Nutritional Therapy to Treat Alcoholism


As most people who have experienced alcoholism will tell you, sobriety is incredibly hard. Cutting out alcohol is a daily uphill battle, involving withdrawal symptoms such as cravings, tremors, insomnia, anxiety, shakiness, dizziness, depression, impaired cognitive thinking and memory, and even hallucinations and seizures in extreme cases. However, as tough as alcohol addiction is to overcome, it can be done with the right approach.

Conventionally, alcohol withdrawals and cravings are dealt with via medical and psychological interventions such as medication, detoxification, rehabilitation, support groups, and individual therapy. While these traditional approaches are great, they neglect one key ingredient - biochemical repair.

Alcohol addiction: Brain chemistry gone wrong?


Alcohol addiction is caused by unbalanced brain chemicals, especially those in the brain’s reward system, as recent research suggests. When our body attempts to repair such biochemical imbalances, addiction is the result.

When we are healthy, our body produces balanced amounts of serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glutamate, endorphins, and acetylcholine (neurotransmitters and hormones). We require this careful chemical balance to keep healthy cognitive function, general well-being, and the ability to regulate moods, pain, pleasure, depression, nervousness, and anxiety.

Humans have what’s called a mesolimbic pathway, more commonly known as the reward pathway, and a major player in the development of addiction. When we partake in life-sustaining activities such as drinking water, eating food, engaging in sex and nurturing, our reward pathway makes us feel good, and along with chemicals such as dopamine, causes us to repeat “feel good” behaviour. What’s more, the reward pathway communicates with other parts of the brain such as the memory center, prompting them to remember the “feel good” activity so you can repeat it over and over again for that “feel good” reward. These pleasant sensations are due to neurotransmitters being released in the brain.

When we drink alcohol, our brain is prompted to release extremely high amounts of dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and endorphins, making us feel very happy. Our brain deals with these sudden influxes of neurotransmitters in different ways. For example, the brain deregulates signal receptors and produces less dopamine, therefore, desensitizing the brain to alcohol so those high, happy feelings are reduced.

The issue is, the brain’s memory centre continues to associate alcohol with pleasure, causing it to seek such a reward. However, because of the desensitized receptors, the sensation of pleasure doesn’t come, causing a depressed, low feeling.

What happens next? You require more and more alcohol to achieve (or attempt to achieve) that pleasurable high. Over time, the brain is unable to produce neurotransmitters without the chosen drug of choice (whether it be alcohol, drugs, or even sugar) - resulting in addiction [1]. As the substance addiction develops, brain circuits involved in memory, self-control, judgment, and learning become impaired.

What’s behind such disruptions in neurotransmitter equations? Overstimulation due to abuse of caffeine, sugar, drugs, and alcohol are common risk factors as well as hormonal imbalances, genetic disorders, hypothyroidism, food allergies, and child abuse.

Yet, there’s another major underlying factor that causes neurotransmitter deficiency and depletion, and it is nutritional deficiency.

Most alcoholics have a restricted supply of essential nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals) due to a poor diet. What’s more, alcohol’s metabolism disrupts the body’s ability to digest, absorb, store, and utilize nutrients sufficiently. Alcohol also damages the liver and pancreas, causing further serious nutritional challenges.

When nutrient stores are depleted, important brain chemicals become imbalanced, driving the body toward dependency on chemicals such as alcohol, sugar, and drugs to help regain those positive, pleasurable emotions. To add yet another struggle, alcoholics often test positive for hypoglycaemia as a result of poor nutrition and excess consumption of sugar and carbohydrates for an instant high.  Hypoglycaemia comes with many stressful symptoms such as depression, fatigue, and dizziness, all of which hinder a person’s resolve to stay sober.

One way to greatly improve the success rate of recovery programs is to adopt a holistic approach that addresses nutritional deficiencies.

Nutritional Therapy for Alcoholism


A nutritional approach, alongside conventional methods, can help curb alcohol cravings and ease withdrawal symptoms. A proper diet bolstered with vitamin and mineral supplements can make a major difference by restoring missing nutrients. This approach targets the nutritional deficiency responsible for disrupting brain chemistry and causing susceptibility to addiction.

A healthy diet comprises of healthy proteins (fish, legumes, nuts, eggs, and chicken), healthy fats, high-fiber vegetables, and fruits, a great jump-off point for restoring the body’s chemical haemostasis. What’s more, such a diet can help to normalize blood sugar level fluctuations that may otherwise increase alcohol cravings.
Supplementing healthy dietary and lifestyle changes with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and herbs can help to correct nutrient imbalances and slowly reduce alcohol dependency.

B Vitamins


Alcohol intake can destroy the B vitamin family (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B9), a particularly vulnerable group of vitamins essential for energy production and a healthy nervous system. As well as supporting mental, physical, and emotional well-being, B vitamins help to reduce alcohol cravings, stabilize moods, and reduce the negative effects of alcohol on the brain.

Alcohol destroys vitamin B1 (thiamine), which is why many heavy drinkers have a thiamine deficiency. Severe thiamine deficiency can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (otherwise known as ‘wet brain’), a condition commonly associated with alcoholics. This unfortunate condition causes chronic memory loss and a highly confused state of mind.

Vitamin B1 is great for easing alcohol withdrawals because it helps to reduce associated symptoms such as disorientation, fatigue, brain fog, and poor memory. Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is excellent for reducing withdrawal-related headaches and hand tremors. Vitamins B5 (pantothenic acid) and B3 (niacin) help to flush alcohol from the body as well as promoting adrenal gland functions such as the regulation of stress hormones.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is essential for serotonin and melatonin production. Alcoholics often experience extreme anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Serotonin promotes stable and calm moods, while melatonin supports healthy sleep patterns, a regulated body clock, and reduced insomnia.

Vitamin B9 (folate) plays an important role in brain health. However, alcoholics have an extremely depleted source of folate as alcohol hinders folate metabolism and disables the folate already present in the bloodstream. Vitamins B12 and B19 help to bolster the immune system and relieve depression.

Vitamin C


Alcohol severely depletes your body’s Vitamin C stores, causes excess stress and inhibits the immune system. However, Vitamin C is extremely important as it minimizes the oxidative damage alcohol causes to the liver and helps to detoxify the body by eliminating excess alcohol during the initial withdrawal phase. According to a Livestrong article, “Vitamin C has a theoretical benefit for reducing alcohol cravings because this vitamin helps your body produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters. Overcoming cravings is (a) key to overcoming alcohol addiction.”

Amino acids


According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, amino acids carnitine, glutamine, and glutathione work together to reduce alcohol-induced stress, blood sugar fluctuations, and alcohol cravings. L-glutamine is especially effective at reducing cravings, anxiety, and fatigue during the withdrawal phase.

Milk thistle


Thanks to the presence of the flavonoid silymarin, milk thistle has fantastic antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Silymarin stimulates liver cell regeneration and protects the liver against alcohol-induced damage. What’s more, milk thistle aids in the increase of glutathione, the body’s most important antioxidant and detoxifying agent.

Essential fatty acids


A diet rich in healthy fats is important for efficiently absorbing fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins D, A, E, and K. These vitamins play an important role in eye, brain, and bone health. Of course, essential fatty acid deficiencies (such as Omega 3 and Omega 6) have nutritional complications, but they can also cause issues for people who are recovering from alcohol addiction, leading to impulsive and depressive behavior.

FASEB Journal published a study highlighting that Vitamin D and marine omega-3 fatty acids are critical in brain development, social behaviour, decision-making, cognitive function, and impulsive behaviour by optimizing brain serotonin levels and function [2]. You can introduce more healthy fats to your diet through fat-rich sources such as olive oil, flaxseeds, walnuts, coconut oil, avocado, and fish.

N-acetylcysteine (NAC)


Out of all the supplements for managing alcohol addiction, NAC may just be the most promising one. NAC, (a precursor for the naturally occurring amino acid cysteine) shows amazing potential in treating compulsive disorders such as addiction [3] [4].

NAC supplements break down into cysteine and the master-antioxidant glutathione, efficiently combating oxidative stress. Plus, glutathione is a key player in phases one and two of the liver detoxification process.

Kudzu


Research suggests that the Chinese herb kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is a safe and effective natural treatment for alcoholism, proven to help drinkers to reduce their alcohol intake [5] [6]. A 2013 study suggested that “kudzu extract significantly reduced the number of drinks consumed each week by 34-57 %, reduced the number of heavy drinking days, and significantly increased the percent of days abstinent and the number of consecutive days of abstinence.
Further research was published in 2015 in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, concluding that a single dose of kudzu extract can take effect in as little as 90 minutes, reducing alcohol intake in very heavy drinkers [7].

It’s important to always talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements, so they can review your condition, medical history, and prescribed medications first. While these natural supplements for alcoholism are excellent, it takes more than simply “popping” them. A nutritional approach involves holistic consideration of all factors such as the level of nutritional deficiency and any underlying genetic disorders. Remember that certain natural remedies for alcoholism can negatively interact with current medication and can compromise the liver, an organ that is already struggling due to prolonged alcohol abuse. With the guidance of your expert healthcare provider, you can breeze through your withdrawal and recovery by making changes to your diet and lifestyle.

References:
  1. Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  2. Rhonda P. Patrick And Bruce N. Ames. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. FASEB Journal, February 2015
  3. Bowers et al. N-acetylcysteine decreased nicotine reward-like properties and withdrawal in mice. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2016.
  4. McClure et al. Potential Role of N-Acetylcysteine in the Management of Substance Use Disorders. CNS Drugs. 2014
  5. Lukas SE, Penetar D, Berko J, Vicens L, Palmer C, Mallya G, Macklin EA, Lee DY. An extract of the Chinese herbal root kudzu reduces alcohol drinking by heavy drinkers in a naturalistic setting. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 2005
  6. Lukas SE, Penetar D, Su Z, Geaghan T, Maywalt M, Tracy M, Rodolico J, Palmer C, Ma Z, Lee DY. A standardized kudzu extract (NPI-031) reduces alcohol consumption in nontreatment-seeking male heavy drinkers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013
  7. Penetar DM, Toto LH, Lee DY, Lukas SE. A single dose of kudzu extract reduces alcohol consumption in a binge drinking paradigm. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2015