Nutrition and Alcoholism

Understanding the relationship between nutrition and alcoholism is a vital component for successful recovery. Although many alcoholics become malnutritioned from their drinking and it's very important to eat a nutritious diet in recovery, this issue is much deeper than that.

Alcoholics are deficient in a variety of extremely important nutrients, which leads to imbalanced or depleted neurotransmitters in the brain and a sea of psychological and physiological symptoms that often result in relapse. Thus, identifying and correcting these deficiencies is another essential step in maintaining craving-free and long-term sobriety.

The role of nutrition and alcoholism is two pronged. On one hand, alcoholism causes nutritional deficiencies, while on the other hand nutritional deficiencies cause alcoholism. They have a reciprocal effect on one another that often pushes the alcoholic to relapse.

A poor diet that is high in sugar, refined foods and environmental toxins and lacking in vital nutrients, that the average person consumes these days, often results in nutritional deficiencies. Contrary to popular belief, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are quite common in our society and result in numerous uncomfortable and often debilitating symptoms.

On the most fundamental level, nutrients are needed to form neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals used by the brain to relay messages within the brain and communicate with all other organ systems within the body. An imbalance or deficiency in neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, serotonin, GABA and endorphins have been found to be at the root of what causes addiction and cravings for alcohol and/or drugs.

The manufacturing process of neurotransmitters requires that very specific nutrients be present in precisely the right amount. If even one of these nutrients is absent for any reason, then neurons are not capable of producing adequate levels of neurotransmitters.

You'll want to read understanding alcohol addiction and how to stop drinking alcohol to understand this concept more completely. To achieve successful recovery from any addiction, neurotransmitters must be brought into balance, so understanding the interrelationship between nutrition and alcoholism is critical for achieving and maintaining lasting sobriety.

Symptoms and Impact of Deficiencies

Symptoms from a deficiency in vitamins, minerals, or amino acids may include depression, anxiety, hypoglycemia, fatigue, irritability, hyperactivity, insomnia, cognitive dysfunction, memory problems, learning disorders, personality disorders, hypertension, heart disease, headaches, agitation, cravings for sugar, caffeine, carbohydrates, nicotine, alcohol or drugs, and many more. You'll note that many of these symptoms look extremely similar to the symptoms that an alcoholic or addict in recovery experiences on a daily basis.

When your diet is deficient in the proper nutrients it needs, then your brain is deficient or out of balance in neurotransmitters. Those crucial chemicals are responsible for making you feel happy, relaxed and normal and they are not present or working efficiently. Your sense of well-being is in disaccord. You feel depressed, sad, anxious, tired, compulsive, confused, hyperactive and can't think clearly.

All psychotropic substances, including alcohol, mimic the effects of our neurotransmitters and thus provide us with a temporary, but artificial boost. When neurotransmitters are not balanced or deficient, then we crave things like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sugar and caffeine to give us relief and provide the feelings we should have naturally.

Since most people are eating a diet that is toxic and lacking in nutrients, nutritional deficiencies are usually present in the alcoholic or addict prior to addiction. It is one of the things that lead to addiction. We don't have enough dopamine, serotonin, GABA or endorphins, and drinking or drugs provides a temporary boost to those neurotransmitters, so it is actually giving us something we're missing. However, in the long run, the artificial stimulation of neurotransmitters only depletes them even further and leads to the much bigger problem of addiction.

To make matters worse, once alcoholism is set into motion, then the consumption of alcohol on a regular basis itself leads to more deficiencies from an even less nutritious diet and poor absorption. Alcoholics often drink in place of a meal or eat very little, and alcohol damages the body's ability to absorb the nutrients it needs from the food you do eat.

Alcoholism causes vitamin and mineral deficiencies because alcohol is toxic to the liver, pancreas, stomach and digestive tract, which results in damage that prevents the alcoholic from being able to digest their food properly or to store, absorb, process, access or absorb crucial nutrients. Many alcoholics are severely malnourished.

Additionally, financial limits may cause an alcoholic to have to choose between food or alcohol and alcohol usually always win the vote. As alcoholism progresses and the alcoholic loses their ability to make good choices, they could care less about the issue of nutrition and alcoholism. Unfortunately, the body will run on alcohol alone because it gives a temporary boost to the system; however, this only deprives the body of even more nutrients and sets up another vicious cycle.

Deficiencies create a variety of emotional and physical symptoms that make the alcoholic crave a drink in order to relieve the symptoms. Not only that, deficiencies themselves contribute to deterioration in the integrity of the digestive tract which results in more inability to absorb nutrients. The drink perpetuates the problem of deficiencies in a variety of ways.

Common Nutritional Deficiencies Found in the Drug and Alcohol Addicted

Regardless of which came first, addiction or nutritional deficiencies, some of the most common deficiencies found in alcoholics include: amino acids, essential fatty acids, digestive enzymes, acetyl coenzyme A, niacin or B3, B6, B2, B12, folic acid, NAD, vitamins A, C, D, and K, magnesium, zinc, selenium and calcium, and have a profound impact on brain chemistry and mood. The lack of awareness around nutrition and alcoholism often results with alcoholic's in recovery who struggle to stay sober because of the need to find relief from the discomfort that deficiencies cause.

One of the most common deficiencies found in alcoholics, and addicts of all kinds, and the most crucial to address is amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks for neurotransmitters. You can't have balanced neurotransmitters if you aren't consuming adequate amino acids. Additionally, amino acids work in conjunction with numerous other vitamin and minerals to perform their functions adequately.

For example, sertonin production requires tryptophan, iron, niacin, folic acid and B6; while dopamine requires tyrosine, iron, niacin, folic acid and B6; and GABA synthesis needs glutamine and B6, and endorphins need.

Essential fatty acids are needed in the replenishment of all neurotransmitters, as they are essential for proper neurotransmission, meaning the movement of neurotransmitters from neuron to neuron; they affect the speed and strength of transmission. Fatty acids are also critical in the formation of new brain cells (neurons) and to repair damaged ones, so they are crucial to repair neurons that may have been damaged from your substance of choice.

Vitamin B1 or thiamin is crucial for proper functioning of the brain and nerves, essential for the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) bioenergy in all body cells and the production of acetylcholine, the brains major neurotransmitter. A lack of adequate acetylcholine is found in disorders such as Alzheimer's. A deficiency in vitamin B1 leads to the syndrome often found in chronic alcoholics called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and is distinguished by poor memory, impaired neuromuscular coordination, visual disturbances, apathy and mental confusion. Even a mild deficiency in this vitamin can result in impaired brain function and be exhibited in symptoms such as fatigue, emotional instability, confusion, indifference or lack of interest, headaches, depression, irritability, feelings of impending doom and insomnia.

NAD (the active form of B3) is critical for burning sugar and fat into energy for the cells, and it functions as a catalyst in the production of many of the major brain neurotransmitters like serotonin.

The most severe form of niacin (also known as B3) deficiency results in the disease known as pellagra, however, even a mild deficiency will produce a host of psychological symptoms including an inability to concentrate, excessive worry, headaches, irrational or unfounded fear and suspicion, apprehension, gloomy angry or depressed perception, agitation and disruption of sleep patterns.

Acetyl coenzyme A is probably the most crucial biochemical involved in cellular biochemistry, because it's needed to power the Krebs cycle, which is what produces 90 percent of all energy needed for every cell in the brain and the body. It's also needed to produce acetylcholine, the brain's major neurotransmitter that is critical for memory, learning and concentration.

A deficiency in B6 is significant because it is the primary coenzyme essential to produce all the chief brain neurotransmitters. It's crucial to many different conversion processes in amino acids, essential fatty acids and other important vitamins like B3 or niacin and helps regulate the entry of magnesium into our cells.

On the other hand, too much of a particular nutrient can also result in disrupted brain function and cravings for the substance of choice as well. For example, too much copper impairs neurotransmitter production and depletes zinc levels; however, copper is also needed in the production of many neurotransmitters. Balance is the key. Excess copper is commonly found in the addicted population.

Correcting Nutritional Deficiencies

It is possible for deficiencies and neurotransmitters to normalize on their own in a few years, if one is eating the right diet, but cravings will interfere in the process before the goal is achieved. So a variety of nutritional supplements are used to provide the brain with a temporary boost in nutrients so that the brain can replenish depleted neurotransmitters more quickly.

Nutritional supplements provide the brain with the raw materials it needs to replenish neurotransmitters more rapidly than diet alone, which ultimately aids in the detoxification process, reduces withdrawal, eliminates cravings and prevents relapse.

Research using brain imagery scans has shown that neurotransmitter activity is increased with IV nutritional supplementation and consequently withdrawal is alleviated. Treatment centers that repair brain chemistry using nutritional therapies have a success rate of 74 percent to 90 percent. Thus, your chances of remaining clean and sober are significantly higher when you use nutritional therapy.

However, the primary place you should get your nutrients is your diet. Supplements should be used temporarily to support the diet. If you do not make the necessary changes in diet to support healthy neurotransmitter production and function, then you are not likely to see long-term success with nutritional supplements.

In End Your Addiction Now, Dr. Charles Gant, an addiction expert, tells us, "Poor nutrition is one of the critical risk factors for substance abuse, and if you ignore your diet, you ’re putting yourself at risk for relapse, even if you continue to take nutritional supplements." Furthermore from Dr. Gant, "a diet high in carbohydrates increases the likelihood of substance abuse," and if you eat a lot of carbohydrates or junk food you may find it difficult to remain substance free even if you continue nutritional supplements.

I could not agree more. In my own personal experience, I have found there is nothing more significant in the recovery from addiction than the diet. As a matter of fact, it is the foundation on which everything else is built and can make or break your success. It is where most of your focus should be aimed.

Changes in my diet and lifestyle completely eliminated cravings for alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, marijuana, benzodiazepines, sugar and carbs. At the time this page was written, it has enabled me to achieve 25 years of uninterrupted and craving-free sobriety.

One of the primary reasons that addicts fail to maintain sobriety for their drug of choice is because of their diet.

The brain needs a consistent supply of nutrients on a day-to-day basis from the diet to continue to make neurotransmitters and perform optimal transmission. If nutrient levels are not maintained and/or the wrong types of food are consumed, then neurotransmitter levels will decline and disruption of mood, thought and behavior and the inevitable cravings for alcohol or the substance of choice will return.

The wrong types of foods actually deplete and/or disrupt the neurotransmitters even further. Sugar, caffeine, refined junk food, food additives and preservatives, artificial flavorings, sweeteners and coloring, white flour, and even complex carbohydrates like whole grains and potatoes, all impact the brain in a similar manner as alcohol and hard drugs and they need to be avoided. They produce an intense surge in neurotransmitters and insulin and the inevitable crash and depletion. They simulate and perpetuate the addiction cycle.

You can find a more in-depth discussion about the diet that is needed for overcoming alcoholism or any other addiction in my Diet for Sobriety guidelines, that is part of my Clean and Sober for Life Jump-Start Program, but basically we need to eat foods that will provide the proper amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids so the brain can begin to make its neurotransmitters on its own again and they can function adequately, and avoid foods that disrupt and deplete neurotransmitters. The diet that fulfills these criteria is a slightly modified version of the Paleolithic diet and consists of meat, fish, eggs, low-starch vegetables, and a small amounts of nuts, seeds and low-sugar fruit; butter and yogurt may be used if there is not a dairy intolerance.

All this biochemistry talk about nutrition and alcoholism can get a little technical and difficult to understand, but the bottom line is this: Nutritional deficiencies, regardless of when they originated, result in a malfunctioning brain and body that gets exhibited in a variety of undesirable and even dangerous psychological and physical symptoms. When we look over the list of symptoms that are the result of nutritional deficiencies, we see the typical profile of an alcoholic and addicts of all kinds. When the recovering alcoholic or addict understands the importance of addiction, alcoholism and nutrition and addresses their nutritional deficiencies, they can alleviate the cravings to drink or drunk and the psychological symptoms that so often lead to relapse.