When you think about the health detriments of drinking alcohol, you might not immediately think about the relationship between alcohol and nutrition — specifically, the way alcohol affects vitamins and minerals.
Instead, your mind might go to obvious short-term risks like alcohol poisoning or such long-term effects as kidney disease, two dangers of excessive consumption as listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the relationship between alcohol and nutrient absorption is another drawback that even moderate drinkers should consider before they open up their next beer or pour their next glass of wine.
Alcohol prevents the body from absorbing and properly using many essential vitamins and minerals, potentially leading to malnutrition.
What Is Alcohol’s Nutritional Panel?
Let's start by breaking down alcohol's nutritional panel. Alcohol has no protein, fats, vitamins or minerals, but most alcohol does have carbohydrates. Additionally, alcohol itself has 7 calories per gram, compared with carbohydrates and protein, which have 4 calories per gram, or fat, which has 9 calories per gram.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), however, those calories don't necessarily mean alcohol is a great energy source. A study published in March 2017 in Biomolecules even shows that alcohol inhibits fat breakdown and promotes fat storage.
On the contrary, people who replace calories from carbohydrates with calories from alcohol actually tend to lose weight — a sign that the body derives less energy from alcohol than from food. National data even shows that although drinkers take in more calories than nondrinkers, they are not necessarily more inclined toward obesity.
Another problem is that some are consuming calories from alcohol in place of food and consume as much as half their daily calories in the form of alcohol. Even when they do eat enough, alcohol negatively affects blood glucose and inhibits the brain and body tissue from getting the nutrients they need to function. Therefore, calories aren't available for the body's muscles to use for physical activity.
Vitamins and Alcohol
Now you see that alcohol is not only taking the place of nutrient-rich calories but also stopping a healthy body from using the nutrients it would normally derive from healthy foods.
Vitamins and minerals are necessary for normal function in the human body, and many must be obtained through the diet because the body can't produce them on its own. If a diet lacks certain vitamins and minerals, or if certain factors stop the body from properly absorbing them, then the body becomes deficient.
MedlinePlus describes alcohol as "one of the major causes of nutritional deficiency in the United States," the biggest problem being that excessive alcohol use contributes to a deficiency in B vitamins: vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine), vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and folic acid. A mineral that alcohol tends to inhibit the absorption of is zinc.
The NIAAA explains how alcohol affects the digestive process, which comprises the breaking down of food as it passes from the mouth, then through the stomach and intestines. As digested food passes through the intestines, nutrients are absorbed and carried through the bloodstream to the liver, where those nutrients are either immediately used or stored to be used later.
The problem is that alcohol damages the cells lining the intestines, thus stopping nutrients from being absorbed into the blood. Furthermore, alcohol inhibits the secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
- Vitamin B1: Also known as thiamin, Vitamin B1 plays a role in metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates and fats, and helps the body form hemoglobin. It also helps with muscle contraction and conducting nerve signals.
- Vitamin B6: Essential in everything from forming antibodies to breaking down proteins, Vitamin B6 also works to keep blood sugar in normal ranges.
- Vitamin B12: This essential vitamin helps the body yield energy from food, and it plays a role in maintaining healthy red blood and nerve cells.
- Folate: Folate plays a role in the formation of new cells, and lacking folate can cause megaloblastic anemia, resulting in a low oxygen capacity for blood cells and having a negative effect on physical activity. Folate also lessens your risk of heart disease, colon cancer and breast cancer.
- Zinc: This mineral helps the immune system fight bacteria and is essential for forming proteins and DNA.
It's important to note that people who severely lack B vitamins suffer from anemia and neurological problems, such as Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome, the former of which can cause damage in parts of the brain called the thalamus and hypothalamus. Karsakoff syndrome is a result of permanent brain damage and tends to manifest as Wernicke symptoms subside.
Another problem, as pointed out by the Boulder Medical Center, is that metabolizing alcohol requires nutrients. When these nutrients are used to break down alcohol instead of aiding the body's cells, certain functions can suffer.
What Can You Do?
Now that you understand the effect that alcohol consumption might have on the way your body absorbs and uses certain vitamins and minerals, you're probably wondering how you can still enjoy a drink while ensuring you don't go completely malnourished.
Not to worry. Just because alcohol has this effect on the digestive process doesn't mean you have to go sober to still get all the nutrients you need. Alcohol can still be included in a healthy diet. Here are the easiest ways to combat the problem:
Drink in moderation: Before you go taking vitamins with beer, remember that the best way of preventing alcohol-caused nutrient deficiency is simply to drink alcohol in moderation.
Healthy adults are advised to have no more than two drinks a day for men ages 65 and younger, and one drink for men older than 65 or women of any age. Remember that one drink might be less than you're used to serving yourself. In this case, a drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
Pop a multivitamin: Alcohol and multivitamins might seem like a strange combination, but doing this will ensure you're getting an extra boost of nutrients. Be sure to look for a multivitamin with folic acid, which is the synthetic form of folate.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the amount of folic acid in a standard multivitamin, about 400 micrograms, will suffice to make up for the folate depleted by moderate alcohol consumption (but not enough to make up for heavy drinking) when combined with a healthy diet.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Fact Sheets - Alcohol Use and Your Health"
- UCSD Student Health Services: "How Alcohol Affects Nutrition and Endurance"
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "Alcohol Alert"
- Colorado State University: "Absorption of Vitamins"
- MedlinePlus: "Substance Use Recovery and Diet"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Alcohol"
- MedlinePlus: "Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome"
- Boulder Medical Center: "Nutritional Recommendations for Those Who Consume Alcohol"
- Mayo Clinic: "Vitamin Deficiency Anemia"
- Biomolecules: "Alcohol, Adipose Tissue and Lipid Dysregulation"