Guest Writer: Anne Foy
For people with an alcohol dependency, the toxic effects of the alcohol itself aren’t the only health problems that develop. In the long term, alcoholism also leads to the development of deficiency in several different vitamins and minerals.
Why do Deficiencies Develop?
Nutrient deficiencies develop in people with alcoholism for several reasons: first is simply that some alcoholics neglect their food intake. They eat less food than they need, and instead get the bulk of their calories from alcohol; but since alcohol contains none of the micro-nutrients that are essential for health, inadequate food intake on its own can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
The second reason is that alcohol reduces the body’s ability to extract nutrients from food, because over time, heavy consumption of alcohol damages the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, which interferes with nutrient absorption. As well as this, chronic alcoholism causes the body to excrete higher than normal amounts of certain nutrients.
For all alcoholics, therefore, there are serious risks of deficiency in multiple nutrients, and the risk is greater in people who eat less food as a result of drinking.
Common Alcohol-Related Deficiencies
People who use alcohol in excess, both short term and long term, are at risk of nutritional deficiencies, but the risk does increase with long term alcohol use. Many of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are related to nutritional deficiency, but those symptoms are masked by the effects of alcohol consumption and are felt only once consumption ceases.
Not all vitamins and minerals are at risk of deficiency—it depends on how readily available nutrients are in food, and how vulnerable they are to alcohol-induced damage. For example, B-group vitamins are particularly vulnerable, and alcoholics have a high risk of deficiency in these vitamins. One of the most important is Thiamine, a B-group vitamin that is absolutely essential for human health. People who are long-term alcoholics have a risk of developing a degenerative brain disease that causes serious damage and eventually death, and one of the most important factors leading to alcohol-induced brain disease is a B-group vitamin called thiamine. One common type of brain disease that can result is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which develops almost exclusively in chronic alcoholics, and causes psychosis, memory loss, and other disorders.
Other common deficiencies include vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, and potassium. All of these play important roles in human health, with symptoms such as depression, fatigue, insomnia, central nervous system problems, and hypoglycemia being possible results of deficiency.
Alcohol doesn’t just affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. As well as this, there’s also a risk of deficiency in vitamin D, a vitamin that promotes the health of several organs, including the heart, and is essential in maintaining bone tissue. However, this particular deficiency isn’t caused by problems with eating or digestion, as this essential vitamin is created by skin cells during sun exposure. The vitamin D that’s produced by skin cells isn’t in a form that the body can use—it has to be processed in the liver and kidneys before the body can make use of it. But when someone drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, these organs, particularly the liver, are already overloaded by the alcohol they must metabolize and excrete. As a result, the ability of the liver and kidneys to metabolize vitamin D is severely impaired, and a deficiency develops, with consequences that can include fatigue, muscle pain and wasting, and loss of bone density, with osteoporosis an eventual risk.
Preventing Nutritional Deficiencies
For someone who has developed nutritional deficiencies as a result of alcoholism, or who is at risk, the best way by far to start repairing the damage is to stop drinking. But due to the nature of alcohol addiction, that’s not always possible; so for someone who’s unable to give up drinking in the present, it’s important that they protect their future health as much as possible by getting enough to eat, and by supplementing with the vitamins and minerals they’re likely to be lacking. A daily multivitamin supplement, plus extra supplementation with calcium, B vitamins, vitamin D, and other key nutrients, can make a huge difference in the long term, and may help prevent serious alcohol-related diseases.
Boulder Medical Center. “Nutritional recommendations for those who consume alcohol.” Accessed December 24, 2014.
Glen L Xiong, MD. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Pathophysiology.” Accessed December 24, 2014
Peter R. Martin, M.D., Charles K. Singleton, Ph.D., and Susanne Hiller–Sturmhöfel, Ph.D. (2004) “The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed December 24, 2014.