Nutritional Hope for Alcoholism

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Alcoholism is a disease of physical, psychological and spiritual deprivation. Alcoholics drink to replace something that is missing. Recent research is revealing that "something" may be more molecular than previously thought. Can proper nutrition play a role in treating this seemingly intractable problem? Exciting results from this research answer with a resounding "yes!"

Scientific research is revealing that alcoholism may have genetic roots. Kenneth Blum, PhD in his book, Alcohol and the Addictive Brain, chronicles the search for the "alcogene," a strand of aberrant DNA that may lead the afflicted to crave alcohol as if it were a nutrient. Blum hypothesizes that the gene, when found, will probably point to a deficiency in the way the brain produces and uses neurotransmitters. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals that nerve cells use to relay messages from one cell to the next). The alcoholic drinks in an attempt to correct this deficiency and ends up hopelessly addicted and more deficient.

The happy new is that supplementation can correct this deficiency by supplying the amino acids, vitamins and minerals needed to boost the neurotransmitters to normal levels. For the alcoholic, they are badly needed. Ethanol is the classic anti-nutrient, acting to disrupt the normal processing of nutrients at every stage of metabolism.

A moderate to heavy drinker suffers nutrient deficiencies for five reasons: inadequate ingestion of healthy food, inadequate intestinal absorption of nutrients, inadequate utilization of nutrients, decreased storage in tissues and increased excretion through the urine and feces. The drinker cannot get enough nutrients into the body. He can't use them properly while they're in there and he can't hold them in long enough to do any good. Alcoholism is liquid starvation.

The deficiencies are significant. Chronic alcoholics don't eat enough, but they do drink! Some drinkers consume up to 50 per cent of their calories from alcohol alone! These are less than empty calories because of ethanol's ability to purge the tissues of existing nutrients. The nutrients most affected are protein, the vitamins A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, folic acid, B[12] and the minerals, calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium and copper. Many of these vitamins and minerals act as enzyme cofactors and without them metabolism becomes significantly impaired.

Zinc is crucial for the action of over 200 different enzymes in the body. With important deficiencies such as these, a chain reaction takes place where deficiencies cause more deficiencies. For example, a deficiency in zinc can cause impaired protein synthesis which in turn can cause impaired energy production, immune suppression and so on.

Alcohol is a toxin that affects every organ, tissue, and cell of the body. An account of how ethanol damages the body reads like a physiological horror story. Although every organ is affected, the worst effects are found in the liver, brain, heart, renal system and gastrointestinal tract. The liver is the energy factory of the body, the main organ of metabolism and detoxification. Alcohol interferes with liver enzymes to produce altered lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. This leads to fatty accumulation, further disruption of metabolism and tissue damage. After about 10 years of this, hepatitis and cirrhosis set in.

The brain and central nervous systems are very vulnerable to alcohol. Ethanol molecules get into the nerve cells where they affect absorption and nerve transmission and produce deficiencies. Alcohol-induced thiamin deficiency can produce permanent memory loss, confusion and psychosis. Other nervous effects of alcohol include depression, impotence, blurring of vision, blackouts, tremors, aggressiveness, irritability and learning disabilities. Chronic alcoholism can damage the heart muscle leading to irregular heart rate, fibrillation and heart failure.

A serious complication of alcohol ingestion is the increase in permeability of the gastrointestinal tract. A "leaky gut" can produce immune hypersensitivity to a wide range of foods by allowing the passage of large, partially digested molecules into the system. This complicates things, since food allergies are notorious for triggering cravings and patterns of addiction. When faced with such an array of physically destructive effects, it is a puzzle why anyone would continue to drink.

An effective alcohol treatment program must address the psychological and spiritual dimensions of alcoholism and solve several basic problems in the food supply of alcoholics, such as nutrient deficiencies, excess consumption of sugar and caffeine (often used as substitutes for alcohol during abstinence) and food allergies. The most effective way to do this would be to redesign the food supply to remove all substances that trigger allergies, addiction and craving and take the supplements mentioned above in therapeutic doses.

Excellent nutrition, supplementation of missing nutrients, removal of allergens and trigger foods, group and personal support, motivation and spiritual openness are all indispensable factors in the treatment of alcohol addiction. As nutritional science advances, we may hope to someday see the eventual eradication of alcohol as The Great Destroyer It's about time.

Bruce Wilson is director of educational services at Environmed Research in Vancouver, BC.

Recommended reading:

Better Health Through Natural Healing by R. Trattler (sc) 624pp $16.95

Dr Wright's Guide to Healing Nutrition by Jonathan Wright, MD (sc) 601pp $20.95

Mental and Elemental Nutrients by Carl Pfeiffer (hc) 519pp $21.95

Nutrition and Mental Illness by Carl Pfeiffer (sc) 119pp $13.50

Available at your health food store or from alive Books Box 80055 Burnaby, BC V6H 3X1. Enclose $2 postage and handling plus 7% GST when ordering from alive Books.

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By Bruce R. Wilson

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