Researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) are currently investigating the impact of a medication that reduces blood sugar on the motivation to use alcohol. According to Jin Yoon, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, people often don’t realize the extent of their stress or anxiety, but these can be directly related to the motivation to use alcohol because of how the brain responds to stress.

Could a Type 2 Diabetes Medication Help Curb Drinking?

The medication being studied is called pioglitazone. This medication is frequently used as a treatment for Type 2 diabetes, which works by helping to restore the body’s response to insulin. The study looked at whether or not this medication could help reduce the body’s stress reaction in certain areas of the brain.

The theory from researchers is that the use of pioglitazone may change some of the motivational factors related to stress and anxiety that create a reward response to drinking. Researchers further theorize that the medicine affects inflammatory systems that can be activated with both ongoing stress and alcohol use.

Regular alcohol consumption can change the way the body responds to stress, causing inflammation. That effect can then lead people to crave more inflammation-causing substances. The team leading the research hopes that they can correct this ongoing cycle by reducing stress levels and the body and brain’s response to stress-inducing stimuli.

In animal studies, pioglitazone has helped reduce alcohol consumption, and a separate UTHealth study found that the medication is helpful in the treatment of cocaine addiction in humans.

Houston-area participants were recruited for the study through August. Qualifying participants had to be between the ages of 21 and 40, have no medical conditions, and have a history of anxiety and alcohol use. The study will look at participants over four weeks and will include daily medication use, four weekly check-ins and two stress assessments.

Yoon, who is the principal investigator of the study, said many of the medications currently approved to treat alcohol abuse and dependence work in one of three ways:

  1. They block the reward effects of alcohol in the brain
  2. They change how alcohol is broken down when it is consumed
  3. They treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Yoon said that knowing high levels of stress and anxiety are related to alcohol use will hopefully lead the investigators to identify a medication that more directly targets the stress-related processes in the brain instead of the reward center and dopamine pathways. If so, treatment options for alcohol abuse and dependence could be more effective.

The Relationship Between Alcohol and Stress

Stress drinking is more common than many people might initially realize. Even inadvertently, people often turn to alcohol to cope with stress. When the body experiences stress, there are a complex set of changes physiologically and behaviorally that occur. The body’s goal is to maintain a sense of homeostasis as it copes with stress.

People who are experiencing stress or anxiety will often use alcohol as a way to deal with that stimuli. Unfortunately, alcohol can continue perpetuating the physiological and psychological imbalances that can trigger stress. In the short term, alcohol might provide a sense of relaxation or improved well-being. However, chronic alcohol consumption or abuse can lead to both physical and mental health issues.