How Alcoholism Leads To Muscle Weakness

By John Lavitt 05/28/14

A new study shows for the first time why alcoholics suffer muscle deterioration.

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According to a study led by Dr. Gyorgy Hajnoczky, M.D., Ph.D., muscle weakness from long-term alcoholism may stem from an inability of mitochondria to self-repair. Mitochondria are literally the powerhouses of cells. Well-known as a common symptom of long-time alcoholism, the exact reasons behind the muscle weakness experienced by alcoholics, although speculated on often, have never been medically understood until now.

Together with Veronica Eisner, a postdoctoral fellow at Thomas Jefferson University, Dr. Hajnoczky guided a research team that discovered a common link between alcoholics and patients with mitochondrial disease. Both groups have mitochondria that are unable to self-repair, fostering long-term muscular damage. Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which funded the study, explained that “[t]he finding gives insight into why chronic heavy drinking often saps muscle strength and it could also lead to new targets for medication development.”

Published online in The Journal of Cell Biology, the article highlighted how the inability of the body to self-repair leads to a heightened sense of weakness. The organelles that produce the energy needed for every cell in the body, mitochondria repair themselves by fusing with other mitochondria and exchanging their contents. Damaged parts are removed for recycling, then replaced with functioning proteins from healthy mitochondria.

Alcoholism reduces the ability of the mitochondria to fuse together and exchange such contents, creating a weakened physical condition over time." “[A]lcohol can have a specific effect on this one gene involved in mitochondrial fusion," said Dr. Hajnoczky, who serves as the Director of Jefferson’s MitoCare Center and is a professor in the department of Pathology, Anatomy and Cell Biology.

The researchers showed that the mitochondrial abundance went down as much as 50 percent in rats on a regular alcohol diet. Such a loss of mitochondria and the subsequent lack of mitochondrial fusion led directly to increased muscle fatigue. Alcoholics are weakened not only by the drinking, but directly by the sustained affects of alcohol on the body’s natural system of self-repair.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.