Detox (detoxification) is an essential first step for anyone seeking treatment for alcohol addiction. When carried out in a medically supervised setting, this process helps addicted drinkers make it through withdrawal and establish sobriety while avoiding major complications. A healthy diet plays an important part in safe detoxification. That’s because anyone who drinks heavily for extended periods of time can develop serious nutritional deficiencies, as well as related physical and mental side effects.
Alcoholism, Nutrient Intake and Nutrient Processing
Alcohol intake ranks high as a source of nutrient deficiencies. The problems associated with alcoholism begin with the impact that heavy drinking has on basic nutrient consumption. While alcohol is rich in carbohydrate calories, it lacks crucial substances such as vitamins, minerals and protein. This means that people who get a lot of their calories through drinking have a significant chance of developing problems with malnutrition. In addition to protein, specific substances often missing from the diets of chronic heavy drinkers
- Thiamine (vitamin B1)
- Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
- Folic acid (vitamin B)
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
Malnutrition becomes a possibility whenever alcohol makes up at least 30 percent of total calorie intake[ii]. In some heavy drinkers, alcohol intake accounts for almost 60 percent of all calories consumed[iii].
Once nutrients enter the body, they must be processed before they can provide their health benefits. Unfortunately, excessive alcohol consumption can interfere with basic nutrient processing in several ways. First, the presence of alcohol alters normal food digestion and makes it more difficult for the body to break down protein.
Chronic heavy drinking also interferes with the function of the liver and pancreas, two organs that play an essential part in nutrient metabolism. The liver has a protective function and helps eliminate dangerous substances from the bloodstream. The pancreas has a more active role, performing tasks that include fat processing and blood sugar regulation.
Malnutrition-Related Damage in Alcoholics
If left uncorrected, malnutrition can have far-reaching consequences for people affected by alcohol addiction. For example, alcohol-related changes in liver and pancreas function can lead to problems such as electrolyte imbalances, protein imbalances and fluid imbalances. Severe damage in these organs can also lead to the onset of diabetes, as well as seizures and advanced malnutrition symptoms. A chronic shortage of B vitamins can set the stage for nervous system malfunctions and the red blood cell disorder anemia. In addition, a chronic lack of vitamin B1 can lead to the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a two-part disease with symptoms that include a progressive loss of mental function, memory disruptions and hallucinations.
The Benefits of a Healthy Diet During Detox
There are several key benefits to eating a healthy diet while going through alcohol detoxification. First among these benefits is correction of the nutritional deficiencies created by long-term, excessive drinking. Some people may have difficulty eating a variety of foods when they first enter detox. However, intake of a nutritionally balanced diet should begin as soon as possible. Components of a balanced diet include foods such as whole grains, lean proteins, vegetables and fruits.
Consumption of a healthy diet can also help offset the anxiety, depression and other psychological/emotional symptoms that often appear during the process of alcohol withdrawal. This occurs because proper nutrition helps support the normal function of mood-regulating chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine. Adequate protein intake can play an especially important role in this area.
By consuming a balanced diet, people going through detox can also decrease the intensity of the alcohol cravings that appear during and after the withdrawal process. This happens, in part, because people addicted to alcohol often fail to distinguish between hunger and the urge to drink when they first attempt to get sober. Instead of calling for more alcohol, their bodies are often calling for more food. In addition, the mood irregularities associated with a poor diet tend to feed cravings for alcohol. When those irregularities fade away, the desire to drink can start to fade, as well.
There are two additional reasons for consuming a healthy mix of foods during alcohol detox. First, a switch to a balanced diet can help recovering alcoholics correct medical problems not necessarily related to excessive drinking. In addition, a healthy diet can help prepare someone in detox for enrollment in an active treatment program after they establish initial sobriety.
Alcohol Detox Facilities
People detoxing from alcohol can develop mild, moderate or severe symptoms of withdrawal. In its moderate and severe forms, alcohol withdrawal can pose serious risks to health and well-being. Examples of these risks include seizures and the onset of a major complication called delirium tremens (the DTs).
It’s impossible to know for sure what kinds of symptoms will occur during alcohol detoxification. For safety’s sake, no one should attempt to detox without some form of medical assistance. In some cases, this assistance can be provided on an outpatient basis. However, people moderately or severely affected by withdrawal symptoms tend to receive help on an inpatient basis[iv]. An inpatient setting makes it easier for doctors to make thorough medical assessments, provide proper oversight and work with nutritionists to develop appropriate, balanced diets for all detox participants.
[ii] Today’s Dietitian: CPE Monthly – Substance Abuse and Nutrition http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/120914p44.shtml
[iii] PLOS One: Alcohol Consumption and Dietary Patterns – The FinDrink Study http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0038607