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Alcohol and Health

Alcohol and Supplementation: The Good and the Bad

April 15, 2022
26 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
April 15, 2022
26 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
April 15, 2022
26 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
April 15, 2022
26 min read
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Reframe Content Team
April 15, 2022
26 min read

In the media, supplements have a bit of a double personality. Established brands like Neuriva or Nature’s Way frequently advertise their products on network TV; the Kardahsians promote “Lemme” gummies that claim to help with issues like digestion and energy slumps, while the comedy Arrested Development pokes fun at the supplement craze with the fictional “Teamocil” — a pill that “produces a feeling of camaraderie” but also “leads to a total shutdown of the pituitary gland.”

If you walk through the aisles of any health food store — or even your local CVS — the number of supplement bottles is overwhelming. So how do we tell the good from the bad? And which ones play well with alcohol? Let’s find out.

The Supplement Superhighway

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Used correctly, supplements can help make up for nutritional deficits in our diet or support the body with specific needs — such as cutting back on or stopping drinking alcohol or reducing its negative effects on the body. They can support health, assist in maintaining its nutrient levels, and even help us recover from a night out. But remember, they're supplements — they're meant to complement a healthy lifestyle, not be the only healthy element in our lives.

While they might seem like a modern trend, the use of supplements actually goes way back!

  • Way before our morning green smoothies and vegan protein shakes, the ancients were already onto the goodness of supplements. In 5,000-year-old Chinese medicinal practices, herbs, animal parts, and even minerals were used to boost health, vitality, and treat diseases. Ever heard of ginseng? It’s been used as a dietary supplement for centuries!
  • The Greeks and Romans weren’t just about philosophy and warfare. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was known to advocate the benefits of certain foods and herbs for health. Remember the saying, "Let food be thy medicine"? That's him!
  • Not to be outdone, the ancient Egyptians were all about garlic, which they believed provided strength and endurance. And yes, those hardworking pyramid builders? Rumor has it they were given a dose of garlic to keep them going.
  • While the Vikings didn't exactly have capsules, they consumed cod liver oil to get through those cold, dark Nordic winters. Rich in Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids, cod liver oil remains a popular supplement today.

Nutrient Deficiencies in People With AUD

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) leads to a number of nutrient deficiencies. Many might be missing from our diet entirely, while others might not be absorbed or metabolized properly. Here’s an overview:

  • Zinc. Alcohol decreases the absorption of zinc, which is essential for immune function, wound healing, and DNA synthesis.
  • Magnesium. The loss of magnesium can show up as muscle cramps and blood pressure irregularities.
  • Selenium. Selenium deficiency can lead to muscle disease, including cardiomyopathy.
  • Vitamin B1. Thiamine deficiency is common in AUD and is linked to brain damage, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
  • Vitamin A. Retinol deficiency can lead to rough skin and vision problems.
  • Vitamin D. AUD can affect vitamin D metabolism, leading to bone health issues such as osteoporosis.
  • Vitamin E. This antioxidant can be depleted in those with AUD, affecting nerve and muscle function.
  • Vitamin B9. AUD can lead to folate deficiency, affecting body functions such as cell division, DNA synthesis, and the repair and functioning of red blood cells. Folate deficiency can also lead to anemia and other health issues.

There are many other nutritional deficiencies that AUD is known to trigger, such as critical dietary fats, proteins necessary for muscle maintenance, and other vitamins and minerals.

The Science of Supplements

Today, the world of supplements is vast and varied, and many promise near-miraculous results. But what is the science behind them? Let's explore how they work and what they can achieve.

Supplements can be categorized into a few basic groups: vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and other nutrients. They are typically taken in a concentrated form, so they’re more potent than regular dietary sources. Each supplement targets specific pathways in the body, either by providing raw materials (such as essential amino acids), acting as cofactors (like vitamins and minerals), or modulating biological pathways (like many herbs).

Not all supplements are created equal. The body's ability to absorb and utilize a given supplement — its bioavailability — can vary. For instance, turmeric's active ingredient, curcumin, is not easily absorbed. But combining it with piperine (from black pepper) increases its bioavailability. Similarly, some forms of minerals (such as magnesium citrate) are more bioavailable than others (such as magnesium oxide).

The Power and Limitations

While supplements hold promise, they have their limitations:

  • Interactions. Just as alcohol can interact with medications, it can also interact with supplements.
  • No replacement for a healthy diet. While supplements can provide concentrated doses of specific nutrients, they can't replace the broad range of nutrients and beneficial compounds found in a whole-foods-based diet.
  • Research varies. The efficacy of some supplements is well-established, while others are still being researched. Always look for evidence-backed supplements.
  • Personal needs. Just because a supplement is beneficial for one person doesn't mean it's needed by or suitable for everyone. Factors like genetics, diet, health status, and even age can influence how a person responds to a supplement.

That said, supplements can be a great dietary addition for mitigating the effects of alcohol or helping you cut back or quit. Let’s talk about it!

How Vitamins Help on Your Recovery Journey

When we drink alcohol, it affects multiple systems in our body — the liver works to metabolize it; the brain feels its intoxicating effects; and the gut finds its balance of beneficial bacteria threatened. Let’s take a closer look at how supplements can help us restore balance.

Combating Alcohol's Aftermath

The immediate and lingering effects of alcohol, from hangovers to nutrient depletion, have driven many to use supplements as potential remedies. While no pill can magically erase the consequences of overconsumption, certain supplements might help by easing symptoms, providing protection, or helping to repair damage. Here’s a more comprehensive look:

1. Hangover Helpers

  • B Vitamins. Alcohol depletes the body's stores of essential B vitamins, which play a vital role in energy production, cognitive function, and the synthesis of red blood cells. Replenishing these — especially B1, B6, and B12 — can help relieve the fatigue and mental fog common in a hangover. They’re also helpful supplements to take before drinking alcohol.
  • Magnesium. Alcohol can lead to magnesium depletion. Magnesium supplements can help with the muscle cramps, dizziness, and even the mood disturbances sometimes experienced after excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Ginger. Known for its anti-nausea properties, ginger can help with the stomach upset that sometimes accompanies a hangover.
  • Electrolyte tablets/powders. As a diuretic, alcohol pushes fluids out of the body, leading to dehydration. Essential minerals or electrolytes are also lost with those fluids. Replacing these can help with symptoms such as headache and fatigue.

2. Stress Relief After Alcohol

  • L-Theanine and Alcohol. Found in green tea, L-theanine can have a calming effect, possibly aiding in sleep and relaxation after alcohol consumption.
  • GABA Supplements and Alcohol. An inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA  (gamma-aminobutyric acid) supplementation might help calm the nervous system, offering relief from anxiety or restlessness post-drinking.

3. Gut Health

The digestive system can also take a hit when alcohol enters the picture. These supplements can help stave off or repair the damage:

  • L-Glutamine. This amino acid is critical for many bodily functions, including immune functions, including immune function and intestinal health. Research suggests that L-glutamine may protect against alcohol-induced damage to the gut, such as the disruption of good bacteria and the damage to the intestinal lining.

    Some evidence suggests that L-glutamine could potentially help those attempting to reduce or quit their alcohol consumption by stabilizing mood and reducing cravings.
  • Probiotics. The beneficial bacteria in our gut support a variety of bodily functions. Probiotic supplements can help balance these friendly bacteria in the digestive system, boost our immune system, and assist in maintaining overall health, even in the face of moderate alcohol consumption.

Important Vitamins and Supplements for AUD

Now let’s take a closer look at vitamins and supplements that can help rebalance our body after an extensive period of heavy drinking.

1. Vitamins for Liver Repair

The liver is our body’s hardworking custodian, constantly cleaning up so everything else can run smoothly. Given the negative effects of alcohol on the liver, helping this vital organ perform its job of detoxifying the body can be a good idea. Here are some specific supplements to consider:

  • Milk thistle. This plant extract is renowned for protecting the liver from damage and enhancing the detoxification process. It’s a star player when it comes to liver health. Think of milk thistle as the Robin to your liver's Batman. The active ingredient in milk thistle — silymarin — is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the liver by reducing the production of free radicals. It's also been shown to promote liver cell regeneration.

    Additionally, research suggests that milk thistle may help prevent or treat alcohol-related liver disease. While it's not a license to drink irresponsibly, it can certainly help support liver health if you've decided to drink.
  • N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC). Another supplement worth considering is N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC). This compound is a precursor to glutathione, one of the most potent antioxidants in the body and a key player in the liver's detoxification process. NAC is also helpful when taken before drinking alcohol.

    You can think of NAC as a quiet, behind-the-scenes helper that keeps the show running smoothly. By boosting glutathione levels, NAC reduces oxidative stress in the liver, helping it work more efficiently. 
  • Turmeric. Lastly, let's not forget about turmeric. This golden spice is a staple in many kitchens and has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Its active compound, curcumin, has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

    Curcumin has been shown to protect liver cells from damage and might even boost the regeneration of new cells. However, curcumin isn't easily absorbed by the body, so look for a supplement that includes piperine — found in black pepper — which can enhance it.
  • Artichoke extract. Like milk thistle, artichoke has been recognized for potential liver benefits. It might help reduce toxins in the blood, supporting the liver in detoxification processes.
Supplements To Enhance Cognitive Functions

2. Brain Boosters

Now, let's switch gears from our liver to our brain, which can also use a little TLC to help it recover from the effects of alcohol and keep it safe from further damage. Certain supplements can enhance cognitive functions, memory, and mood. They even protect against aging and alcohol-related neurodegenerative disorders!

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3s, found in fish oil, flaxseeds, and chia seeds, are essential for brain health. Studies show that these fats are important for maintaining the structure and function of brain cells, and they can even improve cognitive function and mood. 
  • B Vitamins. The previously mentioned B vitamins — especially B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12 — are the brain’s hardworking buddies. These vitamins play a vital role in brain function, supporting nerve health, breaking down homocysteine (an amino acid that can damage brain cells), and producing chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. Alcohol is notorious for depleting vitamin B levels, and restoring them is crucial for brain health.
  • Bacopa Monnieri. This herb has been used in traditional medicine for centuries to enhance memory and cognitive function. Its potential neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects may help offset some of the adverse cognitive effects of alcohol. Some animal studies suggest that Bacopa monnieri might even protect against the neurotoxic effects of chronic alcohol use. 

    However, Bacopa monnieri is processed by the liver and can potentially cause toxicity, especially if combined with alcohol (we’ll come back to this later).
  • Rhodiola Rosea. This adaptogenic herb has been used for centuries to combat fatigue and enhance mental stamina. Like Bacopa, Rhodiola may theoretically help combat some of the negative effects of alcohol by reducing stress and anxiety and improving mood, which often plummets during a hangover. 

However, since Rhodiola is also processed by the liver, combining it with alcohol is, once again, something to be careful about (more on that below).

Supplements and the Quitting or Cutting Back Journey

Now let’s switch gears one more time and talk about how supplements can help you if you decide to reduce or eliminate alcohol. Remember, while they’re amazing helpers, they aren’t a replacement for professional advice. Here are some supplements for alcohol withdrawal and to help with alcohol cravings:

1. Supplements for Alcohol Withdrawal

  • Kudzu Root. Originally from East Asia, kudzu has long been recognized for its potential to help manage alcohol cravings, and it’s a great supplement for alcohol withdrawal. Some studies suggest that it may reduce the desire to drink and even decrease the effects of alcohol on the brain.
  • Vitamin B Complex. Once again, this one is essential. As you already know, alcohol consumption can lower your body's B vitamin levels. As the building blocks of a healthy body, B vitamins have a direct impact on your energy levels, brain function, and cell metabolism.
  • Magnesium. Essential for many biochemical reactions in the body, magnesium can help alleviate the insomnia and mood disturbances that often come with alcohol withdrawal. It promotes relaxation, muscle health, and even supports heart and bone health.

2. Curbing Cravings

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids. These vital fats are essential to maintain the brain’s structure and function. Regular intake of omega-3s, found in fish oil or flaxseeds, can support cognitive functions, reduce inflammation, and enhance mood stability.
  • 5-HTP. A precursor to serotonin (a “good mood” neurotransmitter), 5-HTP can help to enhance mood, sleep, and even appetite regulation. Given that alcohol use can disrupt serotonin levels, 5-HTP might be beneficial in restoring balance. (However, 5-HTP and alcohol do not mix if you’re still drinking — more on that below)
  • L-Glutamine. This amino acid is a primary energy source for our brain. Beyond its well-known benefits for gut health, research suggests that L-glutamine might also curb alcohol cravings and act as a mood and energy booster.

3. Sleeping Soundly

  • Ashwagandha. This adaptogenic herb helps your body respond to stress more effectively by balancing cortisol levels, enhancing brain function, and even promoting better sleep. What about ashwagandha and alcohol? Taking ashwagandha with alcohol is not a good idea — it can have some unfriendly interactions!

Supplements That Don’t Play Well With Alcohol

While some supplements can help mitigate the effects of alcohol or help with hangovers and withdrawal, others can actually be harmful.

  • Ginkgo Biloba. Combining alcohol with supplements like ginkgo biloba, used to enhance memory, can increase the risk of internal bleeding.
  • Tyrosine. Mixing alcohol with tyrosine — an amino acid supplement — can increase our blood pressure to dangerous levels.
  • Iron. While iron is a vital nutrient when it comes to energy (it helps our red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of the body), its relationship with alcohol is tricky. Moderate consumption of alcohol can actually increase the absorption of iron from food and supplements, leading to iron overload — a condition that can cause damage to organs such as the liver and heart.

    Chronic and heavy drinking increases the risk of developing a condition called alcoholic liver disease, making it hard for the liver to regulate iron levels. An excess of iron in the body can accelerate this process.
  • Some sedatives and sleep aids. Supplements like valerian root, melatonin, and kava are often used to promote relaxation or sleep. Combining these with alcohol (which is also a depressant) can boost the effect, resulting in excessive drowsiness or even dangerous levels of sedation.
  • St. John's Wort. This supplement is frequently used for mood disorders like depression. However, combining it with alcohol might diminish its effectiveness and increase the risk of adverse side effects like dizziness, confusion, or sedation.
  • 5-HTP. This one is used for a variety of purposes, including mood regulation and sleep enhancement. However, when mixed with alcohol, it can lead to a dangerous increase in serotonin levels, potentially resulting in a condition called serotonin syndrome.
  • Bacopa and rhodiola. While these have some benefits when it comes to recovering from alcohol misuse, mixing them with booze is not a good idea (since both the supplements and the alcohol are processed by the liver).

A Healthier, Happier You

With advances in genetic testing and personalized medicine, the future of supplementation is promising and is getting more precise when it comes to meeting our individual needs. Imagine tailoring your supplement regimen based on your DNA or microbiome profile! We are moving toward more personalized and precise recommendations, ensuring that each of us gets the most benefit with the least risk.

Still, when it comes to supplements, remember that they are just that — supplementary. They’re not a magic fix, although they can support a healthy lifestyle when combined with a balanced diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep.

In the end, it’s all about balance and finding what works best for you. We're all on this journey together, learning and growing every day!

Summary FAQs

1. Can supplements support my decision to reduce or quit alcohol?

Absolutely! Supplements like kudzu root, vitamin B complex, and magnesium can aid in managing alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms, while others can support liver and brain health during the transition.

2. How do supplements like milk thistle and dandelion root benefit the liver?

Milk thistle's active ingredient, silymarin, has antioxidant properties that may protect the liver from toxins, including alcohol. Dandelion root can aid in flushing out toxins and support liver function.

3. What supplements can help boost brain health during alcohol withdrawal?

Omega-3 fatty acids support cognitive functions and mood, 5-HTP helps regulate serotonin (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter), and L-glutamine can act as a mood and energy booster.

4. How can I maintain a healthy gut if I've been consuming alcohol?

Probiotics are excellent for restoring the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, which can be disrupted by alcohol.

5. Are there any supplements I should avoid combining with alcohol?

Yes. Combining alcohol with supplements like ginkgo biloba, tyrosine, and iron can have negative effects, like increasing the risk of internal bleeding or dangerously elevating blood pressure.

6. How can ashwagandha help during alcohol withdrawal?

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that can help manage stress more effectively by balancing cortisol levels and promoting better sleep, both beneficial during alcohol withdrawal.

7. Should I consult a professional before starting any supplement regimen?

Definitely! It's essential to talk with a health professional before introducing any new supplements to ensure they're right for your unique needs and to avoid potential interactions or side effects.

Ready To Supplement Your Journey With Reframe?

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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