Whether you’re the relative, friend, or physician of an alcoholic, following the gradual decline of a person with a serious drinking problem is an emotionally wrenching experience. A college student chugging more brews than his buddies; a business executive needing a daily three-martini lunch; an empty-nester hiding fifths of whiskey behind the vegetable oil in the pantry–they will all suffer the effects of alcohol.
To the body, alcohol is a toxin, a poison, pure and simple. And uncontrolled drinking is an illness all by itself. But it’s an illness that also leads to other illnesses, life-threatening conditions involving the heart, liver, brain, muscles, and nerves. They will all feel the force of the poison.
The only treatment for alcoholism itself is abstinence. But at WholeHealth Chicago, we’ve seen that much of the damage alcohol does to the body is nutritional. A good supplement program can repair some of that damage. It may also help reduce alcohol cravings as well.
What is Alcoholism?
Considered a chronic disease by many experts, alcoholism is an intense physical and psychological dependence on any form of alcohol. Heavy drinking is defined as three or more drinks a day, but alcoholism itself is not as easy to define. Someone may abuse alcohol from time to time, for example, without necessarily being an alcoholic. Accordingly, alcoholism is diagnosed less on the basis of discernible physical symptoms than on the degree to which it alters one’s behavior and its long-term effects on health. Consumed in moderation, alcohol is actually healthy; it is believed to protect the heart. But long-term, excessive drinking can damage not only the heart, but the liver, pancreas, brain, intestines, and other organs. In pregnant women, even moderate drinking can increase the risk of mental retardation and other birth defects. And in all people, alcohol increases the risk of accidental injury and death–even when consumed in small amounts–by impairing judgment, affecting concentration, and reducing response time. Alcohol is second only to tobacco as the overall cause of premature death in America, mainly in young adults.
Constantly pursuing opportunities to drink
Being unable to reduce your alcohol intake
Making alcohol a higher priority than family, friends, and work
The need for increasing amounts of alcohol to feel high
Denying that there is a problem and resenting those who bring it to your attention
Experiencing signs of withdrawal–tremors, seizures, hallucinations–during periods of abstinence
What Causes Alcoholism?
While social and psychological factors no doubt play a role in alcoholism, research indicates that alcoholics have a strong genetic predisposition to the disease. Children of alcoholics are at high risk of becoming alcoholics themselves, even when they are raised in nondrinking households.
Treatment and Prevention
When a person acknowledges that he or she is an alcoholic, conventional physicians usually recommend entering some sort of a formal treatment program, either on an in-patient or an outpatient basis. Psychological counseling, especially with a therapist especially trained in addictions, can be very valuable. However, it has been the worldwide groups of Alcoholics Anonymous that remain the single most effective factor in dealing with alcohol dependence. A second organization, Al-Anon, supports the families of alcoholics.
In addition to counseling and referral to AA, physicians may prescribe disulfiram (Antabuse) to help alcoholics stay sober. When this medicine is taken on a regular basis, an alcoholic will feel extremely nauseated with even one sip of alcohol. Prescription medications may be necessary to ease the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, but several natural supplements may also help during the recovery period, which may last for weeks or even months. All of them can be taken together and in conjunction with prescription drugs.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition, it’s always wise to check with your doctor before beginning a supplement regimen.
How Supplements Can Help
Vitamin C, best combined with vitamin E, will help cleanse alcohol from the body’s tissues and relieve minor withdrawal symptoms. Extra thiamin may also be beneficial.
The B-complex vitamins, the amino acid glutamine (taken as L-glutamine between meals), and extracts from the kudzu vine seem to reduce the craving for alcohol.
To strengthen the liver and help it rid the body of toxins, take the herb milk thistle, the amino acid NAC (N-acetylcysteine), and the vitamin B-like substance phosphatidylcholine.
If sleeplessness is a problem, try the herb kava a natural sedative. The herb valerian can also be helpful.
Join a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Your loved ones can join Al-Anon.
Maintain a healthful diet, containing plenty of nutrients. Eat high-quality protein, lots of fruits and vegetables, and avoid sugar and refined flour products.
Start regular exercise and yoga programs; they can be very helpful in cleansing the body of toxins, including alcohol. They also tend to reduce depression, which frequently accompanies alcohol abuse.
For some people, acupuncture is effective in reducing the craving for alcohol.
When to Call a Doctor
If you drink before breakfast
If drinking binges last for 48 hours or longer
If alcohol causes you to black out or fall
If you frequently use alcohol to relieve stress or pain
If your drinking is adversely affecting your personal or professional relationships
David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Most problem drinkers eat badly, getting their calories from alcohol rather than food. This means they are frequently lacking vitamins and protein. Serious deficiencies are usually with the B-vitamin family, vitamin C, and protein in general. In addition, all alcohol requires detoxification by the liver. When the amount is excessive, the liver gets overwhelmed and can actually become inflamed (alcohol hepatitis) and scarred (cirrhosis).
The vitamins, herbs, and other supplements on our list have four separate roles:
To restore depleted nutrients.
To strengthen and support the damaged liver.
To increase the body’s supply of protein.
To provide some help in reducing alcohol cravings. Acute withdrawal. Anyone who is trying to end their chronic excessive use of alcohol should always (always!) be under the care of a physician. Withdrawal seizures and delirium tremens can be fatal and must be managed in a hospital setting.
Long-term recovery. After a person has stopped drinking and is medically stable, the supplements can all be taken together during recovery–a period that can last for weeks or even months. Except for sedative herbs, such as kava or valerian, these supplements are also safe to use with any of the tranquilizing drugs prescribed to help a recovering drinker cope with withdrawal symptoms. If you have been prescribed Antabuse, and you are using any liquid herbal therapies, you must make certain these are totally alcohol free.
It’s very important that you pay attention to your basic nutritional needs by taking a daily high-potency multiple vitamin and an antioxidant combination.
How to Take the Supplements
Most chronic alcohol users are badly depleted in B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. In particular, the thiamin in the B-complex will help with withdrawal symptoms, and some extra vitamin C can play a role in clearing alcohol from the body tissues.
Studies have also shown that extracts from the kudzu vine seem to help lessen the craving for alcohol. To compensate for protein deficiencies, start a good quality soy-based protein powder; dissolve it in fruit or vegetable juice and drink it two, or even three times a day. Just remember, excess protein is actually harmful if you know you have cirrhosis of the liver.
To strengthen the liver, begin the herb milk thistle and the amino acid-like substance phosphatidylcholine. In addition, liver damage dramatically lowers levels of glutathione, one of the body’s key antioxidants, and taking N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a precursor to glutathione, will help this situation.
Researchers have found that the amino acid glutamine helps reduce anxiety as well as the desire to drink alcohol. The herb kava, a natural and nonsedating tranquilizer, can help combat anxiety, tremulousness, and troubled sleep. Another herb, valerian, is more sedating. Small amounts of valerian can be used throughout the day, increasing the dose at bedtime to help with insomnia. Neither herb should be used with prescription sedatives or tranquilizers.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD