Psychiatric effects of nutritional deficiencies in alcoholism

Malnutrition is common in chronic alcoholics. Nutrient deficiency in alcoholics also leads to neurotransmitter dysfunction. Summary of an older, very comprehensive scientific review.

Hypocalcemia (too little calcium), hyponatremia (too little sodium), hypokalemia (too little potassium), and hypophosphatemia (too little phosphate) have all been associated with chronic alcoholism. Low serum magnesium, selenium, and zinc levelsare also observed in alcoholism. Deficiencies of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, and C, and fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, have also been found in alcoholics.

General causes of malnutrition in alcoholics include inadequate nutrient intake, especially a deficiency of water-soluble vitamins in the diet, decreased intake, impaired utilization, increased nutrient requirements, and a genetic predisposition to nutrient deficiency.

Nutrient deficiencies are therefore a virtually inevitable consequence of alcohol abuse, not only because alcohol displaces food, but also because alcohol directly interferes with the body’s utilization of nutrients, rendering them ineffective even when they are present.

Chronic alcoholics exhibit a number of neurological disorders related to nutrient deficiencies, particularly vitamin deficiencies that are essential for normal brain function. Specific vitamin and nutrient deficiencies that occur in chronic alcoholics can lead to severe functional impairment and tissue damage, mainly neuronal and vascular, in the brain.

Nutritional deficiency in alcoholics also leads to dysfunction of neurotransmitters, ion channels, oxidative stress, and metabolic disorders in the brain. Nutritional deficiencies in chronic alcoholics often result in mild to moderate cognitive impairment, including impairment in perceptual-motor skills, visuospatial functions, learning/memory, and abstraction and problem-solving skills.

There are a number of nutritional deficiencies that need to be addressed, but magnesium, thiamine, and other B vitamins need to be administered immediately. Nutritional therapy can help with recovery from alcoholism. Patients who received nutritional therapy reported significantly less alcohol craving as well as significantly higher nutrient intake, and a greater number became abstinent from alcohol.

Although abstinence and proper nutrition remain the cornerstones of treatment, pharmacological modification of neurotransmitter function and/or improvement of cerebral metabolism in combination with behavioral methods may also be beneficial, the researchers conclude back in 2005.


This is only a rough summary. The original paper can be found here.


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