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How Does Alcohol Affect Vitamin Absorption?

Excessive alcohol consumption has many effects on the body. Many are common knowledge, such as alcohol’s effect on the liver, pregnancy, or the ability to think clearly.

However, some effects might be lesser-known. One example is how alcohol affects the body’s ability to absorb vitamins.

Why Do People Take Vitamin Supplements?

Many people take multivitamins to improve their health, supplement their diet, or fill nutritional gaps. The National Institute of Health reports more than half of all Americans take vitamins or dietary supplements. Some use them on occasion, while others take vitamins regularly.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association lists some reasons people take vitamins.

Overall Health

Most of the time, participants said they took vitamins to improve or maintain their current health levels.

Bone Health

Another reason people said they took vitamins was to improve bone health. This explanation was much more common among women than men.

Diet Supplements

Some study participants reported that they took vitamins to supplement their diet. They hoped to add minerals or vitamins they believed were lacking in their food.

Energy Enhancement

About 10% of the study participants took vitamins to elevate their energy levels.

Site-Specific Health

Study participants also reported taking vitamins to support particular organs or systems. These included:

  • Heart
  • Joints
  • Skin
  • Colon
  • Eyes
  • Hair and nails
  • Prostate
  • Sleep function
  • Memory

Women in the study also reported taking vitamins for an anticipated pregnancy or to treat menopause symptoms.

Doctor’s Advice

About a quarter of the study participants said they took vitamins on the advice of a healthcare professional. Participants said their doctors advised supplements for heart, bone and overall health.

What Affects Vitamin Absorption?

Research indicates that some food and drink combinations enhance the body’s ability to absorb vitamins. The body absorbs plant-based iron better when paired with vitamin C, for example, and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.

Medication

Some medications can decrease, increase or block the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. One example is NSAIDs, drugs that reduce fever, pain and inflammation. Patients requiring high doses may need to supplement their vitamin C, vitamin K and folate intake.

On the other hand, patients taking a diuretic called triamterene need to avoid eating large amounts of potassium-rich foods. Triamterene causes the body to hold on to potassium.

Digestive Disorders

Malabsorption syndrome is a digestive disorder that prevents the body from absorbing nutrients. Most absorption happens in the small intestine. When its mucus lining sustains damage, the small intestine cannot effectively absorb nutrients.

Malabsorption syndrome has many causes, including:

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Chrohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease
  • Chemotherapy and radiation
  • Bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine
  • Food intolerances
  • Liver, pancreas and gallbladder diseases
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

How Does Alcohol Affect Nutrient Absorption?

Alcohol contains calories, but it does not contain nutrients, vitamins or minerals. Many alcoholics tend to get their calorie intake from alcoholic beverages. They do not consume as many nutrient-rich foods as they need. Studies on the eating patterns of people who drink excessively show that as they drink more, they get fewer energy calories from protein and carbohydrates.

Excessive alcohol drinking interferes with the body’s ability to use the nutrients it does receive:

  • It damages the cells lining the small intestine and stomach, leading to malabsorption. Even a single binging episode can lead to erosions, bleeding and mucosal injury.
  • It decreases digestive enzymes in the pancreas. Normally, these enzymes help digest proteins and carbohydrates. They also break down fat. Damaged enzymes can begin to “digest” the pancreas itself.
  • It increases the transport of toxins across intestinal walls. As alcohol damages the lining, the gut becomes more permeable.
  • Even if the body absorbs some nutrients, alcohol affects the ability to store and excrete them.
  • It interferes with the body’s microbiome, its natural community of microbes. The microbiome helps the body synthesize specific vitamins.

What Nutrients Does Alcohol Deplete?

Excessive drinking affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients in a general way. It also has a significant effect on specific vitamins.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 has many roles in the body, including:

  • Cell metabolism
  • Nerve function
  • DNA production
  • Red blood cell formation

You can get vitamin B12 when you eat dairy, meat, poultry and fish products. Some foods contain added B12, such as fortified cereals.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to many health problems. They can range from fatigue and muscle weakness to nerve damage, anemia, mood disturbances and intestinal issues.

When alcohol damages the stomach lining, it can cause atrophic gastritis, or stomach inflammation. It affects the stomach’s ability to secrete a substance called intrinsic factor. This substance enhances the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12.

Thiamine

Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, allows the body to convert food into energy when it mixes with sugar. It can also help resist sepsis, an extreme infection response.

Thiamine fights off depression by stabilizing your mood. It can also improve memory and concentration.

Thiamine supports kidney and circulation functions. It can also improve nerve pain in diabetic patients. It minimizes heart disease risk by helping to produce acetylcholine. This is an element that allows the nerves and muscles to communicate.

You get thiamine when you eat organ meats, wheat germ, legumes, whole-grain cereals, potatoes and rice.

Thiamine Deficiency

Early symptoms of thiamine deficiency include irritability, depression, fatigue and headache. Very low levels can lead to brain problems, low blood pressure and fluid retention.

Alcohol causes thiamine depletion in a few ways:

  • Liver damage can drain thiamine reserves.
  • Malnutrition and diarrhea associated with alcoholism can cause thiamine deficiency.
  • Alcohol-related malabsorption can cause thiamine deficiency.
  • The glucose in alcohol can require the body to need more thiamine, thereby depleting the reserves.

Folate

Folate is another type of B vitamin. It is also called vitamin B9. It can help the body prevent DNA changes. It also helps the body grow and maintain new cells. It is essential during early pregnancy to help prevent spine and brain congenital disabilities.

You can find folate in:

  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Oranges and lemons
  • Bananas
Folate Deficiency

Folate deficiency symptoms include anemia, mouth sores, neuropathy and growth problems.

Alcohol prevents the body from absorbing folate. It also causes the body to excrete folate through urination.

Vitamin C

Many people know vitamin C supports the immune system. It can also help with brain and heart health and reduce inflammation in the body. It enables the body to absorb iron.

Good sources of vitamin C include:

  • Oranges
  • Tomatoes
  • Kiwi
  • Strawberries
  • Bell peppers
Vitamin C Deficiency

While rare in the U.S., vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy. It is a condition that causes bruising, weakness, rash, fatigue and bleeding gums.

Alcohol prevents the pancreas from absorbing vitamin C. This interferes with regular cellular action and predisposes the pancreas to disease.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A supports the bones, skin and vision. It also helps the growth, repair and maintenance of cells and tissues.

Natural sources of vitamin A are dairy products, eggs, oily fish and liver. Plant sources include yellow fruit and green, leafy vegetables.

Vitamin A Deficiency

Signs of vitamin A deficiency include:

  • Dry hair, mouth and eyes
  • Itchy, dry skin
  • Brittle nails
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Poor vision at night

Excessive alcohol consumption depletes the liver of vitamin A, leaving it vulnerable to disease.

Calcium

Calcium is essential for building strong bones. It also supports healthy function in the nerves, muscles and heart. Scientists are researching to see if calcium can protect the body from cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes.

You can consume calcium in foods such as:

  • Dairy products
  • Fish with bones (sardines, canned salmon)
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Calcium-fortified products
Calcium Deficiency

Too little calcium causes bones to become weaker, leading to fractures and osteoporosis. Children can fail to reach their potential adult height.

Alcohol decreases the body’s ability to absorb calcium and its partner, vitamin D. It can also affect the pancreas and vitamin D metabolism.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an abundant mineral in almost every cell. It helps with many metabolic processes, such as building proteins and producing energy.

Magnesium is present in foods such as:

  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Meat and fish
Magnesium Deficiency

A lack of magnesium in the body sometimes correlates to Alzheimer’s, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Signs of deficiency include:

  • Fatigue
  • Appetite loss
  • Numbness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Seizures

Alcohol can deplete the body’s magnesium levels through malabsorption. It can also cause organs to flush out too much magnesium.

Iron

Iron plays a role in many body processes, including:

  • Hemoglobin function
  • Oxygen transport
  • Increased energy
  • Pregnancy support

Iron is in food products such as white beans, canned clams and fortified cereals.

Iron Overload and Iron Deficiency

Excessive alcohol consumption can cause the body to store too much iron. Scientists are working to understand why. Symptoms of iron overload include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Joint and abdomen pain
  • Skin darkening
  • Weakness and fatigue

However, consuming too much alcohol can also lead to iron-deficiency anemia. It happens when the body doesn’t absorb enough iron. Alcohol can cause anemia by inhibiting the body’s ability to absorb folate. Anemia can also happen due to poor nutrition.

Symptoms include:

  • Trouble focusing
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Pale skin
  • Arrhythmia

Zinc

Zinc helps with DNA creation, supports the immune system, builds proteins and heals damaged tissue. It is essential during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence as it helps with rapid cell growth.

You get zinc by eating foods such as shellfish, poultry, nuts, seeds, whole grains and fortified cereals.

Zinc Deficiency

You may have zinc deficiency when you:

  • Lose hair
  • Lose your taste or smell
  • Have diarrhea
  • Have wounds that don’t heal
  • Experience a loss of appetite

Liver damage due to alcohol consumption is related to zinc deficiency.

Other Essential Vitamins

People with alcoholic liver disease can have low vitamin D levels. Researchers are trying to determine why. Alcohol may deplete the liver’s supply of vitamin D, or vitamin D may regulate the genes responsible for alcohol metabolism.

Alcoholic liver disease is also associated with low vitamin E  and K levels. Vitamin E has antioxidant properties and helps with reproduction, vision, and the health of the blood, skin and brain. Vitamin K is responsible for making proteins that support blood clotting. It also helps build bones.

Can Vitamin Supplements Help People With Chronic Alcohol Consumption?

Malnutrition is common among alcoholics. Between 20%-60% of people who consume alcohol excessively are malnourished. It varies widely among people, and it is hard to predict who will deal with it. However, the degree and prevalence of liver cirrhosis play a crucial part in malnutrition. The worse shape the liver is in, the more likely the person is malnourished.

As you learned earlier, excessive alcohol consumption can cause malnutrition. It interferes with the body’s ability to absorb and store vitamins. People also suffer from malnutrition when they replace healthy food with alcohol’s empty calories.

Nutritional Supplementation

Research shows that people with alcohol disorders can benefit from nutritional supplementation. Giving them the nutrients they need can help reverse organ damage or prevent it from happening. Additionally, supplements are widely available, making them accessible for most recovering people.

Treatment for Liver Damage

Alcoholics with chronic liver disease may use treatment methods such as:

Of these options, scientists have studied nutritional therapy the most. It has proved to help in a few ways, including overall nutrition, liver function, decreased infection rate and patient survival.

Zinc To Repair Organ Injury

Zinc treatment can help repair alcohol-induced organ injury. It can help with problems in the gut, liver, lung and brain in many ways:

  • Strengthening the intestinal wall
  • Preventing toxic bacteria from entering the blood
  • Decreasing inflammation
  • Slowing down cell death
  • Balancing free radicals and antioxidants

Dietary Fats and Fatty Acids To Reduce Inflammation

Dietary fat can reduce inflammation and protect brain cells. Good sources of healthy fats include olive, canola and sunflower oils. Fatty acids reduce inflammation and support neurotransmitter activity. You can find them in shellfish, salmon, corn oil and safflower oil.

Fat-Soluble Vitamins To Replenish Liver Stores

Vitamins A, D, E and K are stored in the liver until the body needs them. Research supports supplementing these vitamins in people with intrahepatic cholestasis. It is a condition causing reduced bile flow in the liver. It is associated with alcoholic liver disease. Fat-soluble vitamins can improve the patient’s nutrition and treat intrahepatic cholestasis.

B Vitamins To Treat Liver Problems

B vitamins (such as vitamin B12, thiamine and folate) can help patients with cirrhosis, malnutrition and protein intolerance. These conditions relate to excessive alcohol consumption.

Vitamin C To Treat Liver Conditions

Vitamins C and K can treat people with cirrhosis and malnutrition. These are conditions associated with alcohol consumption.

The Importance of Hydration

Water does not contain nutrients, yet it is vital to recovery. Alcoholics can become dehydrated quickly. Alcohol is a diuretic that can cause the body to flush water. As alcohol replaces water consumption, the body can lose water.

The effects of dehydration include:

  • Acne from oxidative stress on the skin
  • High blood pressure that damages the kidneys
  • Stiff, cramped muscles
  • Liver disease
  • Impaired cognitive function

People in recovery should aim to drink about eight glasses of water per day.

What Are Foods To Avoid When Treating Alcoholism?

People recovering from excessive alcohol consumption need to concentrate on improved nutrition. If they have been replacing food with alcohol, they may need to re-learn healthy eating patterns by:

  • Eating scheduled meals
  • Understanding that hunger pangs can be mistaken for alcohol cravings
  • Watching out for food cravings that can develop as the body looks to replace alcohol

Sugary Foods

It’s a good idea to avoid sugar-loaded foods during recovery. One study demonstrates that women with a family history of alcoholism may crave sweets. Additionally, the body may try to replace alcohol cravings with sugar cravings. Sweets trigger dopamine production, a chemical messenger that drugs can set off.

Highly Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods are usually cooked in oil and can be high in unhealthy fats. They also contain high levels of salt, fat, sugar, artificial colors and flavors, and stabilizers. These ingredients are harmful in large amounts. They don’t add nutritional value to the diet.

Recovering alcoholics need to concentrate on eating vitamin-rich, nutritious foods. They are re-learning hunger cues and healthy eating. Ultra-processed foods fill them up without adding essential vitamins and minerals.

How Can Clean Recovery Centers Help With Nutrition During Recovery?

We understand that recovery is a multifaceted process. Our unique Three-Phase Approach includes treatment options for every phase. We can design a plan for you no matter where you are in your recovery journey. We focus on the whole person: physical, mental, social and spiritual.

We offer nutritional counseling as part of our alcohol rehab services at Clean Recovery Centers. You can work with a medical team member to review a nutritional assessment. We can identify your requirements and goals while working with you to reach them.

Start your recovery journey today. Call us at 888-330-2532.

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