The health risks of overindulging in alcohol are well documented. It is common knowledge that alcohol taken in excess over a long period of time can lead to liver disease and many forms of cancer. However, the nutritional effects of alcohol on the body is hardly ever discussed.
What Does Nutrition Have to Do with Alcoholism?
Nutrition serves two purposes—it provides energy in the form of calories and it maintains proper body structure and function. Food is the supplier of nutrition and gives the body the nutrients required to replace worn or damaged cells and perform the important functions noted above.
Alcoholics not only tend to eat poorly, thus robbing the body of essential vitamins and minerals, the alcohol itself interferes with the nutritional process by robbing the body of the nutrients that are necessary for cell repair and replacement, proper digestion and excretion. The major categories of vitamins affected by alcohol are the B vitamins and vitamins A, C, D, E and K.
The B Vitamins
B vitamins are found in proteins. Folate or B9 is essential for new cell growth. Alcohol inhibits its absorption by destroying the cells lining the stomach and intestines that allow its absorption as well as other vital nutrients.
Thiamine or B1 breaks down carbohydrates, proteins and fat in food as it is digested. It also aids in the production of hemoglobin, the protein that binds oxygen in red blood cells. A severe thiamine deficiency can cause the brain disorder Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). This disease is characterized by memory loss, confusion and balance difficulties. Unfortunately, the brain damage suffered from WKS could also be permanent.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause peripheral neuropathy characterized by a tingling sensation and/or pain in the extremities. Signs of B12 deficiency include deep fatigue even after a seemingly good night's sleep, fuzzy thinking, moodiness, inability to fall or stay asleep and a general feeling of malaise that persists.
Vitamins A, C, D, E and K
The nutritional value of these vitamins is also severely compromised by excessive drinking and/or decreased food consumption. Like the B vitamins, absorption, metabolism and use of these nutrients are impaired. Vitamins A, E and D, are normally found in dietary fats. A deficiency of vitamin A can result in night blindness. A deficiency in Vitamin D is associated with softening of the bones.
Being vitamin A, B, C, D, E and K deficient due to heavy alcohol consumption and poor diet interfere with the body’s ability to heal wounds and maintain proper cell function.
Specifically, because vitamin K is required for blood clotting, deficiencies of K may cause delayed clotting resulting in severe blood loss or hemorrhaging. A lack of vitamin C may cause depression, of particular concern to alcoholics, many of whom suffer from depression as an underlying cause of addiction.
Deficiencies of important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc are common in alcoholics, even though alcohol itself in this case is not the culprit affecting their absorption. Deficiencies seem to occur secondary to alcohol-related issues. To illustrate this point:
Decrease of calcium effectiveness due to fat malabsorption
Maqnesium deficiency due to decreased intake, increased urinary excretion, vomiting and diarrhea
Iron deficiency due to related gastrointestinal bleeding
Zinc malabsorption or loss related to insufficient intake of this mineral.
Mineral deficiencies can cause a variety of medical consequences from calcium-related bone disease to zinc-related night blindness and skin lesions.
Alcoholism and Obesity
Like food, alcohol is an energy source, meaning they both contain calories. How the body processes and uses the calories derived from alcohol is more complex than the usual calorie-count-per-food-item charts. The fact is alcohol provides an average 20 percent of calories in the diets of the top third of heavy drinkers in America. One would imagine that if this group regularly consumes a normal diet, the additional 20 percent of calories consumed over and above their daily diet would tend to make them obese - not true. National data indicate despite the higher caloric intake, drinkers are no more obese than non-drinkers.
Tests have shown that when alcohol is substituted for carbohydrates, calorie for calorie, subjects are apt to lose weight. This is an indication that less energy i.e. calories is derived from alcohol than from food.
Why this is so remains a mystery, but one theory states that the body is unable to assimilate the calories in alcohol. But if that's all there is to it, there should not be any beer bellies, and yet, we know they exist. In the 1980's scientist Michel Montignac theorized in his book The GI Diet, that fat in the body is stored as a result of excess glucose, not calories. The way to lose weight, then, is not in cutting calories but in cutting glucose intake. Beer scores very high on the glucose index, wine and spirits score zero.
More studies need to be done to convince the scientific community of Montignac's theory, but at this point it is holding up. On the other hand, the studies on the effects of alcohol as it relates to nutrients in the body have been conducted over many years and the proof is irrefutable. These studies are well documented and accepted by the scientific and medical communities. While the calories in wine and spirits may not contribute to weight gain, they are proven to cause the body harm and to substantially interfere with the way it processes vital nutrients.