Alcoholic liver disease is associated with abnormalities in circulating levels of thyroid, adrenal and gonadal steroid hormones. The relative importance of ethanol consumption and severity of liver disease in the aetiology of these changes and their relationship to clinical abnormalities are unclear. We studied 31 subjects with alcohol-induced liver disease divided into three groups according to the severity of histological features: fatty change, hepatitis and cirrhosis. Circulating concentrations of thyroid, adrenal and gonadal steroid hormones, together with their major binding proteins, were measured in all subjects, and changes related to histology and tests of liver function, as well as clinical endocrine status. A reduction in circulating free tri-iodothyronine (fT3) was seen in subjects with alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis, in association with normal or reduced levels of thyrotrophin (TSH). The absence of abnormalities in subjects with fatty change despite similar ethanol intake to the other groups, and correlations between fT3 and liver function tests, suggest that changes in fT3 reflect the severity of underlying liver disease. Similarly, marked increases in circulating cortisol in the hepatitis and cirrhosis groups, and correlations between cortisol and liver function, suggest that changes largely reflect hepatic disease. The absence of clinical features of hypothyroidism or Cushing's syndrome in these groups, despite abnormalities of fT3 and cortisol, suggest an altered tissue sensitivity to hormone effects. In contrast, increases in circulating oestradiol and reductions in testosterone were found in all three groups in males. These findings suggest that both direct effects of ethanol and hepatic dysfunction determine changes in gonadal steroids in males.
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