Alterations in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in actively drinking alcoholics

Gary S. Wand, Adrian S. Dobs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

198 Scopus citations


The impact of chronic alcohol abuse on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis was investigated in actively drinking, nondepressed alcoholics with no evidence of liver disease. Fourteen male alcoholics and 13 matched nonalcoholics were studied. Although alcoholics and controls had similar decrements in cortisol levels after metyrapone blockade, plasma ACTH and 11-deoxycortisol levels in alcoholics were 60% (P < 0.05) and 40% (P < 0.05), respectively, of control values. To further clarify defects in the HPA axis of the alcoholic group, each subject underwent a CRH stimulation test. Compared to control subjects, alcoholics had a significantly blunted plasma ACTH response to CRH stimulation (P < 0.05). Timing of the peak plasma ACTH response was altered in alcoholics. Whereas all control subjects had a peak plasma ACTH response 30 min after CRH administration, 50% of alcoholics demonstrated a peak plasma ACTH response 60 min after CRH administration, and 50% demonstrated a peak plasma ACTH response 30 min after CRH. To determine if adrenal function was also impaired, alcoholics and controls underwent a standard (250 μg) and a submaximal (0.250 μg) Cortrosyn stimulation test. Controls demonstrated a significant cortisol response to both standard and low dose Cortrosyn. Although alcoholics had a cortisol response similar to that of controls after the standard dose of Cortrosyn, they did not have a statistically significant rise in cortisol after the submaximal dose of Cortrosyn. Twentyfour-hour urinary free cortisol levels were 2-fold higher in alcoholics compared to controls. In summary, although a subset of alcoholics demonstrated enhanced basal production of cortisol, most alcoholics had a blunted response to acute intervening stress, including CRH, low dose ACTH-(1–24), and metyrapone blockade. These data suggest that alcoholics have ethanol-induced HPA axis injury, resulting in an inappropriately reduced response to nonethanol-induced stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1290-1295
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1991

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Biochemistry
  • Endocrinology
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Biochemistry, medical


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