There are several health risks that excessive alcohol use can cause, but one that is seldom thought about is the nutritional imbalances that can result from drinking too much of it.
It is common for people with alcohol use disorder to drink to the point where they neglect important areas of their lives, including their diet. However, eating the right foods is necessary as those foods supply the body with energy and help it replace worn or damaged cells that are needed for proper functioning of the body.
Nutritional deficiencies rob the body of key vitamins and minerals, causing major problems for people who can’t control their drinking, including the development of chronic diseases and mental health disorders.
How Drinking Alcohol Interferes With Nutrient Intake
Heavy drinking interferes with the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients in several ways. Over time, excessive drinking can damage cells that line the stomach, which diminishes the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Alcohol also can decrease the digestive enzymes needed to break down food. Even nutrients that are digested and absorbed can be affected by alcohol’s presence in the body. The substance changes how those vitamins and minerals are transported, stored in the body, and excreted.
Excessive drinking also can deplete stored-up nutrients that the liver needs to metabolize alcohol. After the substance is ingested, it is eventually broken down by the liver, which uses the body’s nutrients to metabolize or process it. Once it runs out of those nutrients, the body must work harder to seek them from other areas to keep up with the demands of processing the alcohol.
Drinking large amounts of alcohol, however, likely means the body will not get those essential vitamins and minerals, which is when malnutrition sets in.
In many cases, chronic drinkers do not get the right nutrients because they either are a) eating the wrong foods when they remember to eat or b) they aren’t eating enough due to having a suppressed appetite from drinking.
Why Substituting Alcohol for Food Is a Bad Idea
Some people who drink get as much as 50 percent of their total daily calories from alcohol, according to data cited by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. However, these calories have little nutritional value, so substituting alcohol for meals is not a good idea.
Drinking also causes some people to skip meals because they aren’t feeling hungry, but at that point, they are full of “empty calories” that must be metabolized quickly because the body can’t store them.
As this process takes place, other metabolic processes are put on hold. This means the sugars and fats found in unhealthy foods that drinkers may eat when they are hungry will not be metabolized as quickly, which causes weight gain. Longtime drinkers can even end up losing weight from consuming alcohol for a long time.
What Deficiencies Can Alcohol Cause?
Heavy alcohol use impairs the body’s ability to absorb and metabolize vital nutrients. Chronic drinkers may be deficient in Vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, as well as the B vitamins, which are all involved in the healing of wounds on the body and cell maintenance.
Alcohol can also cause mineral deficiencies. Among them are:
The B-vitamins are vulnerable in cases of long-term alcohol use. Drinking too much can inhibit the absorption of vitamin B1, or thiamin, which is involved in the metabolism process for proteins and fat as well as the making of the iron-rich protein hemoglobin. Chronic alcohol use also can affect vitamin B12 and folic acid.
NIAAA explains that alcohol itself does not affect the absorption of these minerals. Instead, absorption problems appear to be linked to other alcohol-related issues. For example, a decrease in calcium could be a sign that the small intestine is unable to absorb nutrients. Too much drinking can also leave people dehydrated because alcohol is a diuretic. Water must be replaced every day.
What Are the Signs of Alcohol-Related Nutritional Deficiencies?
Symptoms will vary based on which nutrients are missing from a person’s diet, but some signs are:
- Pale skin
- Hair loss
- Breathing troubles
- Heart palpitations
- Tingling, numbness in joints
- Concentration problems
If you think you or a loved one has nutritional deficiencies related to drinking alcohol, see your doctor. He or she can review the symptoms in your situation and give you specific advice, including how to improve your eating habits. Professional treatment for alcohol use disorder may also be recommended.
Nutritional deficiencies brought on by alcohol consumption can trigger tiredness, anxiety, lethargy, apathy, and depression, which can lead to a relapse in people who have abstained from drinking for a period. This is another reason why people who want to end their alcohol dependence may find it hard to stop drinking.
How Nutrition Therapy Can Help Recovering Alcohol Users
Health-conscious eating can benefit people who want to recover from alcohol use disorder. Nutritional therapy can provide support for recovery plans that promote healthy eating. The ideal diet plan for recovering alcohol users should include:
- Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products
- Lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
- Limits of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars
- Portion sizes
- Healthy, satisfying snacks that discourage overeating or eating the wrong foods
A nutritionist or registered dietician also can offer guidance on how to go about managing food plans that promote health and wellness for people in recovery from alcoholism.