Like other addictive drugs such as cannabis, tobacco, and sugar, alcohol can alter any or all of the brain’s pleasure-promoting neurotransmitter functions. Alcohol can become a super-addictor by hyper-stimulating brain levels of serotonin, endorphin, GABA, and/or dopamine as well as disturbing blood sugar levels and creating pathological depletions in many vital nutrients.1 Alcohol’s impact on the brain has been well-documented since the 1980s. Neuroscientists studying addiction worldwide discovered its profound impact. This discovery process is the subject of Alcohol and the Addictive Brain by eminent researcher and Alliance supporter Kenneth Blum, PhD.2
Fortunately, the super nutritional solutions to alcoholism have also been well documented. Dr. Blum’s original 1980s clinical research studies have been beautifully expanded in several books by Alliance founders. The most thorough is Seven Weeks to Sobriety (Ballantine, 1997). Its author, the late alcohol and nutrition pioneer Joan Mathews Larson, PhD, was Founding Director of the Health Recovery Center in Minneapolis, MN. Her book, which continues to sell well after 20 years, is based on a published study that found her nutrition-based program to have an 83 percent long-term sobriety maintenance rate.3
In 7 Weeks to Sobriety Larson expressed a brilliant understanding of how hypoglycemia as well as specific nutrient depletions act as major biochemical instigators of alcoholism. In addition to describing her successful use of the amino acids and other nutrients she addresses little-known biochemical conditions such as pyroluria and histamine imbalance that can also trigger alcohol (and other) addiction.
Our California Alliance members talk about the number of wine alcoholics they have seen and how easy it has been to help them, even in outpatient programs. (Even those who have continued to live in the Napa Valley!) The aminos stop their cravings every time: GABA or theanine if they drink to relax; DPA or DLPA if they drink to kill the pain; 5-HTP or tryptophan if they drink to get to sleep or to take the edge off their anxiety or negativity. They’re usually already eating well, so adding a good multi-vitamin/mineral and some digestive enzymes plus glutamine (to re-regulate blood sugar) and fish oil often takes care of it.
Back in the 1970s when the for-profit addiction treatment field was young no one was treated for anything but alcoholism. During that time, before cocaine hit us in the 1980s, we had 50 percent success rates. This was the finding of researcher Terence Gorski’s famous follow-up studies (co-authored by Alliance co-founder Merlene Miller, MA) 4 . That’s because alcohol, used alone, takes longer to do its damage and so was just easier to treat. We achieved this success rate then, even before we had the aminos and other nutritional tools, probably because people in the 1970s were still eating real food meals, which is no longer true. Merlene Miller joined the Alliance because it was obvious from her groundbreaking research with Gorski on PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome) that nutritional approaches
could be critically important. Interestingly, Bill Wilson, cofounder of AA, was a tremendous supporter of nutrient therapy for recovery. He credited it with finally eliminating the depression that had caused most of his pre-AA relapses and eroded the quality of his life, even in AA sobriety. Joan Larson’s book discusses this as does Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, by Ernest Kurtz (Hazelden, 1991) and Adventures in Psychiatry: The Scientific Memoirs of Dr. Abram Hoffer (KOS. 2005). It was Dr. Hoffer who introduced Bill W. to nutrient therapy.
Another author and co-founder of the Alliance and a pioneer in developing the nutritional recovery process for alcoholics is Charles Gant, MD. Dr. Gant was medical director of the Tully Hill Hospital, an alcoholism rehabilitation facility in Syracuse, New York where he introduced individualized nutritional therapies into a conventional treatment setting with great success. See his book End Your Addiction Now (Square One, 2010). It includes a detailed chapter that introduces his more recent nutritional strategies specifically for alcoholism recovery (pp. 173-189). A close colleague of Dr. Gant in pioneering the nutritional recovery from alcoholism, Joseph Beasley, MD, has also written well on the subject, in books such as his How to Defeat Alcoholism: Nutritional Guidelines for Getting Sober (Random House, 1990) and his website addictionend.com.
For three years the county of San Mateo, California’s Criminal Justice Council and the Peninsula Community Foundation funded a nutrition-based Biochemical Restoration Program for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) offenders with multiple offenses. Run by Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, participants were taught over the course of four months the connection between what they ate and cravings for alcohol. They learned what to eat and what to avoid, and when to eat to prevent the consequences to their thinking and their sobriety of low blood sugar. In 1992 DesMaisons published her results as her doctoral dissertation: Comparing 32 offenders who finished the program to 32 control subjects sentenced to the usual treatment, those in the control group were rearrested and for more serious offenses four times the rate of program graduates. Two graduates violated probation, compared to 13 people in the control group.5
In conclusion, a daily diet of regularly spaced meals and snacks of high nutritional quality, low in simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour, with added nutritional supplements to counteract years of malnourishment helps return an alcohol-ravaged body and mind to vibrant health.
The following alcoholic client's story is presented by Vonda Schaefer M.F.T, N.T.S. nutritionistherapy.com
Nutrition and Alcohol Relapse Prevention
As the mother of a young child, sobriety was important to Sheila. The first year was pretty easy, but when she first came to my office, she had had one relapse and divulged that she was plotting a way to secretly drink again. In my assessment, I asked her exactly when sobriety became more difficult. It was around her one year sobriety anniversary. Further investigation also revealed that her diet changed at this time. She had started a program that required giving a point value to foods and which gave her a certain point maximum per day.
Then I knew why she was struggling with sobriety.
When she stopped drinking, food became the way she targeted those “feel good” neurotransmitters in her brain. Neurotransmitters are responsible for our ability to feel pleasure, comfort, and calm - basically all things good in life. Food was literally making her “ok” and had replaced the alcohol that was previously doing this for her.
Alcohol boosts Neurotransmitters (temporarily)
Reading through the assessments she had filled out, I could see she was especially using alcohol for dopamine/endorphin deficiency. She needed a “reward” after a hard day of accomplishment. We tried an amino acid in the office called DLPA and she felt “ more relaxed/less anxious,“ as well as “ more emotionally stable.“ Before she left, I reminded her that even one drink is a slippery slope and could she make a plan for the evening - such as call a sober friend - and directed her to email me the next day and let me know how she felt and how the evening went. I also told her “no more dieting” - sobriety trumps everything and that we would start some targeted supplements, that for now she should eat what she wanted as long as she included protein and fat in every meal.
The next day, Sheila emailed me as promised and said that that evening she spent with a sober friend, forgot about the alcohol, ate well and actually didn’t think about food or her usual caffeine after dinner.
This is a story I was not surprised by as I have helped multiple clients in their quest for sobriety from all kinds of substances. Of course, this is the beginning of a journey with Sheila but she now has the tools to be successful.
Deprivation Does Not Work
Deprivation does not work - in dieting or in sobriety. Finding the root cause - the deficiency of biology - is the only way to stop the physical cravings. The cravings are there because our bodies need something. Cravings are our body’s way of communicating to us, and if we listen, we figure out what it needs.
Addiction Meets a Need
Addiction meets a need. This need can be met in a healthier way. It is no different than hunger, and yes, we can fill up on cupcakes instead of chicken salad, but there are consequences to our choices even though the hunger is met. It is not just about choices and will power, but about balancing the body’s chemistry. When the body’s chemistry is balanced, chicken salad is more appealing than cupcakes (I promise this happens).
If you are struggling with the shame or guilt of not being able to stick to whatever you are depriving yourself of, look deeper or get help from a knowledgeable practitioner who can look deeper, to see what your body needs to help your journey.
Alliance Member, Vonda Scaefer, MFT
Here is another example of one of the many people with alcohol addiction who have recovered with the help of amino acid supplements and a pro-recovery diet.
Bipolar client "S.Z.”, a 25-year old male. He lives at home with parents. He was diagnosed with ADHD in the 7th grade and bipolar disorder at age 23. He also reports suffering claustrophobia, having anorexia as a child, and also suicidal thoughts in the past. He says he cries with the lights out in the shower. He uses alcohol, primarily, to self-medicate his symptoms, and recently experienced a 3-day black out, where he took all the money out of his bank account and ended up 300 miles from home. He “came to” playing blackjack at a casino.
He has used several Pharmaceuticals, including Risperdal (stopped, caused nipple enlargement), Adderall (gave him uncomfortable buzz), Seroquel (“hated it”), Gabapentin made him jittery, Melatonin gave him panic attacks, and Zoloft, which “didn’t work”. Currently, he’s on Lithium (for 6 weeks at time of intake) and Lamotrigine (has been using for past 3 months)
Holistic remedies he has used include cranial stimulation, which offered some relief from mood swings.
Past drug or alcohol use include Mostly binge drinking in the past year, Vicodin sometimes, also codeine
He smokes 8-9 cigarettes per day, and occasional vaping. He uses 5 cups of coffee per day for energy. He reports using alcohol to “come down”. Vicodin is used to numb out sadness and codeine also to numb out and escape (he had a prescription cough syrup that he abused).
His family history includes the following: His sister and cousin are Schizophrenic. His Mother has had major depressive episodes and his Dad is an alcoholic, not officially diagnosed with any disorder.
His gut health is very poor and he reports inconsistent BM’s but when he does eliminate it’s usually very loose and in high quantity.
I conducted the Zinc Tally test and it had no taste (tasted like water). Based on this I gave him the Pyroluria questionnaire and it resulted negative.
Following is the detail for his Amino Acid Trialing:
Initial Amino Protocol – Oct 30, 2019
5HTP 3x a day at 100 mg for low serotonin symptoms (B, L, D)
Tyrosine 1000 mg 2x a day (upon arising and lunch) for low cats.
DPA 3x a day 500 mg for low endorphins (B,L,D) (Would have gone higher with DPA but was sharing limited supply with other residents of the house)
Glutamine 3x a day at 1000 mg for blood sugar stabilization and gut inflammation
Fish Oil 2 grams, Multi for cofactors
I was working with chef at the Residential Treatment Center and educating weekly on a Pro-Recovery Diet. I recommended he eat protein every 4 hours for blood sugar regulation. I recommended gut supporting supplements and foods (digestive enzyme, probiotic, non-dairy yogurt, sauerkraut, ACV) I also advised him to pay attention to dairy and gluten sensitivity, and work toward eliminating these 2 from his diet. Due to budget constraints at center, I was not able to get him the digestive enzyme or probiotic, but we were able to modify his diet within the constraints of the facility.
Within 48 hours, the Amino Acid Therapy symptom chart was resolving. Serotonin total score went from 82 to 22! Catecholamines from 44 to 4! Endorphins decreased but not as high of a % as Serotonin and Cats. His hypoglycemic symptoms decreased as a result of using glutamine and eating protein at regular intervals. GABA symptoms went down despite no GABA specific support.
Adjustment One – November 1, 2019
Based on symptom resolution in such a small amount of time, I kept 5HTP the same, Tyrosine the same, Glutamine the same, and raised DPA to 1000 mg because those symptoms were higher, and he reported weepiness. He reported having trouble with sleep. He was worrying he couldn’t fall asleep and worrying if he woke up, so I added Tryptophan just at night to help with worrisome anxiety and also for its sedating effects.
Adjustment Two – November 6, 2019
Just five days later, his Serotonin, Endorphin and Blood Sugar scores were all at zero!
He was still struggling with energy and some cravings for alertness in the Cat section. He reported sore / stiff tense muscles under GABA symptoms. Based on this info, I kept everything the same except brought Tyrosine up to 3x a day at the 1000 mg dose and brought in GABA at 250 mg 2x a day. My plan was to bring it up if it was not enough, but he responded well to this dose! (Based on his reaction with Gabapentin I didn’t want to start too high)
Adjustment Three – November 15, 2019
I kept everything the same except DPA up to 1500 mg due to increased weepiness and crying. A family visit was highly emotional the day before and he was really fragile and raw.
Last Visit – November 23, 2019
My last visit with this client registered all symptoms at 0! I did not make any further adjustments and advised him to keep using the aminos until the current bottles ran out, and then to “keep an eye” on symptoms and consider using them as needed. By the end of our work together he understood how each of the amino acids we trialed affected him and when to use them.
He had stopped smoking completely but was still vaping, occasionally. I was no longer a contractor at that time, so unfortunately was not able to continue my work with him to address the vaping.
On February 4th, Client reached out via email
He reported “doing fantastic” and said he was at “Day 100 of sobriety”. He was still taking fish oil and the multi vitamin and ginger/turmeric for inflammation. He then reported his diet which was in sync with what he had learned. He took the amino acids through December. Since I no longer was at the RTC, I do not know if he stopped vaping.
1) Roe, Daphne A. “Alcohol, drugs and nutrition,” Current Problems in Nutrition, Pharmacology, and Toxicology by Allan McLean and Mark L. Wahlqvist, J.Libby Nutrition, Chapter 27, pp.191-194, 1988
2) Blum, Kenneth, Alcohol and the Addictive Brain, Free Press, 1991
3) J. Mathews-Larson and B. Parker, "Alcoholism Treatment with Biochemical Restoration as a Major Component," International Journal of Biosocial and Medical Research 9, no. 1 (1987):92-100. See more on Mathews-Larson at her website healthrecovery.com.
4) Gorski, T.T., & Miller, M. (1986). Staying sober: A guide for relapse prevention. Independence, MO: Independence Press
5) DesMaisons, Kathleen, “Biochemical Restoration as an Intervention for Multiple Offense Drunk Driving, Ph.D. dissertation.” The Union Institute, Cincinnati, OH, 1996
6) Blum K, et al. Enkephalinase inhibition: regulation of ethanol intake in genetically predisposed mice, Alcohol. 1987 Nov-Dec;4(6):449-56.
This is the first report of alteration in alcohol intake in mice with a genetic predisposition to alcohol preference and known to have innate brain enkephalin deficiencies. We have been able to significantly attenuate both volitional and forced ethanol intake respectively by acute and chronic treatment with hydrocinnamic acid and D-phenylalanine, known carboxypeptidase (enkephalinase) inhibitors. Since these agents, through their enkephalinase inhibitory activity, raise brain enkephalin levels, we propose that excessive alcohol intake can be regulated by alteration of endogenous brain opioid peptides.
7) Blum K1, Trachtenberg MC, et al. Enkephalinase inhibition and precursor amino acid loading improves inpatient treatment of alcohol and polydrug abusers: double-blind placebo-controlled study of the nutritional adjunct SAAVE. Alcohol. 1988 Nov-Dec;5(6):481-93.
We investigated the effects of the amino acid and vitamin mixture SAAVE in inpatient, chemically-dependent subjects to evaluate the role of neurotransmitters in facilitating recovery and adjustment to a detoxified, sober state. SAAVE is formulated from amino acids that are precursors for neurotransmitters and neuromodulators thought to be involved in alcohol and drug seeking behavior. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study of 62 alcoholics and polydrug abusers, SAAVE patients had a significantly reduced stress response as measured by the skin conductance level (SCL), and significantly improved Physical Scores and BESS Scores (behavioral, emotional, social and spiritual). After detoxification there was a six-fold decrease in AMA rates when comparing SAAVE vs. placebo groups. In this inpatient treatment experience SAAVE facilitated the rate of recovery and allowed patients to respond more fully and more quickly to the behavioral goals of the program, for example as measured by the BESS Score. The use of SAAVE to achieve enkephalinase inhibition and precursor amino acid loading in the acute inpatient treatment environment provides the practitioner with the potential ability to restore the neurochemical changes inherent to alcoholism and drug abuse.
8) Kenneth Blum, Michael C. Trachtenberg & John C. Ramsay, Improvement of Inpatient Treatment of the Alcoholic as a Function of Neurotransmitter Restoration: A Pilot Study. International Journal of the Addictions, Vol. 23, Issue 9, 1988, pages 991-998, Published online: 16 Apr 2015
We report results of a double-blind evaluation of the nutritional supplement SAAVE for facilitating improvement in a 30-day inpatient alcohol and drug rehabilitation center. SAAVE is uniquely designed to elevate levels of enkephalin(s), serotonin, catecholamines, and GABA, which are believed to be functionally deficient in alcoholics. Twenty-two patients were studied. The SAAVE patients, as compared to the control group (a) had a lower BUD (building up to drink) score, 1 vs 2; (6) required no PRN benzodiazepines, 0% vs 94%; (c) ceased tremor-ing at 72 h, as compared to 96 h; and (d) had no severe depression on the MMPI, in contrast to 24% of control group. These preliminary data suggest that SAAVE is a valuable adjunct to therapy by aiding the patient's physical adjustment to a detoxified state while facilitating a more positive response to behavioral therapy.