Most alcohol addicts will tell you staying sober is anything but easy. It can actually be a daily struggle to deal with distressing withdrawal symptoms including intense cravings, anxiety, insomnia, tremors, shakiness, dizziness, depression, impaired cognitive thinking and poor memory and, in serious cases, seizures and hallucinations. Yes, addiction can be really tough to beat; but only if you are using the wrong approach.
The conventional method of managing withdrawal and reducing cravings is medical and psychological intervention – involving medication, detoxification, rehabilitation programs, support groups, and individual therapy. However, the standard approach to treat alcoholism often misses an essential link – biochemical repair.
Alcohol addiction: Brain chemistry gone wrong?
Current research suggests that alcohol addiction is primarily caused by imbalance in brain chemicals, and more specifically those involved in the brain’s reward system. Addiction is our body’s misguided effort to repair this biochemical imbalance.
A healthy body produces a healthy amount of neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glutamate, acetylcholine and endorphins. A correct balance in this chemical equation is integral to maintain healthy cognitive functions, overall well-being, regulate mood, feelings of pain, pleasure, anxiety, depression and nervousness.
One of the most important pathways that plays a major role in developing addiction is the mesolimbic pathway or reward pathway. It works by making us feel good when we engage in life-sustaining behaviour such as eating, drinking water, sex and nurturing. The brain reward pathway, specifically involving dopamine, makes us repeat this behaviour and even connects with other areas of the brain that involves memory and reinforcing behaviour – telling the brain to remember that doing something made you feel good and to repeat this behaviour to experience that pleasure again without thinking too much about it. Release of neurotransmitters by the brain is responsible for these happy feelings.
Alcohol stimulates the brain to release excessively high amounts of dopamine, resulting in intense pleasure so one feels incredibly good and happy. Alcohol also stimulates the excessive release of other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, GABA and endorphins. The brain on the other hand finds ways to adapt to these strong surges in neurotransmitters. One of the most important ways employed by the brain is to start down regulating the signal receptors in the brain or by producing less dopamine, thus desensitizing the brain to the alcohol and so diluting the feelings of happiness and that instant high.
However, the memory centre in your brain still associates alcohol with intense pleasure and there is a motivation to feel the same level of reward or pleasure. Of course, with desensitized receptors, you no longer enjoy things you found pleasurable before, thus feeling lifeless and depressed. And of course you are going to require more alcohol to seek that high. Eventually the brain loses its ability to produce neurotransmitters without the help of alcohol (or other substance of choice such as sugar or drugs) – resulting in the onset of alcohol addiction . Overtime, other brain circuits involved in memory, judgement, self-control and learning are impaired too.
So, what causes these disruptions in neurotransmitters equation? Overstimulation due to over use of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and drugs, hormonal imbalances, genetic disorders, child abuse, hypothyroidism, and food allergies are some common risk factors. However, one major underlying factor that causes neurotransmitters to become deficient, depleted or disturbed is nutritional deficiency.
Most alcoholics eat poorly, restricting their supply of essential nutrients, for example carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. In addition, alcohol and its metabolism interfere with the body’s ability to properly digest, absorb, store and utilize nutrients. It also causes further nutritional challenges by causing severe damage to organs like the liver and the pancreas.
Depletion of nutrients causes imbalances in important brain chemicals, steering the body towards chemical dependency, such as on alcohol, drugs and even sugar, to restore positive emotions and feelings of pleasure. Many alcoholics test positive for hypoglycaemia – often a result of poor nutrition and over use of sugar and carbohydrates known to give an instant high. The stressful symptoms of hypoglycaemia, including depression, fatigue and dizziness, don’t help a person with the resolve required to stay sober for long.
Adopting a holistic approach that also addresses nutritional deficiencies can improve the success rate of recovery programs many times over.
Nutritional Therapy for Alcoholism
In addition to the conventional methods, a nutritional approach may help curb alcohol cravings and deal with withdrawal symptoms. Replenishing the missing nutrients with proper diet and vitamins and minerals supplementation can make a huge difference. This involves targeting a person’s nutritional deficiency that may be affecting the brain chemistry and making a person more vulnerable to fall into addictive traps. Healthy diet, comprising of healthful proteins (fish, legumes, nuts, eggs and chicken), healthy fats, high-fibre vegetables and fruits is an excellent starting point in restoring the body’s chemical haemostasis. In addition, these foods also help to normalize fluctuations in blood sugar levels which its own role to play in increased alcohol cravings.
In addition to the dietary and lifestyle changes, supplementing with targeted vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids and herbs may be helpful in correcting these imbalances and coping with dependence on alcohol.
The B family of vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B9) are particularly vulnerable and are destroyed by alcohol intake. These vitamins are essential for the body’s energy production and for the health of the nervous system – important for physical, mental and emotional well-being. In addition, these vitamins are helpful in reducing alcohol cravings, soothing mood and minimizing the toxic effects of alcohol on the brain.
Alcohol burns B Vitamins, and especially B1. A majority of heavy drinkers are diagnosed with having thiamine deficiency, which in severe cases may cause Wernickie-Korsakoff syndrome or wet brain, a condition common in chronic alcoholics and characterized by highly confused state of mind and chronic memory loss. Vitamin B1 helps in reducing fatigue, brain fog, poor memory and disorientation during alcohol withdrawal. Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) helps in reducing the intensity of headaches and hand tremors often experienced in the withdrawal phase. Vitamins B3 (niacin) and B5 (pantothenic acid) not only helps to get the alcohol out of the body but also supports the functions of adrenal glands responsible for regulating stress hormones.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is required for the production of important brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin. While serotonin influences mood and helps in inducing calmness when an alcoholic is struggling with severe anxiety and depression, melatonin regulates the body clock and helps in inducing healthy sleep patterns and fights insomnia. Vitamin B9 (folate) is equally important in maintaining brain health and is severely depleted in alcoholics, as alcohol interferes with the folate metabolism and inactivates the folate circulating in the bloodstream. Both Vitamin B9 and B12 help in relieving depression and improving nervous system health.
Alcohol depletes your system of Vitamin C, which plays an important role in minimizing the oxidative damage to the liver inflicted by alcohol. Vitamin C also helps in alcohol detox, eliminating excess alcohol, especially in the initial withdrawal phase. Alcohol consumption exerts added stress on the body, compromising the immune system. Vitamin C helps here as well. According to a Livestrong article, “Vitamin C has a theoretical benefit for reducing alcohol cravings because this vitamin helps your body produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters. Overcoming cravings is (a) key to overcoming alcohol addiction.”
The University of Maryland Medical Center notes the combination of amino acids carnitine, glutamine and glutathione, helps to reduce alcohol-induced stress, swings in blood sugar levels and strong alcohol cravings. L-glutamine, in particular, is believed to be helpful in quashing cravings, fatigue and anxiety levels experienced during withdrawal.
Milk thistle contains silymarin, a flavonoid with excellent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is known to stimulate regeneration of liver cells and protect liver from alcohol induced toxic damage. Milk thistle also helps in increasing glutathione levels in the body. Glutathione is possibly THE MOST important anti-oxidant and detoxifying agent in the body.
Essential fatty acids
Including healthy fats in your diet is important for efficient absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin D, A, E and K, which are absolutely important to maintain eyes, brain and bone health. Besides nutritional complications, deficiency of essential fatty acids, such as Omega 3 and Omega 6, may result in problems for people who are in the recovery phase and may explain, depressive and impulsive behaviour. A study published in FASEB Journal highlights the mechanisms that suggest both Vitamin D and marine omega-3 fatty acids play a critical role in brain development, cognitive functions, social behaviour, decision-making and impulsive behaviour by optimizing brain serotonin levels and function . Olive oil, flaxseeds, walnuts, coconut oil, fish and avocado are good sources of healthy fats.
NAC may just be one of the most promising supplements to manage alcohol addiction. A precursor for naturally occurring amino acid cysteine, NAC has shown extraordinary potential in treating compulsive disorders like addiction  . When taken as a supplement, NAC beaks down into cysteine and further into glutathione – the master anti-oxidant that is extremely efficient in fighting oxidative stress. What’s more glutathione plays an important role in phase one and phase two of liver detoxification process.
Studies suggest that the Chinese herb kudzu (Pueraria lobata) can be used as safe and effective therapy to treat alcohol abuse. It has been shown to help heavy drinkers cut down their alcohol consumption  . A 2013 study suggested that “kudzu extract significantly reduced the number of drinks consumed each week by 34-57 %, reduced the number of heavy drinking days, and significantly increased the percent of days abstinent and the number of consecutive days of abstinence.” Another 2015 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence concluded that a single dose of kudzu extract can quickly reduce alcohol consumption in binge drinkers, showing a rapid effect within 90 minutes .
Before you start taking any supplements, it is important to first consult your doctor and thoroughly review your condition, prescribed medications and complete medical history. A nutritional approach is not as simple as ‘popping’ these supplements or herbs. It involves careful consideration of various factors, including the extent of nutritional deficiency and any genetic disorder. Some supplements may interact with your current medications and may even be potentially toxic to the liver, an organ that has already taken a severe hit by prolonged alcohol abuse. Making significant changes to your diet and lifestyle will help you sail through the recovery and withdrawal phase but the right way to do it is under the guidance of an expert and experienced health practitioner.
- Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Rhonda P. Patrick And Bruce N. Ames. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. FASEB Journal, February 2015
- Bowers et al. N-acetylcysteine decreased nicotine reward-like properties and withdrawal in mice. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2016.
- McClure et al. Potential Role of N-Acetylcysteine in the Management of Substance Use Disorders. CNS Drugs. 2014
- Lukas SE, Penetar D, Berko J, Vicens L, Palmer C, Mallya G, Macklin EA, Lee DY. An extract of the Chinese herbal root kudzu reduces alcohol drinking by heavy drinkers in a naturalistic setting. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 2005
- Lukas SE, Penetar D, Su Z, Geaghan T, Maywalt M, Tracy M, Rodolico J, Palmer C, Ma Z, Lee DY. A standardized kudzu extract (NPI-031) reduces alcohol consumption in nontreatment-seeking male heavy drinkers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013
- Penetar DM, Toto LH, Lee DY, Lukas SE. A single dose of kudzu extract reduces alcohol consumption in a binge drinking paradigm. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2015