How Do Drugs & Alcohol Affect the Endocrine System?

2 min read · 4 sections

What is the Endocrine System?

Female and Male endocrine system. Human comparative anatomy. Human silhouette with detailed internal organs. Vector illustration isolated on a dark grey background.

The endocrine system consists of several glands. These create chemicals and disseminate them throughout the body. The endocrine system is in charge of creating and distributing up to 20 hormones all over the body.

Some components of the endocrine system include the following:

  • Pituitary gland: This creates hormones that can control other glands, and it is important during puberty.
  • Hypothalamus: This group of cells is located in the central part of the brain that connects with the body’s nervous system.
  • Adrenal glands: These are the source of adrenaline, which is produced when there is stress in the body. It is also a source of corticosteroids, which regulate responses in the body during stress, metabolism, and sexual function and development.
  • Reproductive glands: These are testes for men and the ovaries for women. This is where testosterone and estrogen are secreted, respectively.
  • Thyroid: Located in the lower part of the neck, this gland creates and distributes hormones that control the way metabolism works. These hormones tell the body how quickly or slowly they should burn energy.
  • Parathyroid: This is a collection of four small glands connected to the thyroid. They release a hormone that regulates levels of calcium in the blood.
  • Pancreas: This glandular organ makes sure sugar and energy levels in the body are regular. It produces insulin and glucagon.
  • Pineal: This gland produces melatonin, which regulates sleep patterns.

How Drug Abuse Can Affect the Endocrine System

Some drugs may have an effect on the endocrine system. Steroids and performance-enhancing drugs are known for causing both reversible and irreversible damage. Some of this damage includes beard growth and male pattern baldness in women, as well as shrinking of testicles and infertility in men.

Hormones need to be released into the body in a timely manner, but some substances disrupt this process. Alcohol is a drug that can interrupt the endocrine system as it tries to do its job. For example, it causes:

  • A rise in blood sugar: This causes the pancreas to release more blood sugar, and it could even cause hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, in some people. This can cause problems for diabetics and others who use medication to decrease their blood sugar levels.
  • Disruption in the absorption of nutrients: Excess alcohol consumption may interrupt how the body absorbs calcium and increase the risk of osteoporosis in some people.
  • Loss of testosterone: This is a risk for men and boys who drink alcohol to excess.

Opioids are known to affect a variety of the body’s endocrine functions and cause problems, such as:

  • Loss of libido
  • Risk of osteoporosis
  • Irregularities in menstrual cycles

Marijuana use can also impact the endocrine system. According to a study published by the American Council of Science and Health, the use of marijuana in men can:

  • Decrease libido by limiting testosterone production
  • Increase adrenaline levels
  • Have effects on the quality of sperm men produce

The nicotine found in tobacco increases cortisol in the body, according to Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism. A 2014 study published on the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation found that cocaine can affect the adrenal glands, hypothalamus, and pituitary glands.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects on the Endocrine System

woman sits inside with alcohol and cigarettes

Some short-term effects of drug and alcohol abuse on the endocrine system may include an increase in urination and sexual activity. In addition, a study published in Nature shows that people who use cocaine may miss social cues and become unable to recognize angry or fearful facial expressions compared to nonusers. The study also supported findings that cocaine users might be producing less testosterone during use.

Research published in the Zahedan Journal of Research in Medical Sciences shows that methamphetamine intake increases the production of testosterone in subjects. Though the test was conducted on rats, the hypothesis of this paper is that increased exposure to methamphetamine might decrease fertility.

Many long-term effects of drug on the endocrine system have to do with changes in fertility. A 2018 study published in Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology supported a 1996 hypothesis that certain drugs can have a negative impact on male fertility. This includes DNA damage to sperm in men who are simply exposed to tobacco smoke and an overall decrease in testosterone levels.

Alcohol has also been found to decrease the quality of semen in men, and the use of cocaine has been linked to a decline in male fertility. It has also been linked to an increase in risky behavior that could increase the user’s chances to develop sexually transmitted infections or cause them to use tobacco.

In addition, cocaine abuse can lead to impotence.

Can the Endocrine System Repair Itself?

At the moment, more research is needed to determine whether or not the endocrine system can repair itself after prolonged drug or alcohol abuse. Current research shows that the brain can repair itself after quitting alcohol, and the liver can begin healing within a few days of ceasing alcohol use. This shows that the body is capable of healing to some degree if all substance use is stopped.

People should consult with an endocrinologist in order to find the best treatment for health issues related to drug abuse. If your endocrine system is damaged because of drug or alcohol abuse, find a rehab center that has a doctor on staff. Comprehensive treatment that addresses all related medical issues is needed to ensure complete recovery on all fronts.

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