A large part of my time as a naturopathic physician is spent teaching patients about foundational lifestyle choices which will bring them closer to sustainably optimal health: individualized diet, improved sleep, exercise, stress reduction etc. When the topic of alcohol consumption comes up, though, there’s generally a wide range of emotional attachment to the activity itself. Nearly everyone knows that “drinking isn’t good for you” (though research does show that moderate consumption of some
types of alcohol may be beneficial for some
people), but human nature is such that some vices are often readily justified by those in the pursuit of their own version of a happy life. As doctors our job is not to judge people’s choices, but rather to better inform those choices by educating our patients. In light of April being Alcohol Awareness Month, it is important to address ways in which we can limit the harmful effects of alcohol consumption.
The Cost of Alcohol Consumption: A National Hangover
It is important to note that these recommendations are for “moderate drinkers”, and should not be considered comprehensive or appropriate for those suffering from alcoholism, which is a very serious condition requiring the care of a physician. With 85,000 annual deaths attributed to alcohol consumption, among preventable causes of death alcohol ranks third in the United States after smoking and obesity.1, 2
One study estimated the cost of the collective “hangover” after alcohol consumption in the US to be $148 billion annually, with a majority of that incurred by light and moderate drinkers.3
As doctors our job is not to judge peopleâ€™s choices, but rather to better inform those choices by educating our patients....
How to protect yourself
- The first step to resolving any health condition is making sure that we make an effort to nourish and replenish our bodies and minds every day. This includes eating a health promoting diet (Aim to consume a minimally processed whole foods diet), exercising (at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise), getting adequate sleep (7-8 hours per night), consuming clean water (approximately 64 oz per day) and keeping a positive mental attitude. Very often, we seek out the apparent comforts of alcohol or other mind altering substances (coffee included) to fill a need which may otherwise be lacking. Working on building meaningful relationships (with others as well as with ourselves) and finding fulfilling hobbies (volunteer work, creative outlets such as art, joining local initiatives to improve our communities) may serve as ways to alter our need for these temporarily comforting alternatives.
Speak to your ND about the individualized lifestyle plan which is most appropriate for you.
Specific Nutrients to Consider
- Those who drink alcohol in excess frequently have deficiencies in multiple nutrients which are necessary for optimal health. This occurs in part due to a restriction in essential nutrient consumption, damage to the gastrointestinal tract, and to alterations in metabolism directly related to how we process alcohol. The actual nutrients which may be beneficial are likely dependent on a person’s genetics, and it is always best to obtain these nutrients from your food. In some cases, supplemental forms of these nutrients in higher potencies may be needed, for which you should consult your naturopathic physician
: Our body relies on the tireless work of our anti-oxidant defense system, which must be replenished by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables every day for a regular supply of nutrients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Selenium. Vitamin C is often depleted in those who consume alcohol on a regular basis.4
Vitamin E is the most important anti-oxidant for protecting our cell membranes, especially those of the brain and liver, which are often damaged with excessive alcohol use.5
Selenium is also often low in those who consume alcohol regularly, which is an important consideration as selenium deficiency may be correlated to increased rates of liver cancer (which is a risk factor related to alcoholism).6, 7
Be sure to consume as many deep colored fruits and vegetables you can throughout the day, in addition to raw nuts and seeds.
: This mineral is very important for many functions in the body including immune function, vision, taste, hearing, wound healing and hormone regulation. In a study done on rats, those fed a zinc deficient diet were more likely to choose to consume alcohol than those who weren’t.8
Those who drink alcohol in excess have been shown to be deficient in zinc.9
In addition, those who consume a lot of alcohol may be at risk for intestinal “leaky gut” syndrome due to the zinc deficiency which results from it.10
Good sources of zinc include seafood, meat, whole grains, legumes, egg yolks, nuts, and seeds.
: Many of the B Vitamins (B1, B3, B6, Folate, B12) tend to be depleted in those who consume alcohol regularly, causing some potentially serious negative consequences. Consider speaking to your naturopath about taking a high quality B complex to prevent some of those negative effects.
: This is an important fatty acid whose production is limited in those who tend to drink a lot. Consuming gamma-linolenic acid may help to limit withdrawal from alcohol, as the body of someone who consumes alcohol on a regular basis may lose the ability to produce it in sufficient supply. It is readily available in evening primrose oil, borage seed oil, and black currant seed oil.11
Mokdad AH, Marks JS, Stroup DF, Gerberding JL. Actual causes of death in the United States, 2000. JAMA2004;291(10):1238-45.
Saitz R. Clinical practice. Unhealthy alcohol use. N Engl J Med2005;352(6):596-607.
Wiese JG, Shlipak MG, Browner WS. The alcohol hangover. Ann. Intern. Med 2000; 132(11): 897-902.
Hancock RD, Viola R. Improving the nutritional value of crops through enhancement of L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) content: rationale and biotechnological opportunities. J Agric Food Chem 2005;53(13):5248-57.
Waluga M, Hartleb M. Alcoholic liver disease. WiadLek. 2003;56(1-2):61-70.
DeySarkar P, Ramprasad N, DeySarkar I, Shivaprakash TM. Study of oxidative stress and trace element levels in patients with alcoholic and non-alcoholic coronary artery disease.Indian J PhysiolPharmacol 2007;51(2):141-6.
Sakoda LC, Graubard BI, Evans AA, et al. Toenail selenium and risk of hepatocellular carcinoma mortality in Haimen City, China. Int J Cancer 2005; 1;115(4):618-24.
Collipp PJ, Kris VK, Castro-Magana M, et al. The effects of dietary zinc deciciency on voluntary alcohol drinking in rates. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1984;8:556-559.
McClain CJ, Su LC. Zinc deficiency in the alcoholic: a review. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1983;7:5-10.
Zhong W, McClain CJ, Cave M, Kang YJ, Zhou Z.The role of zinc deficiency in alcohol-induced intestinal barrier dysfunction. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2010 May;298(5):G625-33.
Horrobin DF. Essential fatty acids, prostaglandins, and alcoholism: an overview. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1987;11:2-9.