Alcoholism & Health Problems

Alcoholism & Nutritional Deficiency

Alcoholics suffer from a treatable, chronic disease in which their bodies are dependent on alcohol. Excessive alcohol intake inflames the lining of the stomach and  interferes with vitamin absorption. Vitamin and nutritional deficiency can lead to serious problems and should be supplemented in alcoholics to prevent short-term and long-term complications. Individuals should also seek professional treatment to support recovery from alcoholism.
Alcoholism is one of the major causes of nutritional deficiency. The most common deficiencies are of pyridoxine (vitamin B6), thiamine, and folic acid. A lack of these nutrients causes anemia and nervous system (neurologic) problems.

Korsakoff’s syndrome (“wet brain”) occurs when heavy alcohol use prevents nutrients from being properly absorbed.

Alcohol intoxication also impairs two major organs involved in metabolism and nutrition: the liver and the pancreas. The liver detoxifies harmful substances. The pancreas regulates blood sugar and absorption of fat. Impairment of these two organs results in an imbalance of fluids, calories, and electrolytes.

Other complications include:

  • Diabetes
  • Permanent liver damage (or cirrhosis)
  • Seizures
  • Severe malnutrition
  • Shortened life expectancy

Laboratory tests for protein, iron, and electrolytes may be needed to determine if there is liver disease in addition to the alcohol problem. Postmenopausal women who drink heavily are at high risk of osteoporosis and need to take calcium supplements.

Alcoholism &  Most Common Nutritional Deficiency

Thiamin (B1)

Alcoholics are at risk for vitamin B deficiencies because of mal-absorption and a poor diet. Thiamin is one of many vitamin B deficiencies that alcoholics often experience because high intake of alcohol prevents thiamin from being broken down and properly utilized.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), thiamin deficiency can lead to brain damage and the brain disorder Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a condition that affects memory, muscle coordination, vision and cognition. Taking 50 mg of thiamin a day may prevent and reverse existing damage to a certain extent.

Folic Acid (B6)

Folic acid helps the body produce new cells. A folic acid deficiency during pregnancy can lead to birth defects related to brain and spine development. Adults deficient in folic acid may experience anemia, difficulty breathing, dizziness, weight loss, depression, loss of sensation in hands and feet, depression and dementia. The NIAAA advocates that alcoholics take a standard multivitamin to get the daily recommended amount of folic acid.

Riboflavin (B2)

Riboflavin is a B vitamin necessary for growth, normal cell function and energy production. According to the University of Michigan Health Center (UMHC), riboflavin may be supplemented with other B vitamins in a B-complex vitamin.

Niacin (B3)

Niacin along with other B vitamins may reduce alcoholic cravings and help people overcome alcoholism. Dr. John Cleary studied the treatment of alcoholism and recommended 500 mg of niacin per day for alcoholics in his paper published in 1987 in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects cells from being damaged, promotes healing and supports iron absorption. Vitamin C deficiency can result in scurvy, a rare condition that causes weakness, anemia, gum disease and bruising. According to a study published in 1986 in “Alcohol and Alcoholism,” alcohol increases vitamin C excretion in the urine which can lead to vitamin C deficiency. Federal guidelines recommend 75 to 90 mg of vitamin C a day. However, up to 2,000 mg can be taken without being toxic.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a role in vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell function and immunity. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to a weak immune system, night blindness and a skin rash. Some alcoholics are deficient in vitamin A, but supplementation is tricky because vitamin A in combination with alcohol can be toxic and damage the liver. The NIAAA recommends that alcoholics only take vitamin A if there is a known deficiency, and should supplement in conjunction with reducing or stopping alcohol consumption.

Because chronic use of alcohol decreases  appetite and keeps  body from absorbing vital nutrients, a person may be deficient in a number of vitamins and minerals. A physician may advise  supplements while an alcoholic is regaining their health. Beneficial supplements may include vitamin B complex, vitamin C, selenium, magnesium, and zinc. A combination of amino acids — carnitine, glutamine, and glutathione — may help reduce cravings, blood sugar fluctuations, and stress related to alcohol use.

Thiamine (vitamin B1) — Doctor may prescribe a thiamine supplement during withdrawal. Heavy use of alcohol causes thiamine deficiency, which can lead to a serious brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

People who abuse alcohol are often deficient in vitamin A, but should take extra supplements (beyond the recommended daily allowance) only under their doctor’ s supervision. High doses of vitamin A can damage the liver and may causes alcoholic liver disease to develop more quickly in people who drink heavily.

Alcoholism & Herbal Medicines

The use of herbs is a good approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, a person should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care practitioner. However, herbs alone should not be used to treat alcoholism; counseling and peer groups such as AA are also needed.

  • Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) — Milk thistle is often used to treat liver problems, and some studies looking at milk thistle to treat alcoholic liver disease have found significant improvements in liver function. People with the mildest form of alcohol related liver damage seem to improve the most. Milk thistle is less effective for those with severe liver disease such as cirrhosis, which is characterized by scarring and permanent, irreversible damage to the liver. However, there are no studies looking at whether milk thistle is useful for alcohol withdrawal.
  • Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) — Animal studies suggest that kudzu, used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat alcohol abuse, might help reduce cravings. However, one study in humans failed to show any benefit.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) — Dandelion is used traditionally for liver related problems, although there is evidence that it helps alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It is often combined with milk thistle.

Vitamin and nutritional deficiency can lead to serious problems and should be supplemented in alcoholics to prevent short-term and long-term complications. Individuals should also seek professional treatment to support recovery from alcoholism.

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