Nutritional Effects of Alcohol and Alcoholism

Over the years, numerous studies have shown that moderate alcohol intake can produce health benefits for significant segments of the population. These studies also show that excessive alcohol intake can wipe out those benefits and create a number of serious health problems. Alcoholics, who by definition have a physical addiction to alcohol, typically drink enough to create widespread related damage in their bodies. A major part of this damage is nutritional, and alcoholism produces dangerous deficiencies in a range of critical vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies occur when alcohol disrupts normal function in the liver and other key organs.

Basic Effects of Alcohol Consumption

The alcohol found in beer, wine, distilled liquor and a variety of other beverages is known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol. It produces intoxicating effects by rapidly depressing the normal activity level in your body’s central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Alcohol contains calories (7 calories per gram), and for this reason it is technically a nutrient itself. However, because of its harmful effects on a number of organs, the human body treats alcohol as a toxic or poisonous substance and tries to eliminate it as quickly as possible.

Most of the alcohol you drink gets processed or metabolized in the liver. Smaller amounts of unprocessed ethanol also leave your body through your urine, sweat, saliva and breath. On the average, a healthy liver can detoxify and eliminate roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of an ounce of pure ethanol per hour; this is less than the amount of alcohol contained in a single drink of liquor, beer or wine. Any alcohol consumption above this hourly rate will overtax the liver and put abnormal stress on your body. Over time, chronic consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol will damage your liver, as well as your stomach, pancreas, sexual organs, nerves and brain.

Nutritional Effects

Your body processes alcohol with the help of its stored nutrients; when your liver runs out of the nutrients it needs for this job, it pulls additional nutrients from other areas through your 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 the mineral, calcium.

The presence of significant amounts of alcohol in your body can also directly destroy all members of the B vitamin family. In addition to B9 and B12, this family includes B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid) and B6 (pyridoxine). At the same time, the relatively high calorie content in alcohol (which ranks second only to the calorie content of various forms of fat) can easily lead to weight gain in non-alcoholics who drink regularly.

In alcoholics, damage to the liver, pancreas and stomach degrades the body’s normal ability to process essential dietary nutrients, and therefore increases the intensity of the deficiencies sometimes found in non-alcoholic regular drinkers. Problems grow even 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 Susceptibility 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. In turn, in certain individuals, these responses can reinforce the desire to take 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 the minerals calcium, manganese, magnesium, zinc, chromium, potassium and iron.

Potential 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. According to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, heart and blood vessel-related examples of these effects include high blood pressure, 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 forms of sexual dysfunction, nerve damage-related disorders, and heightened risks for liver cancer and cancer of the esophagus, stomach and upper small intestine.

Offsetting Alcohol’s Nutritional Effects

Regular drinkers can potentially offset at least some of alcohol’s nutritionally harmful effects by eating a balanced diet, eating three times a day on a regular schedule, and supplementing with vitamins and/or minerals in accordance with a physician’s recommendations. Nutritionally deficient alcoholics typically need ongoing treatment under the close supervision of a doctor and a licensed nutritionist or dietician.

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