentrations of cortisol are associated with neurotoxicity, which impairs the decision-making process, memory, attention, and learning abilities.

When alcoholism increases cortisol levels, it can not only lead to the health issues associated with high levels of the hormone, but it can also blunt the natural stress responsiveness process in the body since the cortisone levels are already so high. The body’s stress biology is disrupted.

A study was conducted in 2018 to assess, in part, alcohol’s effects on cortisol responses. The researchers examined the effects of craving and cortisol responses on behavioral alcohol motivation to stress, alcohol cue and neutral-relaxing context cues, in addition to discrete alcohol cues, in demographically matched binge/heavy (BH) and moderate (MD) social drinkers. The study was conducted via a laboratory experiment during which participants were exposed to images designed to impact their stress response.

Stress and alcohol cue contexts led to significantly greater alcohol intake across both groups, which also correlated positively with their self-reported alcohol use in the previous 30 days. Stress and alcohol context and discrete alcohol cues each significantly increased alcohol craving, more so in the binge/heavy drinkers than in the moderate social drinkers, and significantly predicted greater alcohol intake in BH only.

The BH showed significantly lower cortisol responses than MD overall and blunted cortisol responses to cues predicted significantly greater alcohol intake in the stress condition for BH and in the alcohol cue condition for MD. Higher alcohol intake predicted greater cortisol response and higher craving post-alcohol. The researchers’ findings suggest a role for sensitized context-induced craving and blunted cortisol responses in increased behavioral motivation for alcohol.

Cortisol in Withdrawal

In a separate review, researchers found that the body’s stress response and cortisol levels could also be affected by withdrawal from alcohol. Transitioning suddenly from alcoholism to abstinence is a huge shock to the system and could lead to the degeneration of the brain’s neurons. Among those individuals with alcohol use disorder who displayed the most severe cognitive impairments during withdrawal were those who also had the highest cortisol levels. It is important to seek out professional treatment to detox safely from an alcohol use disorder.s


If you find that you are drinking more because of your stress, we can help. The professionals at BRC Recovery are here for you when you are ready to overcome your addiction and to experience real change for your life. We offer proven treatment options that will empower you to reclaim your life into the new year and beyond.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we offer a safe, clean environment so you can continue receiving the highest quality of care. To learn more about our services and to get the help you need, please call BRC Recovery at 1-866-291-2676 to speak to our team.