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You Are What You Drink: Is Alcohol Use Related to Nutritional Deficiencies?

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Chronic alcohol use can cause significant nutritional deficiencies, such as low levels of vitamins and minerals. This is because excessive alcohol consumption interferes with the body’s ability to process essential nutrients from other food sources. Additionally, heavy alcohol use affects important organ systems, such as the liver and intestines, which are responsible for processing energy and nutrients from food.1,2 Ultimately, chronic drinking, particularly in the context of alcohol use disorder, can lead to the need for nutritional therapy as part of an individual’s alcohol addiction treatment plan.2

How Alcohol Misuse Affects Digestion

Under typical circumstances, digestion begins when you eat, and food is transferred to your stomach and intestines and begins to be broken down for energy, with assistance from the pancreas. The nutrients are then absorbed by the intestines and travel to your liver through your blood. At this point, the liver processes the nutrients for use or storage for later use.3

Alcohol interferes with these processes and makes it difficult for your body to properly break down nutrients for current or later use. Alcohol does this by significantly reducing the number of digestive enzymes that are secreted by the pancreas. Moreover, alcohol damages the cells in the lining of the intestines and stomach, further impairing nutrient absorption. If the nutrients are not properly digested, your body is unable to use those nutrients. Consequentially, your body is unable to use the energy provided by food and body functioning and structure may be compromised.3

Thiamin deficiency, also known as vitamin b1 deficiency, is a condition that is caused by alcohol’s disruption of the digestive system.2 When vitamin b1 is inhibited from being properly absorbed you may experience a range of complications, such as fatigue, loss of appetite, and severe neurological complications.2

The range of digestive issues caused by alcohol can lead to major medical complications and make it hard for you to maintain proper nutritional health in the long term without professional nutritional therapy.3

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Alcohol Misuse and Nutritional Health

Misusing alcohol can lead to serious nutritional complications because of poor digestion, absorption, utilization, and excretion of nutrients within the body.1,3 Plus, excessive alcohol consumption can reduce your appetite, causing your food take to decrease, which, over time may also contribute to nutritional deficiencies.4

Effects on Food Intake

Excessive alcohol consumption can reduce your appetite, causing your food take to decrease, which, over time may also contribute to nutritional deficiencies.4 With a decrease in normal food intake, your body is in danger of failing to receive the proper nutrients to maintain healthy nutritional status.1 Research indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks, the less nonalcoholic calories they tend to consume.5 Alcohol calories are essentially “empty” calories, as alcohol consists mainly of water and sugar, meaning it is not a nutritionally dense food item and it serves little to no beneficial nutritional value.3,5

Impact on Energy Reserves

Alcohol consumption significantly decreases the amount of energy derived from proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, even with proper food intake.3,6 Alcohol consumption can lead to significant changes in blood glucose levels, depending on the nutritional health status of the individual.3

If you have normal nutritional health status, it is likely that your glucose levels will increase from alcohol use due to impaired insulin secretion. The consequences may be more serious if you are drinking while malnourished or fasting, which can lead to dangerously low blood glucose levels. This is because alcohol causes brain and body tissue to be deprived of the proper levels of glucose needed for normal functioning.3

Impairment of Nutrient Absorption

Heavy alcohol consumption can disrupt your body’s nutrient absorption and normal functioning in many ways.7,8,9 For example, chemical-driven liver damage (hepatotoxicity) can be a very serious result of excessive alcohol intake.7 Alcohol use affects many stages of the body’s digestive process including nutrient transportation in your stomach, gastrointestinal cell damage, and irregular cleansing of chemicals and nutrients in your bloodstream.7,8

Consistent alcohol intake slows your liver’s ability to process and clear out all the nutrients it normally processes through digestion.7,8 When this occurs, nutrients from medications or food are sitting in your liver for a longer period than they normally would without the presence of alcohol.7

Since these nutrients are not being properly processed in the liver, they are not being properly broken down and are not useful for your body.3,7 This can lead to nutritional deficiencies that can cause severe medical problems for you over time.3

Vitamin Deficiencies

Vitamins are vital to your body’s normal functioning, growth, metabolism, and physiological processes. Excessive drinking can lead to deficiencies of many different vitamins, such as:3

  • Vitamin A, which is associated with night blindness
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin D, which is associated with bone softening
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K, which can result in excessive bleeding
  • B vitamins

Vitamin C, E, and B vitamins are all involved in cell maintenance and wound healing, both of which could be impaired due to deficiencies.3

Mineral Deficiencies

Important minerals include iron, magnesium, calcium, and zinc, and people struggling with alcohol use disorder typically experience mineral deficiencies. These tend to be caused by other alcohol-related complications. For instance, iron deficiency may be caused by gastrointestinal bleeding. Mineral deficiencies can cause a range of problems, from skin lesions to bone disease.3

Reduction of Protection Agents

Your liver has protective agents that work against liver damage. Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to the reduction of those protective agents in your liver. As a result, you are more susceptible to liver damage and poor nutritional habits can increase your chances of developing alcohol-driven liver damage.9

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Major Organ and Medical Complications

Liver Disease

One of the major diseases associated with chronic alcohol misuse is liver disease. The two pertinent types of liver disease accredited to alcohol misuse are alcoholic liver damage and chemical-driven liver damage.3,7

Alcoholic liver damage, such as cirrhosis, develops as a result of the accumulation of effects that alcohol has on your overall digestive system. The compound of reducing digestive enzymes, damaging cells in the stomach and intestines, and fluctuation of glucose levels in the bloodstream all contribute to the development of alcoholic liver damage.3

Chemical-induced liver damage develops as a result of alcohol’s impact on nutrient breakdown and the liver’s ability to clear the blood of those nutrients. Nutrients and chemicals from food and medications that the body is inhibited from properly breaking down become toxic within the liver and thus causes major complications.7


The pancreas is another essential part of the digestion process that is impacted by alcohol misuse. Digestive enzymes are released from the pancreas into the stomach and intestines to assist the digestion process. With the damage that is caused to the stomach and intestines from alcohol, the process of digestive enzymes being transferred from the pancreas is inhibited.3,10

When the role of the pancreas is inhibited in digestion, alcoholic pancreatitis develops as digestive enzymes are activated and unable to channel through to the stomach and intestines to assist with digestion.10

Brain Functioning

Your brain is another major organ that is negatively affected by alcohol misuse. Since alcohol reduces your body’s ability to efficiently break down and absorb nutrients, your brain can suffer from nutritional deficiencies as well. Consequences of nutritional deficiency of the brain include impaired movement and memory loss.3

Pregnancy and Fetal Development

Alcohol use can affect pregnancy and fetal development. Nutritional needs during pregnancy can increase up to 30%, which can gravely impact your nutritional health status if consuming alcohol during pregnancy.3 Nutrient flow from mother to fetus is inhibited when using alcohol and can result in malnutrition of the fetus and interfere with fetus development.3

Additionally, alcohol is directly toxic to the fetus. Alcohol misuse during pregnancy is linked to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and developmental damage of the fetus during pregnancy.3

Nutritional Therapy for Alcohol-Induced Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies

Heavy alcohol use can cause nutritional deficiencies and can ultimately lead to chronic diseases and significant complications to major organ functioning. The best practice in treating malnutrition and restoring proper levels of nutrients is often nutritional therapy, which includes a healthy, adequate diet, abstinence from alcohol, and nutritional supplements to replace deficient nutrients.3 Often, nutritional therapy is an essential part of an alcohol addiction treatment program, which provides you with therapy and counseling to help you quit drinking.

Nutritional therapy is an innovative approach to dealing with chronic diseases associated with nutritional deficiencies.11 Nutritional therapy can help with recovery from alcohol misuse and malnourishment by expanding your knowledge of the dangerous effects that poor nutrition can have on your health.

Furthermore, developing an understanding of alcohol’s effects on nutrient processing as well as the impact of anti-nutrient foods can contribute to a well-informed recovery process.3,11

If you are struggling with alcohol misuse or complications due to alcohol-related nutritional deficiencies, you may want to seek professional treatment. Call our 24/7 helpline at 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers to find rehab options near you.


  1. Lieber, C. S. (1988). The influence of alcohol on nutritional status. Nutrition Reviews, 46(7), 241-254.
  2. Feinman, L., & Lieber, C. S. (1992). Medical and nutritional complications of alcoholism: Mechanisms and management. Plenum Medical Book Co.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, & Gordis, E., Alcohol alert (2000). U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
  4. Lieber, C. S. (1989). Alcohol and nutrition; an overview. Alcohol Health & Research World, 13(3), 197-205.
  5. Gruchow, H. W., Sobocinski, K. A., Barboriak, J. J., & Scheller, J. G. (1985). Alcohol consumption, nutrient intake and relative body weight among us adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 42(2), 289-295.
  6. Hillers, V. N., & Massey, L. K. (1985). Interrelationships of moderate and high alcohol consumption with diet and health status. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 41(2), 356-362.
  7. Leo, M. A., Kim, C.-I., Lowe, N., & Lieber, C. S. (1992). Interaction of ethanol with β-carotene: Delayed blood clearance and enhanced hepatotoxicity. Hepatology, 15(5), 883-891.
  8. Leo, M. A., & Lieber, C. S. (1989). Alcohol and vitamin A. Alcohol Health & Research World, 13(3), 250-254
  9. Leo, M. (1993). Differential depletion of carotenoids and tocopherol in liver disease. Hepatology, 17(6), 977-986.
  10. Mezey, E., Kolman, C. J., Diehl, A. M., Mitchell, M. C., & Herlong, H. F. (1988). Alcohol and dietary intake in the development of chronic pancreatitis and liver disease in alcoholism. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,48(1), 148-151.
  11. Koithan, M., & Devika, J. (2010). New approaches to nutritional therapy. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 6(10), 805-806.
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