Yes, drinking red wine is said to help with managing cholesterol etc but don’t go overboard – here’s why you don’t want too much of a good thing!
Dangers of Excessive Consumption of Alcohol
In fact, alcohol is the most widely used legal drug in Australia. Despite being legal, there are still severe health risks associated with alcohol consumption – and these risks progressively increase the longer you drink:
- liver damage;
- brain damage;
- heart disease;
- high blood pressure; and
- increasing your risk of cancer.
Being a drug, alcohol is addictive so it can be hard to break this addiction.
Here’s why you need to be careful not to have too much of a good thing (alcohol).
When Alcohol Displaces Food
The problem is that for heavy drinkers, alcohol can sometimes displace the food in their diet. That means that instead of getting energy from food, it comes from the alcohol.
On top of this, people also tend to consume more unhealthy foods while they are drinking. Both moderate and excessive drinkers have been shown to consume excessive protein foods (like meat, fish and eggs), and excessive alcohol was associated with insufficient dairy, and fruits and vegetables.
Excessive drinkers were also more likely to skip meals (especially breakfast). For people who drank at mealtimes, they were less likely to adhere to most of the dietary guidelines.
As you can see, having a poor diet can be quite common and if you are not eating enough, or cutting out major food groups, it can result in malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.
A nutrient of concern is thiamine as thiamine deficiency occurs in up to 80% of chronic alcoholics.
Thiamine (B1) is a water soluble and an essential vitamin which means that our body needs it, but we can’t produce it – so we need to get it from food.
Our main source of thiamine is in enriched whole grains, but it is also found in beef, legumes, milk, nuts and seeds. Intake of nutritious foods, particularly carbohydrates, is lower in heavy drinkers compared to non-drinkers. So if you are drinking lots of alcohol you are at greater risk of not consuming enough thiamine in your diet.
The other issue is that as a result of alcohol abuse the body can’t absorb thiamine as well, the liver has a reduced capacity for storage, and there is impaired conversion to its active form. What this means, is that even if you were consuming enough thiamine from your diet, your body may not be able to manage it properly which could result in deficiency.
Thiamine is involved in many processes in the body, with the main ones being energy production, carbohydrate metabolism, and nerve cell function. As a result, a thiamine deficiency can cause a range of symptoms including headaches, nausea, fatigue, irritability, depression and abdominal discomfort. The biggest concern is the impact it has on your brain and cognition.
Wernicke’s Korsakoff Syndrome
This occurs due to depletion of thiamine, and is actually a combination of two syndromes which regularly occur together.
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy: Involves damage to the nervous system, causing symptoms such as confusion, loss of muscle coordination, double vision and abnormal eye movements.
- Korsakoff syndrome (or Korsakoff Psychosis): Causes memory problems and nerve damage leading to loss of memory and inability to create new memories, making up stories and hallucinations.
Wernicke’s Korsakoff Syndrome is characterised by a triad of symptoms:
- Ocular disturbances (ophthalmoplegia);
- Changes in mental state (confusion);
- Unsteady stance and gait (ataxia).
However, as mentioned above, there are many other symptoms associated with this condition.
Strengthening Your Mind
Kicking an alcohol addiction can be hard, but it is made even more difficult by the fact that you may be deficient in nutrients that are significantly affecting your ability to think straight. If you are worried that you might be deficient in thiamine, a blood test would reveal this and it can be treated simply using a vitamin supplement.
In order to keep your mind strong, you need to make sure that you are getting adequate nutrition. Here are a few simple tips to help you nourish your mind:
- Even if you aren’t hungry, try to have 3 meals per day at regular times;
- Eat whole grain carbohydrates like wholegrain bread, brown rice and wholegrain pasta to ensure you are getting enough thiamine;
- Try to have some vegetables at each meal. Frozen vegetables are a healthy, convenient option;
- Aim for 2 serves of dairy a day; that is a glass of milk and some cheese or yoghurt.
The bottom line is that thiamine deficiency is really common in heavy drinkers. It occurs due to not eating enough, as well as damage to your body from the alcohol.
Thiamine deficiency can turn into a life-threatening condition that impacts your cognition, but even a moderate deficiency could be affecting your ability to think which will make it harder for you to give up drinking. Focus on making some small changes to your diet that will help to strengthen your resolve, and help you to finally kick the habit.
Author: Ashleigh Hamilton.
Sechi, GianPietro; Serra, Alessandro (2007). “Wernicke’s encephalopathy: new clinical settings and recent advances in diagnosis and management”. The Lancet Neurology. 6 (5): 442–55.
Valencia?Martín, José L., Iñaki Galán, and Fernando Rodríguez?Artalejo. “The association between alcohol consumption patterns and adherence to food consumption guidelines.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research35.11 (2011): 2075-2081.
Kesse, Emmanuelle, et al. “Do eating habits differ according to alcohol consumption? Results of a study of the French cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (E3N-EPIC).” The American journal of clinical nutrition 74.3 (2001): 322-327.