Research Finds that the Stress Hormone May Reduce Heroin Cravings

Posted by | Alcohol and Drug Use, Relapse Prevention, Treatment Programs | August 13, 2015

Stress is an experience people have when they have expectations of themselves or others. There are either demands within themselves or placed upon them that might be challenging to meet. Of course, stress also arises in life-threatening situations, such as in a trauma. Sadly, today, there are more and more people who are experiencing the negative health effects of stress. However, one researcher has found that the stress hormone, cortisol, can actually help with recovering from a heroin addiction.

During stress, the body produces increased blood sugar levels to provide extra energy for the muscles. There is also an increase in cortisol that counters pain and inflammation in the body, if there is any. The extra cortisol also helps ignoring physical pain in the body in order to focus on the tasks at hand. Blood pressure also rises. Blood is pumped away from the extremities of the body towards major muscles in order to provide them with extra strength. If stress is experienced on a regular basis, the long-term effect is an impaired production of cortisol in everyday life. Men and women who experienced high levels of stress regularly as children might be hyper sensitive later in life and resort to using healthy coping mechanisms to be able to survive emotionally, such as turning to drugs or alcohol.

However, interestingly, cortisol has been found to bring some benefits. Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland conducted a study on heroin addiction and demonstrated that cortisol can reduce addictive cravings. The results of the study were published in the medical journal Translation Psychiatry.

In the past, researchers discovered that cortisol helped to diminish the ability to retrieve certain memories, which can be beneficial for someone who might have had a traumatic childhood and who may be turning to drugs as a means to cope with challenging emotions, thoughts, and trauma-related flashbacks. Essentially, when someone ingests the stress hormone, it affects the brain’s ability to remember. Researchers have also hypothesized that cortisol can have an inhibitory effect on addiction-related and perhaps trauma-related memory, and thus prevent cravings for an addictive substance, such as heroin.

In the study, 29 people who were in treatment for heroin addiction were given a cortisol tablet or placebo. The study found that the cortisol helped to decrease cravings for heroin by 25% compared to the placebo. However, the decrease in cravings revealed a significant difference only in patients who were dependent upon a relatively low dose of heroin and not in those who were highly dependent.

Nonetheless, the findings are exciting. Reducing one’s ability to remember stressful and traumatic events can in turn help reduce cravings. Because of this, the study might lead to using cortisol regularly as part of treatment for heroin addiction. With such drugs as highly addictive as heroin with which withdrawals are intense, this method of treatment might become a widely used way of helping recovering addicts successfully stay sober.

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