Your body needs good nutrition to function properly, maintain its structure, and generate energy. In general, many alcoholics don’t eat enough nutritious foods to cover their daily needs for protein, minerals, vitamins, fat, and carbohydrates. Additionally, alcohol can deplete nutrients. As a result, people who consume alcohol regularly are doubly jeopardizing their health. They don’t consume enough nutrients, and alcohol depletes the nutrients that are consumed. This can cause many health-related problems.
Does Alcohol Prevent the Absorption of Nutrients?
When you eat food, the digestive process breaks it down into small, usable components. Then, it can be used for energy and maintaining the body’s function and structure. Digestion starts in the mouth, and the stomach and intestines finish the process with some help from the pancreas. In a healthy body, the intestines absorb nutrients from digested food. These nutrients are then delivered to the blood and carried to the liver. The liver divides the nutrients out and prepares them to be either used or stored for later use.
Alcohol keeps nutrients from being broken down into usable molecules. How does it do this? Alcohol affects the pancreas and decreases its secretion of digestive enzymes. It also prevents the absorption of nutrients by damaging the cells lining the intestines and stomach. This also disables transporting some nutrients to the blood. To add to the problem, once nutritional deficiencies exist, they can lead to more absorption problems.
The diuretic effect of alcohol depletes nutrients, including vitamins and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and zinc. The liver also uses up stored essential vitamins when it has to metabolize alcohol. Consuming large amounts of alcohol depletes the body of macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Fat-soluble vitamin levels decrease due to the lack of dietary fat, which is necessary for the body to absorb them. For this reason, malnutrition is a major concern for those who consume large amounts of alcohol regularly.
The Most Common Nutrient Deficiency in Alcoholics
Consuming alcohol not only inhibits the absorption of essential nutrients, but it also depletes those stored up for future use. Those who consume regularly are at risk of nutritional deficiencies. Even regular drinkers who don’t meet the true definition of an alcoholic can have alcohol-related deficiencies. Some of the most common deficiencies associated with alcohol use include:
- Thiamine Deficiency. Thiamine or vitamin B1 Deficiency is rare in developed countries. However, it is common for alcoholics. Thiamine deficiency can lead to Wernicke-Korsaoff syndrome, which is a serious brain disease. Symptoms include memory loss, impaired coordination, muscle weakness, and abnormal eye movement.
- Magnesium Deficiency. One of the common electrolyte disturbances caused by consuming alcohol is the depletion of magnesium. Magnesium is lost from body tissues. Due to frequent urination caused by drinking excessively, more magnesium is lost. Magnesium deficiency also plays a role in alcohol withdrawal by diminishing the severity of symptoms.
- Vitamin C Deficiency. The absorption of vitamin C is inhibited by alcohol consumption. But alcohol also speeds up the excretion of vitamin C through urine. Low vitamin C levels affect the body’s immune system and slow the healing process.
Other Nutrients Destroyed by Alcohol
Once nutrients are destroyed by alcohol, the body cannot function properly; it has a sort of chain reaction effect. When the body fails to absorb protein, for example, amino acids get out of whack and unbalanced. Alcohol disrupts the normal processes of digestion and absorption. As a result, many nutrients are directly or indirectly destroyed by alcohol. What nutrients does alcohol deplete, and what are the effects?
Vitamins and Minerals Affected By Alcohol Use
Vitamins are necessary for maintaining normal metabolism and growth. Why? They regulate the many functions of the body. Alcohol intake inhibits the absorption of the vital nutrients needed, including these vitamins.
- Thiamine: Deficiencies can cause depression, cardiac problems, and irritability.
- Riboflavin: Deficiencies can cause depression.
- Niacin: Lack of niacin can result in anxiety, depression, extreme fatigue, and apprehension.
- Pyridoxine: Inadequate amounts of pyridoxine can cause the brain to fail to form neurotransmitters.
- B12 and Folic Acid: Lack of B12 and its synthetic form, folic acid, commonly causes depression.
- B5 or Pantothenic Acid: Lack of this vitamin can lead to extreme fatigue, chronic stress, and depression.
- Vitamin A: Deficiency is linked to night blindness.
- Vitamin D: Insufficient amounts of vitamin D can cause bones to soften.
- Vitamin C: Deficiencies can lead to depression and chronic fatigue.
- Vitamin K: Inadequate amounts of vitamin K can lead to slow blood clotting and excessing bleeding.
Minerals Affected by Alcohol Use
- Calcium: Lack of calcium affects the central nervous system.
- Chromium: Deficiencies can lead to hypoglycemia.
- Iron: Chronic iron deficiencies can cause extreme fatigue and depression.
- Manganese: This mineral is necessary so the body can use Vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins.
- Magnesium: Deficiencies result in confusion, insomnia, loss of appetite, weakness, and apathy.
- Omega 3 EFA: Deficiencies of EFA can lead to skin disorders and anemia.
- Potassium: When this mineral is depleted, it can cause depression, fatigue, and weakness.
- Zinc: Lack of this mineral causes loss of appetite, lethargy, and apathy.
How Alcohol-related Deficiencies Affect Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Some amino acids are produced in the body; the rest must be consumed. When proteins are not properly absorbed, it affects amino acids. Alcohol intake interferes with the function of the body’s amino acids. Amino acids help keep neurotransmitters balanced. Certain deficiencies can disrupt this process and lead to devastating results. Thiamine, for instance, is necessary for the body to produce enzymes needed for neurotransmitters to function properly. A thiamine deficiency inhibits the ability of neurotransmitters to function, which results in harmful oxygen molecules called free radicals. This can affect a person’s brain in a number of ways.
Folate is necessary for amino acid metabolism. And pyridoxine is the primary cofactor in the metabolism of amino acids. Alcohol inhibits amino acids from being absorbed from the small intestine. Some of the consequences of a decreased metabolism of amino acids include:
- Diminished production of blood proteins, especially albumin, which can change blood volume and impair blood flow, particularly in the liver.
- Reduced ability of blood clotting, which can lead to the risk of internal bleeding.
- Reduced production of urea which results in excessive amounts of ammonia. This can increase the risk of developing altered brain function.
- Abnormal imbalances of amino acids in the blood, which can lead to hepatic encephalopathy, a nervous disorder caused by severe liver disease.
Medical Complications Caused by Poor Nutrition
Alcohol affects the body and metabolism in many ways. It inhibits the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, which cause an imbalance in amino acids. That may not sound too serious until you consider the ramifications. Alcohol also makes you feel fuller, so you are not hungry like you should be. Poor nutrition can lead to several serious alcohol-related medical conditions.
Alcohol directly causes liver disease. However, poor nutrition can also decrease nutrients that are normally found in the liver. This can contribute to alcohol-related liver damage.
The consumption of alcohol also affects the pancreas. This damaging process is exacerbated by consuming insufficient amounts of protein in the diet. Malnutrition may increase the risk of alcoholic pancreatitis.
Nutritional deficiencies affect how the brain works. Alcohol depletes the body’s supply of thiamine. This can cause memory loss, impaired movement, and severe neurological problems.
Drinking excessively can potentially cause a wide variety of negative health effects on the body. Poor nutrition just adds to the risk of damage. Even when you stop drinking, your body may take some time to try to correct the damage caused by alcohol consumption. Eating a well-balanced diet of highly nutritious foods can help give your body the tools needed to recover. Restoring the amino acid balance is one strategy to help you recover what was lost to alcohol. Check out BioRebalance Restore to help beat alcohol cravings, improve your mood, restore nutrients destroyed by alcohol, and restore your body’s natural balance.
Dr. Rebeca Eriksen, PhD MSc BSc (Hons) RD, is the Co-Founder at BioRebalance. She has a PhD in Nutritional Genetics from Imperial College London, and over ten years of clinical experience designing custom nutritional repair regimens for patients recovering from alcohol addiction and other disorders.