Alcohol or Drug Use Can Rob Your Body of Nutrients

Learn how supplements can help heal your body and your mind.

Posted Mar 28, 2016

You might be surprised to learn that many people with substance use disorders suffer from nutrient deficiencies. If you’re one of the millions of Americans who struggle with alcohol, stimulant, or opiate addiction, it’s important that you know how your nutritional health might be affected. Supplements can help you correct these deficiencies and regain your health.

Let’s look first at alcohol. Alcohol has calories, but it doesn’t offer any nutrients. Many alcoholic beverages (especially mixed drinks) have added sugar. If you drink a lot of alcohol, these beverages can make up a significant part of your caloric intake for the day – up to 50 percent, for some people. Alcohol ends up displacing many of your food calories. If alcohol intake represents at least 25 percent of your total calories, your intake of carbohydrates, protein, and fat – the building blocks of your diet – can drop significantly.

When alcohol edges food out of your diet, it also edges out the nutrients in those foods. You simply don’t take in all the nutrients you need. In addition, people who drink a lot of alcohol suffer from poor digestion and have trouble absorbing nutrients. Heavy use of alcohol can lead to deficiencies in vitamins A, C, D, and K, as well as the B vitamins. It can also lead to deficiencies in calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. 

Alcohol isn’t the only substance that can deprive the body of nutrients. Stimulants like cocaine, methamphetamine, Adderall, and Ritalin can suppress appetite. Many people who use stimulants simply don’t feel hungry, and thus end up underweight and undernourished. Cocaine abuse can lead to deficiencies in the B vitamins and vitamin C. Long-term use of marijuana can lead to zinc deficiency and cause problems with the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids.  Chronic dieters can also be zinc deficient.  Zinc deficiency is also associated with depression and poor appetite.  Individuals with SUD who also have eating disorders, can have nutritional deficits including B-vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, Vitamins C and E, copper and essential fatty acids.

There is an important connection between mood, nutrition, and substance abuse. Many people start using drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with feelings of anxiety or depression. As well, depression and anxiety, if left untreated can increase your risk for relapse.

The irony is that drugs and alcohol can make your anxiety or depression worse in the long run, in part by draining your body of nutrients that you may have been low on to begin with. The good news is that when you supplement your diet and get the nutrients you need, you’ll also be helping to improve your mood.

To take the first step toward better health, nourish your body with these supplements:

  • A good multivitamin that contains:  Vitamin A, zinc and Vitamin C.
  • B-complex vitamin – B-vitamins are necessary co-factors in the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.  Symptoms of B-vitamin deficiencies can include poor appetite, fatigue, poor sleep, weakness, irritability and depression.  Take one daily.
  • Vitamin D - In alcoholics, serum vitamin D levels below 30 ng/ml are associated with greater long-term mortality.[1]  Vitamin D deficiency can be associated with musculoskeletal pain syndromes (such as fibromyalgia), depression and other mood disorders, loss of bone density (which people with eating disorders and alcohol use disorders are already at higher risk for) and decreased immune function.  Take 2000 IU daily.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Studies have linked essential fatty acid deficiency to anxiety, relapse and suicidality.  Up to 63% of all completed suicides suffered from substance use disorders.[2]  Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in studies to reduce the risk for suicide. [3]  Low intake of omega-3s (DHA) also is associated with higher risk for alcoholic fatty liver in animal models.[4]  A higher omega-3 level in substance abusers was associated with decreased anxiety and anger and lower rates of relapse.[5]  Take 2000-3000 mg daily of combined DHA and EPA.

To support your recovery, try these supplements:

Taurine. One gram three times a day helps the body get rid of the toxic byproducts of alcohol and may decrease the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Taurine may also reduce the risk of addiction in cocaine abusers.

Coenzyme-Q10. This may reduce neurotoxicity caused by methamphetamine and cocaine.  Take 200 mg daily.

N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). This supplement may reduce cravings for cocaine. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (2 grams daily) may improve memory in abstinent alcoholics.[6]  Take a minimum of 600 mg per day.

If you struggle with

Carolyn Ross/Shutterstock
Source: Carolyn Ross/Shutterstock

, talk with your doctor about trying one of these supplements:

  • SAMe. 200 to 800 mg twice a day.
  • 5-HTP. 100 to 300 mg daily. This supplement can help with sleep and mood. It may not be suitable if you are taking an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) or another serotonin precursor such as L-tryptophan.
  • St. John’s Wort. 300 mg three times daily. This supplement is highly effective for mild to moderate depression and is the most widely used antidepressant in Europe.

Caution: Do not take the above supplements if you have bipolar disorder (manic depression). They can trigger manic episodes.  Consult your physician if you are taking other medications for depression.

If you struggle with anxiety, you may benefit from one of these:

  • L-theanine. 200 to 400 mg per day as needed.
  • Valerian. 300 to 400 mg two to three times daily.  At higher doses it may help with sleep issues.

And finally, substance use disorders are associated with changes in glucose metabolism. Dips in blood sugar can lead to depression, anxiety, moodiness, and cravings to use drugs, drink, or overeat. Sound familiar?

It is important to not only replace missing nutrients but also stabilize blood sugar. You can give your body a head start by eating fewer sweets and simple carbs like white flour, and by upping the fiber, protein, veggies, and whole grains in your diet.

Good health in recovery involves paying closer attention to your nutritional status.   By taking control of your nutritional health, you can support the healing of your body and mind – and boost your ability to achieve lasting recovery.

[1] Quintero-Platt G, et al. Vitamin D, vascular calcification and mortality among alcoholics. Alcohol Alcohol. 2015 Jan;50(1):18-23.

[2] Schneider B. Substance use disorders and risk for completed suicide.  Arch Suicide Res. 2009;13(4):303-316.

[3] Sublette M, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated essential fatty acid status as a predictor of future suicide risk.  Am J Psychiatry 2006;163: 1100-1102.

[4] Song BJ, et al. Prevention of alcoholic fatty liver and mitochondrial dysfunction in the rat by long-chain PUFAs. J Hepatol. 2008 Aug;49(2):262-273.

[5] Buydens-Branchey L and Branchey M. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease anxiety feelings in a population of substance abusers. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2006 Dec;26(6):661-665.

[6] Lake J. 2015: http://www.amazon.com/Alcohol-Drug-Abuse-Integrative-non-medicationebook...