Nutritional Medicine & Addictions: An important “over-looked” component in detoxification & recovery

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People with addictions to alcohol & drugs may be considered some of the most under-nourished and nutrient deficient populations in healthcare. Treatments for these groups typically involve pharmacotherapy (medications), counseling support services, and perhaps acupuncture (depending on the treatment center). The use of supplemental vitamins & minerals for these patients generally falls under the area of diet & foods (and perhaps rest) instead of actually advising them on “adequate” nutritional supplementation. Research suggests that specific vitamins may actually be used as an “add-on” treatment (similar to medications) for these individuals irrespective of whether a person is deficient or not. For example, the B-vitamin niacin (B3) is typically used by physicians to improve cholesterol levels in patients and not for the prevention or treatment of vitamin B3 deficiency. Moreover, evidence also suggests that nutritional medicines have protective properties in the body including the brain & nervous system.

For several decades it has already been documented about some of the potential dangers of nutritional deficiencies. For example, chronic vitamin B1 (or thiamine) deficiency causes a well known neurological complication from alcoholism. Vitamin B12 & folic acid deficiencies may also be a culprit in anemia (megaloblastic) and in cases of neurological & psychiatric conditions. But how about the remaining vitamins & minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids?

Zhou found long-term heroin abusers who used large quantities of this street-drug caused a decrease in vitamins C, E, beta-carotene and an increase in damaging “oxidative stresses” (a biological equivalent of rusting in the body). The researchers advised that “the heroin abusers should acquire sufficient quantity of antioxidants (vitamin C, E, beta-carotene) so as to abate the injuries to their bodies”.

In a study of chronic alcoholics, Majumdar discovered that 24 out of 25 patients (96%) were found to be deficient in blood levels of vitamin C . Intravenous vitamin C injections (500mg/day) were given to these patients for 5 days in order to help replenish their bodies. Surprisingly, the levels did not return to within the normal range in 16 out of the 25 (64%) with this strength and dosing schedule of intravenous vitamin C treatment. According to the researchers:

“it is suggested that conventional detoxification therapy for alcohol withdrawal syndrome should include poly-vitamins including vitamin C. It is further suggested that more prolonged replenishment therapy with vitamin C, preferably by intravenous route, may be needed to normalize its blood levels in some chronic alcoholic patients.”

It is important to note that vitamin C is vital for brain function and neuro-transmission. Interestingly, one of the first early warning symptoms of vitamin C deficiency is “fatigue”.

Vitamin C, while on the subject, may also act as a valuable aid in detoxification treatment. Evangelou found patients who received high dose vitamin C orally either alone or combined with traditional treatment for heroin addiction manifested major withdrawal symptoms ranging from 10% to 16.6% of the subjects. In contrast, people who received traditional medical therapy alone (without vitamin C) experienced major withdrawal in 56.6% of the cases. In addition, after four weeks of follow up, the patients receiving vitamin C expressed vivid feelings of well being and a strong improvement in appetite and psychokinetic behavior without any signs of depression or insomnia in contrast to the control group

Giannini investigated the effects of vitamin C in 40 men with acute phencyclidine (PCP) intoxication. The patients were randomly assigned to intramuscular injections of the neuroleptic medication Haldol, vitamin C, or Haldol plus ascorbic acid. The addition of vitamin C to Haldol enhanced the activity of Haldol in counter-acting PCP intoxication.

Several other nutrients, besides vitamin C, may benefit drug & alcohol addictions. It is important to stress that an imbalance or deficiency of any one nutrient has the potential to act as an obstacle in the recovery process. For example, a vitamin B1 deficiency can not be corrected or helped by giving another B-vitamin, vitamin C, etc. Surprisingly, the majority of standard detox & recovery centers do not incorporate, advise, or suggest appropriate nutritional supplementation or offer routine laboratory testing in this area.

It may be important to incorporate optimal replenishment & nutritional regimens for people who are in various stages of addiction detoxification & recovery. Eating a well balanced diet may not be sufficient enough. Moreover, when used correctly, vitamins have the potential to complement standard treatment protocols. My experience in private practice has supported this concept in patients, including their high safety margin. Due to the important role nutrients have on the body & mind, and because of the potential negative ramifications of nutritional deficiencies, nutritional medicines should play a more active role in addiction medicine. A good “one a day” multi-vitamin & multi-mineral supplement(s) should be considered a basic & elementary starting point.