Despite the toll it takes, heavy drinking is on the rise in many Western nations. In the US, the number of heavy drinkers rose 17.2 percent between 2005 and 2012. And binge-drinking—defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as ingesting five or more alcoholic drinks in about two hours if you're a man, or four or more drinks if you're a woman—has been a serious concern for decades. A 'heavy drinker' is anyone who engages in binge-drinking more than five times a month.
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 86 percent of people over age 18 reported drinking alcohol at some point, 56 percent said they'd had a drink in the past 30 days, and as much as 27 percent acknowledged that, in the past month, they'd engaged in binge-drinking.
In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that, worldwide, alcohol contributed to more than 200 diseases and injury-related conditions, while in 2012, alcohol was responsible for 3.3 million deaths, or 6 percent of all deaths. In the US, alcohol is responsible for an estimated 88,000 deaths, and the estimated annual cost of alcohol abuse is $249 billion, mostly due to lost productivity, healthcare expenses and law enforcement.
None of these figures, of course, reveals the tremendous burden of pain and suffering alcohol inflicts on individuals and families. Studies indicate that increased alcohol consumption is linked to lower levels of intimacy between partners and a rise in divorce rates.1 They also show a direct correlation between alcohol use and depression.2 The suicide rate is around 120 percent higher in alcoholics than in the rest of the world's
It doesn't help that alcohol is readily available: in the US today, alcohol is more affordable than it was at any time since the 1950s. And any lingering inhibitions against showing alcohol consumption on TV are a thing of the past. Nowadays, a greater emphasis on product placement on TV in general, combined with wider acceptance of drinking, has made alcohol an ever-growing star in many shows.
It also doesn't help that the single most generally prescribed, go-to alcohol-addiction treatment is a non-medical, theistically oriented support-group model developed in the mid-1930s.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is without a doubt the most well-known method of alcohol treatment in the world. By far and away, the majority of hospitals, addiction treatment centers, alcohol-abuse counselors and courts of law in Western nations recommend AA and the application of what has become known as the 12-step recovery program to get and stay sober.
And yet, according to Cynthia Perkins, sobriety coach, author and founder of the Clean and Sober for Life Jump-Start Program, who is based in Dolan Springs, Arizona, most reliable research indicates that AA's success rate only ranges somewhere between 0.01 and 0.025 percent for long-term sobriety—defined as more than five years without alcohol.
Research also indicates that around 0.05 percent of all alcoholics quit drinking without any type of intervention or treatment. Which means that AA's 12-step program is not even as successful as self-motivated remission.
"Most alcoholics do not recover from their condition," Perkins says bluntly. "They die. Those who do recover using a 12-step program fight constant cravings to drink, and suffer with a variety of other symptoms like irritability, anxiety, tension, fatigue and depression that has a deep impact on the quality of their life, and forces them to
be dependent upon attending AA meetings the rest of their lives."
Sober for the last 29 years, Perkins is quick to admit she depended heavily on AA for the first couple of years of her sobriety. Then, like today, AA was her only option. But eventually she began to take a hard look at not only how she was living her life, but how she felt physically and emotionally. Like most recovering alcoholics, she was still struggling with fatigue, depression and cravings. Her life revolved around AA, where she worked as a volunteer. She began to feel like she'd traded one dependency for another.
Searching for answers led her back to school, where she completed a master's in counseling psychology. She then became certified in functional medicine through the Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics, where she studied under Dr Charles Gant, a leading expert in the field of overcoming addictions and mental health disorders through correcting biochemistry.
In the process, she says, she learned that one reason for alcohol addiction is impaired brain chemistry—and that the anxiety and depression that had driven her to alcohol in the first place would continue until her brain chemistry became balanced.
"I learned that the most important factor in keeping you sober is what you eat," she says. "Impaired brain chemistry can be the root of addiction. Neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate the body are formed from nutrients in our food."
Unfortunately, the modern diet is highly nutrient-deficient. And there are plenty of clinical studies showing that depression and mental illnesses can be traced to poor diet.3 And, of course, one of the main ways that lots of people deal with the depression and anxiety resulting from a poor diet is by turning to alcohol. As many studies have shown, alcohol triggers dopamine release, giving us that 'feel-good' sensation.4 Indeed, a 2013 study showed that just 1 Tbsp (15 mL) of beer triggers the release of dopamine.5
Alcohol also modulates other neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and GABA,6 and suppresses the production of glutamate,7 all of which affect mood regulation. Eventually, it takes more and more alcohol to produce the same 'high,'and addiction results. As alcohol dependency increases, personal nutrition continues to decline because alcohol inhibits the production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas to break down food for the body's use.8 Alcohol also negatively impacts the uptake of vitamins and nutrients when food is eaten.9 All of this adds up to ongoing cravings, anxiety, mood swings and depression, poor immune function, and worsening health.
"AA is a great support group in the beginning," Perkins says. "But nobody's doing what they need to do to reduce the cravings."
Dr Ron Hunninghake, chief medical officer at the Riordan Clinic, which offers functional and integrative medicine in Wichita, Kansas, concurs. "The road to addiction is easy unless you're maintaining nutritional health," he says. "People who go to AA are getting by, but they're not getting well."
Nutrition and treating alcohol addiction
A newly developed alcohol addiction treatment approach is developing that offers biochemical restoration—the re-establishment of healthy nutritional balance in the body—in conjunction with emotional and behavioral therapy. While studies of this approach for treating alcohol dependency are scarce so far, those that have been done reveal a 60 percent average abstinence rate over a 42-month period.10 In another study, patients were treated with a combination of nutritional, behavioral and psychological support over the space of a year. Again, 60 percent of those involved in the study remained abstinent.
The Pain and Stress Center in San Antonio, Texas, founded in 1979, is one of the few places in the US that focuses on approaching alcohol treatment via orthomolecular therapy, which maximizes health by creating the optimal molecular environment for cells of the body through proper nutrition. The center also provides amino-acid and food-allergy testing, nutritional counseling, education and research information for both the public and healthcare practitioners. Katherine Birkner, one of the founders of the center as well as an RN and CRNA, says that around two out of three people who use the orthomolecular medical method for dealing with alcohol addiction maintain their sobriety.
"You don't have to be at the place where you've bottomed out before you can get well," she says. "You have to change your habit patterns in order to have success. You have to change how you eat and get the right supplementation. It's a lifestyle change."
Unfortunately, aside from quitting alcohol, the vast majority of recovering alcoholics don't experience such a major shift or receive any kind of support to develop better eating habits. Nor do they realize that consuming sugar, nicotine, caffeine and other drugs—from medical marijuana to SSRIs—influences the brain and keeps addiction cravings going.
"You walk into an AA meeting and people are smoking and drinking caffeinated coffee and eating donuts," says Perkins. "Nobody seems to realize that the structure of sugar affects the brain the same way alcohol does, and that sugar, caffeine and nicotine and other drugs keep the craving cycle going."
In fact, modern research shows that alcohol and sugar share the same neural pathways and receptors in the brain, and cause similar cravings, tolerance, withdrawal and sensitization.11 Nicotine may make it harder for the brain to recover from alcohol addiction,12 while caffeine has been linked to increased sensitivity to and use of a variety of drugs, especially cocaine.13
Another hindrance to long-term recovery, Perkins says, is AA's spiritual/religious focus. Not only does the 'get right with God' orientation of AA keep many people who need help and support at bay, but it also creates yet more codependence among members.
"When was the last time anyone with cancer, diabetes or arthritis was told they must give their will and life over to a higher power, make a list of their sins, confess them to a group member, and engage in community service if they want to heal their health issues?" she asks.
And shaming members who have relapses, and making accusations of dishonesty and denial in group settings, are not methods designed to bolster an alcoholic's self-esteem and willpower either, she says.
A more comprehensive approach
To reduce cravings and other side-effects, and improve sustained abstinence from alcohol and other drugs, there is a clear and pressing need to create nutritional therapies for substance use disorders. Some interesting strides are being made, such as investigating the use of compounds like N-acetylcysteine (NAC), derived from the amino-acid l-cysteine. Listed as an essential medicine by the WHO, NAC helps to stabilize the amino acid glutamate in the brain,14 while also helping to heal liver damage due to alcohol abuse and mitigating addictive behaviors in general.15
Glutamine, an amino acid found in many foods, is a major fuel source for the brain, as well as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It's also the precursor for GABA, commonly known as the 'antianxiety amino acid.' Animal studies as far back as 1955 show that glutamine taken orally triggers a reduction in alcohol cravings, reducing alcohol intake by as much as 35 percent.16 Other studies suggest that glutamine may also be promising in the treatment of alcohol addiction.17
Another natural compound that seems able to dramatically reduce the amount of alcohol abusers normally drink is the extract of the Asian vine 'kudzu.' While having no effect on actual alcohol cravings, those diagnosed as alcohol-dependent in one study reduced their drinking by as much as 57 percent while also increasing the number of abstinent days.18
At her Texas center, Birkner recommends supplementing with the amino acids l-glutamine, l-tyrosine and taurine as well as 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a precursor of serotonin and melatonin, while including cofactors such as magnesium chloride and vitamin B6, needed by the brain to support amino acid activity. The center also produces a wide variety of trademarked combinations of supplements to support brain function and stabilize mood.
Birkner, Perkins and Hunninghake all agree that the wisest and quickest path to sustained recovery from alcohol addiction is a multipronged approach of counseling, dietary changes, nutritional supplementation and group support. It also helps to consult a clinician to find out if you're also dealing with other physical conditions that are exacerbating addiction symptoms and preventing healing, such as Candida overgrowth, hypothyroidism, adrenal fatigue, small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), chronic stress, low blood sugar and environmental toxins.
"White-knuckling it can get you through a year or so," says Perkins. "But for the long haul, you must learn how to eat and live in a way that supports brain chemistry balance."
Hunninghake, who lectures across the US about nutritional supplementation as a way to stop the onset of alcoholism and interrupt the addiction cycle, goes one step further. "People who follow good nutritional practices, and whose detoxification pathways in the body aren't overloaded with toxins and pesticides, are unlikely to become addicted to alcohol."
The new 5-step plan
To reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption by balancing your brain chemistry requires five main steps, says sobriety coach Cynthia Perkins. Here's the new 5-step plan to follow:
1) Stop drinking alcohol
2) Stop using brain-altering substances, including marijuana, medical marijuana, antidepressants, nicotine, caffeine, sugar and any medication that affects brain chemistry
3) Take supplements to nourish and balance brain chemistry
4) Eat animal fats, and greens and other veggies
5) Manage your stress
Supplements to stop the addiction cycle
Dr Ron Hunninghake recommends the supplementation advice given by Roger J. Williams to help people with alcohol addiction. Williams, a biochemist, discovered folic acid and vitamin B6 as well as pantothenic and lipoic acids, studied the relationship between nutrition and alcoholism, and authored the book Alcoholism: The Nutritional Approach (University of Texas Press, 1961).
Here's Dr Williams's regime:
Vitamin C, which neutralizes the toxic byproducts of heavy alcohol consumption and reverses fatty deposits in the liver.
Suggested daily dosage: 1,000 mg every hour until diarrhea appears, signaling bowel tolerability, then 1,000 mg every four hours, for a total of 10-20 g or more
l-Glutamine, the amino acid that reduces alcohol cravings, fuels the brain and helps repair neurotransmitter function damaged by drinking.
Suggested daily dosage: 2,000-3,000 mg
Vitamin B-50 complex, which includes 50 mg of the major B vitamins.
Suggested daily dosage: 6 tablets/capsules (as directed on the label)
Lecithin, which works with B vitamins to reduce fatty liver.
Suggested daily dosage: 2-4 Tbsp
Magnesium, which can decrease abnormal liver enzyme activity and reduce the risk of death due to alcoholic liver disease.
Suggested daily dosage: 250 mg twice a dayChromium polynicotinate, which helps control blood sugar levels.
Chromium polynicotinate, which helps control blood sugar
Suggested daily dosage: 200-400 mcg
Kudzu extract, which can rapidly reduce alcohol intakes.
Suggested daily dosage: 1,000 mg three times a day
N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a powerful antioxidant, improves liver function after damage has been done.
Suggested daily dosage: 1,000-2,000 mg
Silymarin, which improves blood sugar and liver function.
Suggested daily dosage: 100-300 mg
A needle in your ear
In the mid-1970s, Michael Smith, a medical doctor at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx in New York City, created a simple technique for treating common drug addictions, including alcoholism. What started out as a test to see if using one acupuncture point in the ear could reduce addiction cravings eventually became a treatment regime in which five ear acupoints—now known as the 'NADA Protocol' (NADA is Spanish for 'nothing,' but it's also the acronym for the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association)—are selected for acupuncture.
Claimed to be a highly effective yet simple addiction treatment, the NADA Protocol is offered at a variety of addiction treatment centers, hospitals and acupuncture clinics in the West. Dr Michael Carruth, a former physician turned doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and an acupuncture practitioner, spent a month at the David P Hooper Detox Center in Portland, Oregon, using the protocol.
"Acupuncture is not a one-man show," says Carruth, "and people dealing with addiction need counseling and support groups and other kinds of self-help programs, and possibly other drugs to assist with the cravings."
The treatment approach of acupuncture for alcohol addiction is based on the TCM theory that alcohol produces the typical symptoms familiar to every alcoholic through chronic 'dryness' or dehydration in multiple organs, especially the liver, as well as 'excess heat' (known in the West as inflammation) and stagnation of fluids in various organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen and pancreas.
The five ear acupoints of the NADA Protocol are said to treat and correct whatever imbalance has been created, allowing the body to better heal itself.
"I remember one woman in her early 70s who came to see me about her alcohol addiction," says Carruth. "I did the NADA Protocol and told her to seek out a drug and alcohol counselor. I also used Chinese herbs to help with the withdrawal symptoms."
Between the acupuncture and herbs, her cravings were reduced and most of her other withdrawal symptoms disappeared.
Carruth says it took about three months to alleviate the cravings, and 10 months to correct the damage to her organs and to re-establish the immune system health that long-term use of alcohol had damaged.
Acupoints to reduce alcohol addiction
Lung point: good for reducing cravings
Shen Men point: helps with anxiety and excessive sensitivity
Autonomic point: balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (fight-or-flight response vs calming)
Liver point: for hepatitis and cirrhosis
Kidney point: assists with dehydration and anxiety.
Bupleurum: works to eliminate cravings and treats the liver
Ge Hua: facilitates the breakdown of alcohol and relieves side-effects of intoxication
Dou Kou: strengthens the spleen
Mu Xiang: regulates qi (life energy)
Ren Shen: strengthens the spleen and tones qi
Shen Qu: metabolizes alcohol
Gan Jiang: relieves abdominal pain
Zhu Ling: regulates water passage, such as urinary problems and fluid retention.
Treatment centers and sobriety coaching
Pain and Stress Center, San Antonio, Texas; www.painstresscenter.com
Cynthia Perkins's Alternatives for Alcoholism; www.alternatives-for-alcoholism.com
Health Recovery Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; www.healthrecovery.com
End Your Addiction Now by Charles Gant and Greg Lewis
Alcoholism: The Nutritional Approach by Roger J. Williams
7 Weeks to Sobriety by Joan Larson
The Vitamin Cure for Alcoholism: Orthomolecular Treatment of Addictions by Abram Hoffer and Andrew Saul
Get Sober Stay Sober: The Truth About Alcoholism by Cynthia Perkins
The 30-Day Sobriety Solution by Jack Canfield and Dave Andrews