Alcoholism and Nutrition


Thiamine Deficiencies Among Alcoholics Are Very Common

Alcoholism and nutrition is a big concern. Heavy, frequent drinkers often do not get adequate levels of nutrition to support overall health, which further exacerbates the effects of alcohol on the body.

Thiamine (Vitamin B1) is one of the most common deficiencies and up to 80 percent of alcoholics do not get enough of this essential vitamin, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which has studied the issue of alcohol and nutrition.

Thiamine is needed by all of the body’s tissues, including the brain. Vitamin B1 can be found in foods such as meat and poultry; nuts; and dried beans, peas, and soybeans; and whole grain cereals.

Many foods are commonly fortified with Vitamin B, including bread and cereal. As a result, most Americans get enough thiamine from their diet. The typical amount consumed by most people in the U.S. is 2 mg per day; the recommended amount is just over 1 mg.

Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome From Alcoholism and Nutrition

A number of alcoholics have thiamine deficiencies. This is usually due to poor overall nutrition. The NIAAA reports that the many alcoholics with Vitamin B1 deficiencies will experience severe brain disorders such as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. This disease consists of two different syndromes, both related to alcohol and nutrition:

    1. Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. This is a short-term, serious condition that causes one or more of the following alcoholism and nutrition related conditions: 1. mental confusion, 2. paralysis of the eyes, and/or 3. problems with muscle coordination.

    For instance, an individual with Wernicke’s Encephalopathy may get easily disoriented, have trouble walking or moving in a specific way, and/or experience vision problems. These are all alcohol and nutrition problems.

    2. Korsakoff’s Psychosis. This is a long-term, debilitating condition that is typically present in the alcoholics with Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. It is another alcoholism and nutrition related condition. Memory problems and learning disabilities characterize this condition.

    Individuals may have problems remembering events of the past, yet they are particularly challenged to recall more recent details or conversations that may have happened earlier in the day.

    Those who suffer from Korsakoff’s Psychosis may have trouble with walking and coordination. They also tend to get frustrated easily.

As explained in the October 2004 edition of the NIAAA’s Alcohol Alert (1), alcoholism and nutrition deficiencies are linked to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for some forms of learning and for coordinating movement.

The cerebellum appears to be especially sensitive to thiamine deficiency and is the area of the brain most commonly damaged by chronic alcohol abuse.

For patients in the early stages of Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome, administering thiamine helps to improve brain function.

Twenty-five percent of WKS patients have permanent brain damage and significant loss of cognitive skills. The scope of care then shifts from treatment to providing support to the patient and their family. When brain damage is this severe, custodial care may be required.

Because of these concerns regarding alcohol and nutrition, many treatment centers employ dieticians to work with patients regarding their diet. Vitamin supplements may be prescribed, and the patient is educated about a healthy diet. Balanced meals are served at the treatment center. When addressed early, thiamine deficiency can be avoided or corrected before serious brain damage results.

Please feel free to write to us if you have questions about alcohol and nutrition.






More than alcoholism and nutrition on our alcoholism facts page

Alcoholism home page





(1)Alcohol Alert October 2004