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Drug Addiction, Alcoholism and Malnutrition

O woman … take care of yourself

By Daryl Samson

When people who abuse substances enter our addiction treatment center in British Columbia they often show signs of malnutrition. For heroin addicts the malnutrition is due to the loss of appetite that the drug induces. Chronic alcoholics also suffer malnutrition, especially a shortage of thiamine (vitamin B).

People with malnutrition are vulnerable to infection. The nutrients from food are essential to the functioning of the immune system. Without a properly functioning immune system one is easily susceptible to disease.

Other outcomes of malnutrition are breakdowns in the basic functioning of the body. In addition to being underweight, the malnourished substance abuser may suffer from a bad complexion and digestive problems. He or she may complain of muscle aches and fatigue. Hair may stop growing and even fall out and women of childbearing age stop menstruating. Tooth decay can also occur.

Malnutrition is not limited to the long-term substance abuser. Anyone who fails to eat, or who eats food of low nutritional value for a few days, can suffer malnutrition.

In chronic alcoholics malnutrition often presents itself in behavior that is characteristic of alcoholics but is actually the symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome, or “wet brain” disease, caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B).

Symptoms of Korsakoff’s include amnesia. This can be both short and long-term. For example, following a blackout, the alcoholic may be unable to remember the circumstances that lead to the blackout (short-term amnesia). He or she may also, for example, forget the names and faces of relatives (long-term amnesia).

Those who suffer Korsakoff’s syndrome also demonstrate confabulation, which is invented memories that are taken as true due to gaps in memory. This is why chronic alcoholics may seem to believe their own lies. The memory has been invented because there is no memory and the invented memory that has replaced it is now believed to be true.

Another syndrome, called Wernicke encephalopathy, can accompany Korsakoff’s syndrome. It causes brain damage, loss of coordination and loss of eye movement. Korsakoff’s syndrome is a continuum of Wernicke’s syndrome. Brain damage caused by Korsakoff’s or Wernicke’s syndromes cannot be reversed.

Korsakoff’s syndrome was once thought to be an incurable condition that would result in full-time care. Currently treatment includes replacement and supplementation of thiamine along with proper nutrition and hydration.

Good nutrition and vitamin therapy are extremely important to the treatment of substance abuse. The brain needs to recover from its lack of thiamine and the body needs proper nutrition in order to overcome malnutrition and build up the immune system.

Specific vitamin supplements may be supplied by physicians to overcome the effects of Korsakoff’s syndrome, but a regular diet high in anti-oxidant foods, such as fruit, fish and vegetables, and with adequate protein, fat and carbohydrates, is essential.

Substance abusers often suffer from disruptive sleep patterns, so coffee is not recommended. The drug addict of alcoholic should limit their intake of caffeine to two cups a day and drink these only in the morning. Sugar intake should also be reduced because of its effects on the body chemistry.

It is amazing how proper nutrition helps heal the recovering substance abuser. Along with abstention from all addictive substances, the introduction of nutritious food and vitamin therapy can restore the person to their former complete health.


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