Alcoholism is infamous for its damaging effects on a variety of organs, including the liver, brain and pancreas. However, fewer people probably know that many of alcoholism’s consequences stem from the condition’s impact on basic good nutrition.
In fact, nutritional changes account for a significant portion of alcoholism’s long-term complications, and many chronic alcoholics eventually develop severe forms of malnutrition-related illness. In addition to treatments that deal directly with their reliance on alcohol, alcoholics typically need to change their nutritional habits during their recovery. Researchers also now know that maintenance of good nutritional habits can help decrease the risks for a future alcohol-related relapse.
Generally speaking, nutrition is the process through which your body extracts health-supporting substances, known as nutrients, from the foods in your daily diet. To maintain your health, you need to consume certain amounts of a variety of nutrients, including fats, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, and vitamins. Lack of adequate nutrient intake will lead to a form of malnutrition called undernutrition, while excessive nutrient intake will lead to another form of malnutrition called overnutrition. In addition to other roles they play in your body, proteins, fats and carbohydrates play a critical role in nutrition because they provide you with calories; you burn these calories in order to provide the energy needed for both voluntary and involuntary body processes.
Alcohol is a calorie-containing substance; in purely technical terms, this means that it qualifies as a type of nutrient. However, from a nutritional standpoint, other harmful properties of alcohol more than offset any potential benefits. First, and perhaps most importantly, alcohol is poisonous to human beings, and in significant amounts it will degrade the normal function of your liver and a number of other organs involved in nutrient processing. Because of its effects on these organs, alcohol directly or indirectly causes a variety of nutritional disruptions, including degradation of your ability to properly process dietary fats; depletion of your supply of most major vitamins; and depletion of your supply of essential minerals such as zinc, magnesium, calcium, and iron. In chronic alcoholics, serious or severe nutrition-related problems can ultimately manifest as a contributing factor in liver damage, or as a main factor in pancreatic inflammation or permanent brain damage.
In addition to experiencing the detrimental impact of drinking itself, many alcoholics fall into a habit of substituting alcohol for substantial portions of their normal daily diet. In extreme cases, this substitution decreases food and nutrient intake by as much as 50 percent. For alcoholics who initially start with minor malnutrition-related health issues, this pattern of food replacement can potentially worsen their condition and trigger the onset of major forms of malnutrition.
During recovery, experts at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report, alcoholics with identified cases of malnutrition do best when they combine avoidance of alcohol with a dietary program that addresses any nutritional deficiencies. While the specific required diet will vary from person to person, certain general dietary factors may play a role. For instance, consumption of high-protein foods (such as chicken or fish) can potentially reduce alcohol cravings by stabilizing an alcoholic’s blood glucose (blood sugar).
Consumption of foods that contain complex carbohydrates (such as beans, nuts and certain types of vegetables) can potentially provide an alcoholic with improved sources of stable energy. Limited consumption of foods with a relatively high fat content (such as cheese, butter or olive oil) can potentially help reverse some forms of alcohol-related nerve damage. In some cases, recovering alcoholics will also benefit from supplements that contain concentrated doses of specific minerals or vitamins.
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