Alcohol dependence and abuse has traditionally been considered a mental disorder. Changes to the digestive system and healthy gut bacteria, however, are present in certain psychiatric disorders. This shows a potential link between the gut-brain interaction and the development of alcohol dependence. While many studies focus solely on the mental functions of alcoholism, new studies suggest that gut functions are also affected by chronic alcohol consumption.


Gut-Brain Connection


The human gut is used for much more than just digestion in the body. It contains over 100 trillion microorganisms that add up to what is called the microbiome. This microbiome encodes 100 times more genes than the human genome and directly influences our physiology and psychology. It is often referred to as our “second brain” because the microbiome is in constant contact with our brain and central nervous system. This helps regulate the body’s hormone production, appetite, digestion, metabolism, mood and stress. The intestinal microbiome functions to produce and release many neurotransmitters that are also produced in the brain like dopamine and serotonin, that directly affect our mood.


Gut Permeability


Disruption to the microbial composition of the gut through chronic alcohol abuse can lead to many damaging outcomes such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, allergy, “leaky” gut, and anxiety and depression. Researchers have found that heavy drinkers can develop increased gut permeability. This occurs when bacteria byproducts leak out of the gut and into the bloodstream and can directly cause alcohol liver disease. Heavy drinkers with high gut permeability have a more difficult time with withdrawal symptoms and higher levels of anxiety and depression and alcohol cravings weeks after they stopped drinking.


Negative Effects on Nutrition


Alcohol also works to kill off healthy bacteria in the gut. Many chronic drinkers are found to be lacking in critical nutrients needed for good gut health. The most important of these being zinc, several B vitamins, and protein. This is often due to a poor diet surrounding the consumption of alcohol’s empty calories, which don’t help the body. Zinc has been found to be very important in preventing leaky gut, but chronic alcohol consumption decreases the absorption of zinc in the gut while increasing the amount of zinc lost through the urine. Zinc deficiency can show up physically as a reduced taste or smell, sores on the face, and poor night vision. Zinc deficiency is also linked to negative mental outcomes like irritability, depression, confusion, and apathy.


Next Steps

Alcohol-dependent people frequently develop emotional symptoms that perpetuate their alcoholic behavior. The negative effects of alcohol on the gut create a break down in gut permeability which is linked to serious health problems like liver disease. It also causes a disruption to the necessary functions of the gut in producing and releasing neurotransmitters that regulate our mood. To overcome the negative effects of alcohol consumption on the gut, detoxification should be coupled with a healthier diet.  Blood sugar and dopamine play a key role in addiction and should be regulated during detoxification. A low Glycemic index meal plan together with a diet that promotes healthy dopamine production (one with sufficient protein) is shown to aid in alcohol detoxification and an overall healthier gut-brain axis.


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