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Nutritional Therapy for Alcohol Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on August 25, 2020

Did you know that heavy drinking can lead to big shortages in the nutrients you get? Research shows that drinking a lot over a long time -- as in alcohol use disorder -- often leads to poor nutrition. Nutritional therapy, a treatment approach that involves nutrition education, changing your diet, and adding supplements, can help balance out this loss.

How Heavy Drinking Causes Malnutrition

The more alcohol you drink, the more calories you get. This makes you less hungry for food, so there’s a higher chance you’ll skip meals or choose foods that are low in nutrients.

Over time, too much alcohol can make your body less able to absorb some of the important nutrients you need, even if you’re eating a healthy diet. Combined with poor nutrition, this may increase your risk of alcohol-induced injury to your liver, intestines, lungs, and brain.

Nutrients that might be lacking when you overuse alcohol include:

Not getting proper nutrition takes a toll on your body. It may leave you anxious, out of sorts, and make it hard to sleep. This can cause depression and fatigue. If you have alcohol use disorder (severe problem drinking that affects about 15 million people in the U.S.), these feelings can make it even harder to make good choices when it comes to both food and alcohol.

You might also notice symptoms from poor nutrition like:

How Does Nutritional Therapy Help?

There hasn’t been a lot of research on the role of nutritional therapy in recovery from substance use yet. That said, some studies have found that it can boost your chances for a successful recovery. Other research shows that thorough nutrition education can improve the odds that you’ll still be sober after 3 months.

Nutritional therapy can be another tool to help, whether you’ve just started or you’ve already been in recovery for some time. The biggest benefit: When your body gets all the nutrients it needs, your mental and physical health improve. Your body starts to heal, your mood balances out, and your stress drops. All these changes can help lessen your desire to drink.

How to Get Started

First, you’ll need a full nutritional workup from your family doctor. They’ll ask about your health history, do a physical exam, and run some blood tests. This shows the doctor what nutrients you’re lacking. That way, you can work on getting them into your diet. The doctor may tell you to take supplements to raise your nutrient levels. These may also help prevent or reduce alcohol-induced organ damage.

A personalized plan can help make the most of nutritional therapy, so you may want to consider working with a dietitian. They’ll help you create a diet that addresses your unique health situation, weight, and personal diet needs. Ask your doctor for a referral, or contact your local hospital, community health center, or university. There are holistic addiction treatment centers and substance use treatment programs that emphasize nutrition education, too.

If you’re new to recovery, your body may not be used to eating or digesting much. You’ll probably need lots of small, healthy meals throughout the day. The doctor or dietitian will tell you what to do. Switch up your meals by eating a range of foods from the groups you need. Drink plenty of water during the day to keep yourself hydrated.

You’ll need to be especially careful not to replace alcohol with sugar or caffeine. Filling up on them makes it harder to eat enough healthy food. They can also affect your mood when they wear off, which could make you want to drink.

Remember that nutritional therapy should be just one piece of your whole treatment program. To stay in recovery and live a healthier, happier life, you need to try other things. You can see a counselor to learn how to manage stress, join a support group to talk to others who understand what you’re going through, and get regular exercise to stay healthy and lower anxiety.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

UpToDate: “Nutritional status in patients with sustained heavy alcohol use.”

Alcohol Research: Current Reviews: “Development, Prevention, and Treatment of Alcohol-Induced Organ Injury: The Role of Nutrition.”

Here to Help: “The Role of Nutrition in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.”

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Alcohol Use Disorder,” “Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.”

Drug and Alcohol Dependence: “The importance of nutrition in aiding recovery from substance use disorders: A review.”

Nutrition and Dietetics: “Systematic review of nutritional interventions for people admitted to hospital for alcohol withdrawal.”

Today’s Dietitian: “Substance Abuse and Nutrition.”

Recovery.org: “Nutrition for Addiction Recovery.”

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