How Alcohol Affect The Brain’s Pleasure Promoting Neurotransmitter
Like other addictive drugs such as cannabis, tobacco, and sugar, alcohol can affect 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 other vital nutrients. Alcohol’s impact on the brain has been well-documented since the 1980s, when 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.
Fortunately, the super brain-targeted 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, alcohol and nutrition pioneer Joan Mathews Larson, PhD, is 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.
Larson has a brilliant understanding of how hypoglycemia as well as specific vitamin and other 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 cravings and other addictions.
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 early Alliance supporter Merlene Miller, MA). That’s because alcohol, used alone, takes longer to do its damage and so was easier to treat. Miller began to suspect 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) 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 for alcoholism recovery specifically (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 1996 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.
In conclusion, a daily Pro-Recovery diet of regularly spaced meals and snacks high in protein, low in simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour, with individualized amino acids and other nutritional supplements can counteract years of malnourishment and help an alcohol-ravaged body and mind to find vibrant healthy recovery.
Nutrition and Alcohol Relapse Prevention: A Case Example
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
We can fill up on cupcakes instead of chicken salad, but there are consequences to our choices. 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 Schaefer, MFT, NTS