Using Nutrition to Combat Alcohol Abuse & Dependence: A Primer
~ The Vitamin Cure for Alcoholism, Abraham Hoffer, MD, PhD and Andrew W. Saul, PhD, Foreword by Donald R. Davis, PhD (2009)
Have you or your loved ones been concerned about your excessive consumption of alcohol? Perhaps you have been diagnosed with alcohol dependence (alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder/AUD), a disabling addictive disease marked by your inability to cut down or stop drinking voluntarily. Or, maybe you “just” abuse alcohol and you could change your behavior if you so chose. Combating either form of alcohol overuse (AO) is a complex, long term process requiring personal commitment, emotional and social support and, often, professional guidance. The nutrition guidelines below can give you some of the crucial support you need to get and stay sober.
Biochemistry, Causes, Symptoms & Consequences of AO
While science has not firmly established a single cause of AO; physiological, psychological, and social factors are all thought to contribute. Research indicates that genetics may be the most important factor in alcoholism. Women, however, tend to develop alcohol-related disease at a lower quantity of intake than men.
Alcoholics and non-alcoholics process alcohol differently. In the liver, alcohol is converted to highly toxic, carcinogenic acetaldehyde. Normally, the liver quickly changes it to non-toxic acetic acid, which is then excreted as carbon dioxide and water. In alcoholics, the acetaldehyde is produced at twice the normal rate, but accumulates in the liver because its conversion to acetic acid takes twice as long. This accumulation hinders the liver’s capacity to absorb and use health supporting nutrients. The acetaldehyde also damages the body by traveling to both the heart muscle (where it inhibits its ability to create proteins), and the brain (where it blocks the ability of neurotransmitters to generate normal feelings, behavior, and memory). The unused neurotransmitters then combine with the acetaldehyde to form addictive, psychoactive THIQs, substances similar to opiates that displace endorphins (hormones that activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect) and interfere with their production. As the body’s natural endorphin supply declines, greater amounts of alcohol are needed to produce THIQs to produce feelings of well-being. (According to Kenneth Blum, PhD, a retired Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Texas, restoring the body’s natural endorphins and neurotransmitters can reduce alcohol cravings and restore normal moods.)
AO can often have physical, emotional, spiritual/social, financial, occupational, and even legal consequences, and alcoholism has been found to decrease life expectancy by 10 years. While every person’s experience with AO is as unique as they are, certain symptoms are common, including alcohol and sweets cravings, depression, anxiety/fear/paranoia, insomnia, night sweats, allergies, mood instability, low energy, and poor memory/inability to concentrate/indecision.
Some of the more chronic health conditions associated with long term AO include metabolic damage to every cell, blood sugar ailments. severe depression, brain degeneration and psychiatric disorders, fatty liver degeneration/cirrhosis, heart disease, bone disease, increased incidents of oral cancers, and severe skin conditions.
Depression is both a cause and symptom of AO. Those suffering from depression often self-medicate with alcohol, a known depressant, thus creating a vicious cycle of alcohol abuse/dependence and a compounded mood disorder. Joan Mathews Larson, PhD, Director of Health Recovery Center in Minneapolis, notes in her book, Seven Weeks to Sobriety that. “two-thirds of all alcoholics suffer from this potentially life-threatening disorder.” She also notes that situational/psychological depression that results from the negative impact of AO can clear up once a drinker is sober and life improves. However, Larson lists these seven different sources of depression in alcoholics that have deep biochemical roots: neurotransmitter depletion, unavailability of prostaglandin E1 (a fatty acid found in most tissues and organs, including the brain), vitamin/mineral deficiency, hypothyroidism, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), food/chemical allergies, and candida-related complex (CRC/candidiasis).
Supportive Dietary Supplements
Before adopting a dietary supplement regimen to combat alcohol abuse or dependence, it is ideal first to obtain various tests that can allow for regimen customization. These tests include: Complete Blood Count (CBC) (anemia, infections, blood disorders); Chemistry Profile [blood glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, liver function (critical to monitor throughout AO treatment)]; Thyroid Function; Urinalysis (diabetes, chronic UTIs, kidney function); Glucose Tolerance Test; Zinc & Copper Levels; Candida-Antibody Panel; Serum Histamine Test; Food Allergy Test; Hair Analysis; Amino Acid Assay; Kryptopyrroles Test (byproducts of hemoglobin synthesis that are excreted in urine and have no function in the body); and DHEA (if over age 40.
A full understanding of one’s health status can best inform an appropriate personalized plan that includes the nutrients below found to be most supportive of alcohol detoxification and sobriety. A holistic, nutritional approach focuses on detoxing the body to break the abuse/addiction, correcting the drinker’s body chemistry, and ensuring long term abstinence.
1. Vitamin B3 (Flush-Free Niacin/Niacinamide). Excess alcohol consumption increases the need for all of the B-complex vitamins, including vitamin B3, required to metabolize it. Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, reports in The Vitamin Cure for Alcoholism that Vitamin B3 is also known to reduce brain levels of acetaldehyde. He further references one older, five-year study of 500 alcoholics in which niacin: (1) improved sleep, mood stability, and overall functioning of the subjects with the most serious symptoms; (2) significantly reduced tolerance to alcohol; (3) appeared to shorten greatly the course of acute toxic brain syndrome; and (4) all but eliminated hypoglycemic reactions. Niacin is contraindicated in any drinker with abnormal liver function.
2. Vitamin C (as Ester-C). This antitoxin accelerates and improves the metabolism of alcohol’s toxic byproducts, thereby reducing alcohol-induced fatty liver and hepatitis, and reducing alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
3. Digestive Enzymes. AO interferes with pancreatic function, thereby blocking the release of the enzymes required for nutrient absorption. Critical pancreatic enzymes, combined with betaine hydrochloride (stomach acid) and pepsin (a key stomach enzyme that breaks down proteins), enhance the effectiveness of nutritional therapy.
4. GLA (Borage Oil-Source of Omega-6 Fatty Acids). Gamma linolenic acid is an important brain lipid required for the formation of prostaglandin E1 (PGE1), a powerful antidepressant and anticonvulsant. Since AO reduces production of GLA, the detoxing body requires supplementation to prevent alcohol withdrawal syndrome, depression, central nervous system impairment, and liver damage. Alcohol abusers’ long term use of this supplement is also indicated.
5. L-Glutamine. Although this amino acid is well-known as the precursor to the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate, no recent research demonstrates its support of alcohol abusers. Some holistic practitioners, however, report significant clinical substantiation for its role in supporting immunity and reducing alcohol cravings (especially when applied directly under the tongue), anxiety, and insomnia in alcoholics.
6. Zinc Picolinate. AO causes the depletion and deficiency of zinc, a mineral known to prevent alcoholic liver disease.
7. Chromium Picolinate/Polynicotinate. Excess consumption of empty-calorie alcohol causes hypoglycemia when: (1) the over-taxed liver stops releasing glucose efficiently, (2) the pancreas overcompensates by overproducing insulin, which then removes too much glucose from the bloodstream, and (3) the chromium required to control abnormal glucose fluctuations is depleted. Chromium supplementation can stabilize both low and high blood sugar.
Additional supplements that support detoxification and longer term sobriety include a high potency multi-vitamin/mineral, vitamin B6, calcium with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids (fish/flax oil), 5-HTP (boosts serotonin, aids sleep), anti-candidiasis nutrients, and liver detoxing nutrients like milk thistle and L-carnitine.
The Importance of Dietary & Psychosocial Factors
Diet and emotional support are critical to enabling one to achieve and function optimally in sobriety. A healthy hypoglycemic/abstinence diet excludes simple carbohydrates/sugars, processed foods, common allergens (gluten, dairy), and caffeine, but includes healthy proteins (chicken, fish, turkey, eggs), vegetables, low-sugar fresh fruit, nuts and seeds, and gluten-free whole grains.
Other important lifestyle changes include avoiding nicotine and seeking emotional support from friends and family members, a 12-step program/sponsor, therapist, consciousness management program, and/or a rehabilitation/outpatient treatment clinic (in more serious cases). These resources can provide additional guidance and support: (1) Health Recovery Center, Minneapolis, MN (comprehensive nutritional, holistic care; www.healthrecovery.com; 800.554.9155); (2) Alcoholics Anonymous (free sobriety support; https://ct-aa.org/); (3) Al-Anon (free, anonymous long term life skills guidance for drinkers and their family members and friends; https://www.ctalanon.org/); (4) SAMHSA National Helpline (confidential and free referrals 24/7/365; 1-800-662-4357); (5) Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (conventional support; www.hazeldenbettyford.org/); and (6) National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institute of Health (NIH) (conventional information source; niaaa.nih.gov/).
The statements in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, are for educational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of a physician’s advice.
Submitted by Erika Dworkin, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition®, Owner of the Manchester Parkade Health Shoppe (860.646.8178), 378 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester, CT, www.cthealthshop.com, nutrition specialists trusted since 1956. Erika is available to speak to groups.
All statements in this article are practice or scientific evidence-based and references are available upon request.