Coping with the nutritional effects of alcoholism.
We all know, and there are numerous studies that have shown, that moderate alcohol intake can produce significant health benefits for most people. These studies also show that excessive alcohol consumption can wipe out those benefits and create a number of serious health issues. Alcoholics, who by definition have a physical addiction to alcohol, typically drink sufficiently to create widespread related damage in their bodies.
A major part of this damage is nutritional, and alcoholism very often produces dangerous deficiencies in a range of essential vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies occur when alcohol disrupts normal function in the liver and other significant organs.
What Alcohol Consumption Does To You
Alcohol which is found in beer, wine, distilled liquor and a variety of other drinks is known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol. It produces intoxicating effects by quickly depressing the normal activity level of the body’s central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Alcohol contains calories (7 calories/gram), and for this reason it is technically a nutrient by itself. However, due to its harmful effects on a number of key organs, the human body treats alcohol as a toxin and tries to eliminate it as quickly as possible.
Most of the alcohol consumed gets processed or metabolised in the liver. Smaller amounts of unprocessed ethanol also leave the body through the urine, sweat, saliva and breath. On average, a healthy liver can detoxify and eliminate roughly 7-10 ml of pure ethanol per hour; this is less than the amount of alcohol contained in a single unit of liquor, beer or wine. Any alcohol consumption above this hourly rate will overtax the liver and put abnormal stress on the body. Over time, chronic consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol will damage the liver, as well as the stomach, pancreas, sexual organs, nerves and brain.
How Is Nutrition Affected
The human body processes alcohol with the help of its stored nutrients; when the liver runs out of the nutrients it requires for this purpose, it pulls additional nutrients from other areas through the bloodstream. Even in regular drinkers who are not alcoholics, the increased nutritional demands of alcohol-processing can lead to significant deficiencies in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid), vitamin B12 and calcium.
The presence of significant amounts of alcohol in the body can also directly destroy all members of the B vitamin family. In addition to B9 and B12, this family includes B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid) and B6 (pyridoxine). simultaneously, the relatively high calorie content in alcohol can easily lead to weight gain in non-alcoholics who consume alcohol regularly.
In alcoholics, however, damage to the liver, pancreas and stomach degrades the body’s normal ability to process essential dietary nutrients, and therefore raises the intensity of the deficiencies which are sometimes found in non-alcoholic regular drinkers. Things can get worse for long-term alcoholics who decrease their food intake and consciously or unconsciously start using increased alcohol intake to “replace” the missing nutrients in their diet. Eventually, this pattern of usage will lead to considerable weight loss and the onset of clinical malnutrition.
Increased Predisposition to Alcoholism
Consumption of alcohol can also produce nutritional deficiencies that trigger emotional/body responses such as depression, fatigue, appetite loss and apathy or lethargy. Consequently, in some people, these responses can reinforce the desire to consume another drink, and therefore can potentially contribute to the onset of alcoholism. Specific deficiencies related to this unfortunate cycle include deficiencies in vitamin C and calcium, manganese, magnesium, zinc, chromium, potassium and iron.
Likely Long-Term Consequences
Over time, alcohol-related organ damage, poor nutrient absorption and clinical malnutrition can have serious or fatal effects on the body of an alcoholic. Heart and blood-vessel-related examples of these effects include hypertension, heartbeat irregularities, stroke and congestive heart failure. Liver-related effects include a form of liver scarring called cirrhosis and a form of liver inflammation called alcoholic hepatitis. Other potential effects include stomach ulcers, inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), impotence and other types of sexual dysfunction, nerve damage-related disorders, and heightened risks for liver cancer and cancer of the oesophagus, stomach and upper small intestine.
Reducing Alcohol’s Nutritional Effects
People who drink regularly can potentially offset at least some of alcohol’s nutritionally harmful effects by eating a balanced diet, eating at least three times a day on a regular schedule, and supplementing with vitamins and/or minerals in accordance with a qualified healthcare practitioner’s recommendations. Nutritionally deficient alcoholics typically need ongoing treatment under the close supervision of a doctor and a licensed nutritionist or dietician.