Alcohol Abuse & Malnutrition: Heavy Drinking Depletes Body of Essential Vitamins, Nutrients

By Hugh C. McBride

Many of the devastating effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism – including, but by no means limited to, liver disease, brain damage, fetal alcohol syndrome and an increased risk for a variety of cancers – have been well established and are fairly well understood.

But for a disease that is often characterized (and caricatured) by images of bulbous noses, bloated bodies and beer bellies, another serious effect of alcoholism is not nearly as widely understood.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, alcohol abuse and alcoholism can lead to a condition that is usually associated with impoverished families and famine-stricken nations: malnutrition.

Heavy Drinking, Poor Nutrition

Alcohol’s effect on appetite and nutrition is comparable to its impact on the central nervous system.

Though a depressant, in many cases alcohol’s immediate effect simulates that of a stimulant. Many drinkers initially become euphoric, energetic and boisterous. However, the drug’s true nature eventually exerts itself, and the body slips toward sleepiness and unconsciousness.

Such is also the case with eating and nutrition. As anyone who has attended a backyard barbecue or a pre-game tailgating party can attest, a few drinks can have quite the stimulative effect on one’s appetite – an experience that has been backed by scientific research. But over time, chronic alcohol abuse and alcoholism can take a serious toll on a person’s appetite and nutrition levels.

This relationship between alcohol abuse and malnutrition is addressed on an informational page produced by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc.:

Alcohol is very rich in energy, packing seven calories per gram. But like pure sugar or fat, the calories are void of nutrients.

The more calories an individual consumes in alcohol, the less likely it is that they will eat enough food to obtain adequate nutrients. 

To make matters worse, chronic alcohol abuse not only displaces calories from needed nutrients, but also interferes with the body’s metabolism of nutrients, leading to damage of the liver, digestive system and nearly every bodily organ. 

In a March 16 article on the website Bright Hub, public health expert Kimberly Roberts provided additional insights into the ways in which alcohol abuse and alcoholism can result in malnourishment:

Individuals that abuse alcohol also tend to fill their caloric needs with drinks, as opposed to food. When they do eat meals, they tend to be unhealthy. This is because alcohol is an addictive carbohydrate. Consuming large amounts of this type of carbohydrate increases cravings for more unhealthy carbohydrates, as well as salts and sugars.

Those who abuse alcohol tend to eat low nutrient foods. The few nutrients that their body is receiving have trouble absorbing into the body due to frequent episodes of diarrhea. This leads to malnutrition.

Malnutrition causes significant short- and long-term consequences to a person’s immune system, the ability for numerous organs to function properly, as well as their physical appearance.

Malnutrition and Vitamin Deficiencies

It may not be much of a surprise that alcohol abuse is associated with less-than-ideal eating habits, but the true impact of malnutrition extends far beyond being a bit out of shape or a little hungry.

According to the New York Times Health Guide, symptoms of malnutrition include fatigue, dizziness, weight loss and decreased immune response. If left untreated, malnutrition can lead to impaired mental functioning, physical disability, a variety of illnesses and, in some cases, death.

In an October 1993 “Alcohol Alert,” the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that alcohol abuse can impact nutrition levels in the following ways:

  • Alcohol inhibits the breakdown of nutrients into usable molecules by decreasing secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
  • Alcohol impairs nutrient absorption by damaging the cells lining the stomach and intestines, and disabling transport of some nutrients into the blood.
  • In addition, nutritional deficiencies themselves may lead to further absorption problems. For example, folate deficiency alters the cells lining the small intestine, which in turn impairs absorption of water and nutrients, including glucose and sodium.

“Even if nutrients are digested and absorbed, alcohol can prevent them from being fully utilized by altering their transport, storage and excretion,” the NIAAA reported. “Decreased liver storage of vitamins such as vitamin A, and increased excretion of nutrients such as fat, indicate impaired utilization of nutrients by alcoholics.”

The Alcoholism Information website reports that malnourished alcoholics are particularly prone to deficiencies of vitamins B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B6 (pyridoxine), C and folic acid.

Another Reason to Get Help Today

If you or someone you love is abusing alcohol or struggling with alcoholism, you are well aware of many of the damages that can result from this terrible disorder. Now that you’ve learned a bit more about the association between chronic alcohol abuse and malnutrition, you have one more reason to get help today.

Depending upon the nature and severity of a person’s alcoholism, treatment may take a variety of forms, including outpatient therapy, residential treatment, hospitalization, participation in a 12-step recovery support group or a combination thereof.

But before any of these treatments can give you your life back, two things have to happen: You have to acknowledge that a problem exists, and you have to take advantage of the treatment options that are available to you.

Malnutrition is just one of the many ways that alcoholism can rob addicted individuals of their health and their lives. But no one is beyond help. Treatment works, recovery is possible and an alcohol-free life is within your grasp.