Nearly one in 10 Canadian adults has a drinking problem. That’s a terrifying number. And countless others suffer stress as a result of the alcoholic’s addictive behavior.
“This time I really mean it. I’m never going to drink again.” How many times has someone you love made that promise? Help them make it real by considering the nutritional factor in treating alcoholism.
It’s commonly believed that alcoholics lack either willpower or strength of character, or have other psychological problems which prevent them from giving up alcohol. But malnutrition is often the result of long-term consumption of alcohol. The consequent nutritional deficiencies severely aggravate and perpetuate the alcohol cravings that are directly responsible for irrational, aggressive and often violent behavior.
Research has shown that deficiencies in important nutrients, such as B-complex vitamins and zinc, lead to increased alcohol cravings and consumption. It has also been demonstrated that an overall improvement in nutritional status through diet and supplements can both reduce alcohol cravings and lessen withdrawal symptoms.
But nutritional factors in treating alcoholism are considered secondary and complementary at best. No wonder so few individuals have long-term success in kicking alcohol addiction! Nutritional deficiencies are not eliminated through psychological counselling alone!
Chronic alcohol abuse is both cause and symptom of nutritional deficiencies. It interferes with the absorption of nutrients and inhibits access to vital amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and hormones. This can catapult the body into a state of malnutrition. By continually triggering insulin reactions from the pancreas, heavy alcohol use contributes to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which in turn increases cravings. The pancreas becomes exhausted and unable to produce sufficient digestive enzymes, thus impairing digestion and assimilation.
There is even a nutritional and biochemical connection between chronic alcohol abuse and depression, which so often accompanies this illness. Caught in a roller-coaster ride of biochemical ups and downs, the alcohol addict is unable to gain control over physical cravings, leading to ever deeper feelings of despair, guilt and hopelessness.
A sound nutrition plan which supplies all necessary nutrients in optimal amounts can help to bring the body back into balance, detoxify the system and prevent a recurrence of cravings. Here are some of the most important nutrients to consider:
Heavy alcohol consumption depletes B vitamins, which are essential for proper brain and nervous system function. Depression, confusion, memory loss and insomnia are some of the symptoms of vitamin B deficiency which are also associated with alcoholism.
Supplementation with B-complex reduces cravings and restores the health of the nervous system. Choline and inositol, which are co-factors in the function of B vitamins, are also important for the repair of alcohol-induced liver damage.
Therapeutic dosage: 150 to 200 mg/day.
Progressive alcoholic liver disease can result in failure of the liver to store vitamin A. Supplementation is therefore important to prevent deficiencies of this important nutrient. It also helps to alleviate potential liver dysfunction.
Therapeutic dosage: 10,000 to 25,000 IU/day.
Vitamin C is a powerful detoxifier. Supplementation with this vitamin has been shown to reverse addictive states and to reduce the effects of alcohol toxicity. For best results, use a buffered (with calcium) form of vitamin C, which is less acidic in the body. The addition of bioflavonoids increases the effectiveness and bioavailability of vitamin C.
Therapeutic dosage: 3,000 to 6,000 mg/day.
Heavy ingestion of alcohol severely increases calcium and magnesium output, producing symptoms such as muscle tremors and cramps, changes in heart rhythm, irritability, insomnia, slow reflexes and emotional instability. Chronic alcohol use can lead to reduced bone mass and osteomalacia, a softening of the bones in adults. Impaired liver function in alcoholics results in an inability of the liver to hydroxylate vitamin D, which further aggravates a calcium deficiency. Convulsive seizures and delirium result from seriously depleted magnesium levels.
When choosing a supplement, look for a readily assimilable form of calcium, such as hydroxyapatite, citrate or phosphate, in a 2:1 ratio with magnesium.
Therapeutic dosage: 1,000 to 1,400 mg (calcium)/day.
Zinc is a co-factor for alcohol dehydrogenase, which works in the liver to detoxify alcohol. Chronic alcohol consumption is associated with zinc deficiency. Supplementation with this important mineral can lessen withdrawal symptoms and help to prevent seizures and brain dysfunction. Normalizing zinc levels also reduces alcohol cravings.
Therapeutic dosage: 50 to 80 mg/day.
Essential Fatty Acids
Excessive alcohol intake severely disrupts essential fatty acid metabolism by blocking the conversion of linoleic acid to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), required for the formation of prostaglandin E1, an important factor in brain metabolism. An alcohol-induced deficiency can be prevented or eliminated by supplementing the diet with evening primrose oil, one of only a few known sources of dietary GLA. Supplementation helps to diminish alcohol withdrawal symptoms and to improve liver function.
Therapeutic dosage: 3,000 mg/day.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein which the body extracts from food sources. Amino acids are also required for the production of specific brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) which determine moods and emotions. In alcoholics, amino acid metabolism is often impaired and conversion to neurotransmitters is disrupted, resulting in mental confusion, aggressive behavior and depression. Supplementation has been shown to reduce alcohol intoxication, balance moods and diminish the desire for alcohol. Of special importance are L-cysteine and L-glycine.
Therapeutic dosage: 1,500 mg/day.
Other nutrients which play a role in controlling metabolic damage from excessive alcohol consumption include vitamin E, chromium, iron, phosphorus and selenium. Heavy alcohol use can also contribute to food allergies, thyroid disorders and candida in the intestinal tract. As well, each of these conditions can aggravate cravings for alcohol. A naturopathic physician or other qualified health professional can help to determine the best nutrition plan and supplementation program so that specific deficiencies are properly addressed.
The recovering alcoholic also needs exercise, fresh air, relaxation and social support from family and friends. But most of all, he or she will benefit from recognizing that there is an undeniable connection between nutritional imbalances and substance abuse. This knowledge, when acted upon, is the first step in healing addiction.