I recently learned that near the end of his life, Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), went to his board of directors and urged them to add nutritional therapy to the AA protocols. The board turned him down.
Wilson had found that coffee and sugary treats—often served at AA meetings—worsened his hypoglycemia symptoms and depression. When he removed these foods from his diet, his blood sugar stabilized and his depression cleared. He also became interested in the use of vitamin B6 for treating alcoholism. The board’s decision prevented the widespread sharing of these discoveries, although his wife published a pamphlet on vitamin B6 after his death.
Today, we know a lot more about how alcohol affects the neurotransmitters that determine our outlook and moods. This knowledge indicates that vitamin B6 can indeed support the alcoholic in his recovery, but it is not the only nutrient that can help with the resolution of cravings.
Recently, a number of therapists have looked at nutritional therapy for alcoholism, including Julia Ross, author of The Craving Cure.1 Preliminary studies indicate that a high-protein, high-fat diet, often in conjunction with vitamin or amino acid supplements, gives a success rate of 70-80 percent, compared to about 20 percent for conventional therapy and participation in AA.2
However, none of these therapies has focused on the principles of the Wise Traditions diet, which contains unique foods that can help the body balance the various neurotransmitters and feel-good chemicals—without drugs and perhaps even without supplements.
New research indicates that alcohol affects the levels of many hormones and neurotransmitters in the body and brain. Chief among these are dopamine and cortisol—important stress-reducing, feel-good chemicals. Alcohol can boost these neurotransmitters temporarily, but often in ways that create imbalances and end up depressing our ability to form them naturally.
It should come as no surprise to readers of Wise Traditions that the fat-soluble vitamins play an important role in the production and regulation of dopamine and cortisol. The three key nutrients in this regard are the fatty acid arachidonic acid and vitamins A and D. Our body makes endocannabinoids (feel-good, calming chemicals similar to those in marijuana) out of arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid found in animal fats, liver and egg yolks—the very foods the medical establishment tells us not to eat. Vitamins A and D serve as key regulators for this process. From the endocannabinoids, the body makes dopamine and cortisol, again with the help of vitamin A. In a well-nourished individual, the body regulates the production of these compounds to relieve anxiety, lift the mood and support motivation—that is, the kind of focused, goal-oriented behavior that creates true happiness and reduces the need for stimulants and drugs.
Another key neurotransmitter affected by alcohol is serotonin. Low serotonin results in numerous conditions that can predispose to alcoholism, including anxiety, depression, impulsive behavior, irritability, low self-esteem, sleep problems and post-traumatic stress disorder. The production of serotonin requires the amino acid tryptophan, vitamin D, iron, magnesium and calcium, vitamin C and B vitamins. Alcohol can temporarily raise serotonin levels, but at the same time it depletes the nutrients (like B6 and folate) needed to produce serotonin naturally.
Trauma can affect natural serotonin levels. For example, a 2009 study3 found t hat participants who had experienced childhood abuse had lower brain serotonin transporter binding potential than those who were not abused, meaning that they had lower serotonin activity than needed to maintain a happy and optimistic mood. Other traumatic experiences, such as the danger of war or loss of a job or loved one, can be expected to trigger similar disruption of endogenous serotonin production.
Let’s look at the components of the Wise Traditions diet to ascertain how they might help the alcoholic discover that he doesn’t actually need to drink anymore.
COD LIVER OIL
A naturally produced cod liver oil4 will provide natural vitamins A and D. Unlike other dietary treatments for alcoholism, the Wise Traditions diet always begins with a focus on vitamin A, for two reasons. First, the lowfat, high-carb diets that most Americans follow can lead to widespread vitamin A deficiencies; second, vitamin A is crucial to the formation of a variety of adrenal hormones that the body needs to deal with stress, including dopamine and cortisol. In addition to cortisol and dopamine, vitamin A supports the adrenal glands in the conversion of cholesterol into stress hormones. Trauma and stress rapidly use up vitamin A, however, with the result that every little thing can become stressful. After a traumatic experience or period of anxiety, the temptation to imbibe may be great, and people may turn to alcohol for comfort. When the body is replete with vitamin A, we can manage stress with humor and grace.
Vitamin D—the body’s main feel-good chemical—is a cofactor for vitamin A. We need them both together. A well-known function of vitamin D is the enhancement of serotonin uptake. Although this is something that alcohol does as well (at least temporarily), vitamin D can regulate serotonin without causing a hangover!
Replenishment of vitamin A stores should be the very first step in the treatment of alcoholism, and cod liver oil is the best way to achieve this. The most efficient and economical way to take cod liver oil is as a liquid. To make a “cod liver oil cocktail,” place one to two teaspoons of natural cod liver oil in a glass, mix with a little hot water, stir—and down the hatch! If you prefer, you can take capsules.
The quickest way to heal from trauma and stress is to use Dr. Price’s remedy. This consists of putting alternating drops of cod liver oil and high-vitamin butter oil or emu oil under the tongue, several times per day. High-vitamin butter oil and emu oil provide vitamin K2, a cofactor for vitamins A and D and a key factor for a healthy brain and nervous system.5 Applied under the tongue, they are immediately absorbed, bypassing the digestion, which may be compromised after a long period of alcohol abuse and serotonin deficiency. (It’s also a good idea to add a little high-vitamin butter oil or emu oil to the cod liver oil cocktail.)
Egg yolks are the best source of cholesterol in the human diet. All adrenal hormones are made with cholesterol, with the help of vitamin A. Egg yolks are not only a great source of vitamin A but also of vitamins D, K2, B6 and B12, along with iron and sulfur as well as arachidonic acid, from which the body produces endocannabinoids.
Alcohol increases dopamine levels—sometimes called the body’s natural cocaine—but in a way that can cause a serious imbalance. Alcohol can provide a temporary pep-up, but as the mechanism for dopamine regulation becomes exhausted, that pep-up may be harder to achieve.
In the words of Brick, the famous alcoholic son of Big Daddy in Tennessee William’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that pep-up becomes “dilatory.”
Gelatin-rich bone broth provides a natural way to regulate dopamine,6 bringing it up to a healthy level while preventing dopamine from becoming too high (in which case we become manic). Bone broth also provides glutamic acid, which the body uses to produce GABA, the “calming” amino acid often recommended in supplement form by Julia Ross and others.
A mug of genuine bone broth morning and evening can serve as the alcoholic’s best friend, providing key nutrients for neurotransmitters and calming feel-good chemicals. However, beware of substitutes—broth made from bouillon cubes, cheap soup made from powdered “bases,” broth in cans or aseptic packaging and any processed food to which MSG in all its guises is added—in other words, all processed foods. MSG works very differently in the body compared to the natural glutamic acid in real broth.
By the way, another—and surprising—source of GABA besides glutamic acid is putrescine,7 a stinky amino acid that occurs in fermented meat and fish products (popular in Asia) and stinky cheeses (popular in Europe). Fermented cod liver oil also contains small amounts of putrescine.
RAW ANIMAL FOODS
People in traditional cultures consumed some animal foods raw, a practice that is rare in modern cultures and especially in America. Raw animal foods provide our best source of vitamin B6, necessary for the formation of the various neurotransmitters affected by alcohol consumption. Alcoholics tend to be deficient in B6, in part because this vitamin is involved in clearing alcohol from the body through the liver.
Vitamin B6 is rapidly destroyed by heat but is fully intact in raw animal foods such as raw meat dishes like steak tartare or carpaccio, or raw dairy products—raw milk, raw kefir, raw yogurt and raw cheese. In addition to B6, raw dairy foods provide calcium in highly assimilable form, a mineral that is critical to the formation of serotonin and dopamine. The recovering alcoholic needs to consume raw animal foods every day.
Liver is the most nutrient-dense food in the human diet and provides a host of compounds that help us deal with stress, produce important neurotransmitters and nourish every system in the body. Poultry liver is best because of its great balance of A, D and K2. The best way to eat liver is as paté or liverwurst several times per week. For those who can’t learn to like liver, desiccated liver capsules are a good substitute. Another way to consume liver is to cut organic or pasture-raised chicken liver into pea-sized pieces, freeze them and swallow them like vitamin pills. Desiccated or frozen liver to provide one-half to one ounce of liver per day is a good maintenance dose.
Even those who recommend a high-fat diet for alcoholics tend to shy away from advocating animal fats. Instead, they suggest loading up on olive oil and coconut oil. But these oils do not contain the key nutrients we get exclusively from animal fats, namely arachidonic acid and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K2. As already noted, arachidonic acid serves as a precursor for endogenous cannabinoids (the calming, feel-good neurotransmitters). There is only one source for the body to get adequate arachidonic acid and that is from fatty animal foods like butter, lard, egg yolks, liver and meat fats.
There is another reason to eat animal fats: they supply 18-carbon saturated fatty acids, which support hormone production and cell-membrane integrity. The body needs these saturated fats and needs a lot of them. If we refuse to eat animal fats, the body has a back-up plan: it makes them from refined carbs. The best way to get rid of cravings for refined carbs and avoid the blood sugar roller coaster that often also leads to cravings for alcohol is to eat plenty of animal fats. So eat your meat with fat, load up on eggs (especially the yolks), enjoy full-fat cheese, eat bacon for breakfast and put butter on everything!
The adrenal glands require salt, especially in times of stress. Chlorine from salt is needed for protein digestion and is involved in the production of many neurotransmitters, including GABA. Further, unrefined salt contains a wealth of trace minerals, all with important roles to play in maintaining optimal health and freedom from cravings.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut supply beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract, and these bacteria produce many of the same feel-good chemicals that originate in the brain.8 In addition, fermented foods are a great source of vitamin C—raw sauerkraut is ten times richer in vitamin C then raw cabbage. Vitamin C supports the adrenal glands in times of stress and assists in the production of serotonin.
There are many homeopathic remedies that can help the alcoholic resist alcohol and even develop an aversion to beer, wine and distilled liquors (see page 47). Herbal remedies can also be effective. It may require some trial and error to find the right remedies, but the effort can pay off with important benefits.
Even allopathic medicine has a role to play. Going off alcohol cold turkey can provoke serious reactions, such as seizures. Anti-seizure medications are available to lessen the danger. Before attempting to withdraw from alcohol, it is essential that you consult a medical professional. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening.
WHAT ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS OVERLOOKS
AA’s stated purpose is to enable its members to “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” Since 1935, when alcoholic Bill Wilson founded the organization, AA has grown into an international self-help group with over two million members.
To share their method, Wilson and other members wrote Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism, from which AA drew its name. It outlines a twelve-step program in which members admit that they are powerless over alcohol and need help from a “higher power.” They seek guidance and strength through prayer and meditation from God or a higher power of their own understanding; take a moral inventory with care to include resentments; list and become ready to remove character defects; list and make amends to those harmed; continue to take a moral inventory; pray and meditate; and try to help other alcoholics recover. The goal is to create enough change in the alcoholic’s thinking “to bring about recovery from alcoholism” through a spiritual awakening. AA meetings are “quasi-ritualized therapeutic sessions run by and for alcoholics.”
Does AA work? Certainly, the meetings provide companionship and support for alcoholics, but studies of AA’s efficacy have produced inconsistent results. While some studies suggest an association between AA attendance and increased abstinence or other positive outcomes, others do not. Reports have varied from a 75 percent success rate to negative outcomes. Researchers are hampered by the difficulty in measuring success rates.
The biggest failing of AA, however, is the fact that the organization does not provide information on diet and alternative therapies to alcoholics. Typical offerings of donuts and coffee at AA meetings are the worst possible snacks for the recovering alcoholic. Nor does AA keep abreast of all the modern research on alcoholism and its effects on neurotransmitters.
At the same time, despite what recent research has revealed about the association of alcoholism and neurotransmitters, it is incorrect to imply that alcoholism is merely a problem with brain chemistry. There is also an emotional and spiritual component to alcoholism, and it is the alcoholic who must take the first step—who must say, “I want to change.” But once that step is taken, the Wise Traditions dietary recommendations can be of immense help along the path to sobriety.
WHAT IS THE WISE TRADITIONS DIET?
The pioneering work of Dr. Weston A. Price determined that the basic characteristic of optimal human diets was nutrient density. The diets of healthy human beings—free of dental problems, degenerative disease and mental illness, and highly resistant to infectious disease—contained minerals at levels at least four times higher than the American diet of his day and fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D and K2) at levels at least ten times greater than the American diet of his day. “Sacred” foods rich in these fat-soluble vitamins included liver and other organ meats; whole raw dairy foods, especially butter, from ruminant animals on pasture; egg yolks from pastured poultry; animal fats; fish eggs; fish livers and fish liver oil; and shellfish. In addition, preparation techniques such as fermentation, cooking of gelatinous bone broth and long soaking and souring of grains transformed hard-to-digest foods into foods from which the nutrients were readily available.
The Wise Traditions diet—one that incorporates these principles in modern times—should always serve as the preliminary therapy for every type of health problem, including alcoholism.
ALCOHOL’S COMPLEX EFFECTS
Because alcohol is a small molecule, it interacts with many neurotransmitter systems in the brain and nervous system; this makes the action of alcohol more complex than that of large molecules such as opiates or amphetamines, which tend to stimulate only one specific neurotransmitter.
GABA: gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Its principal role is reducing excitability. Alcohol affects the GABA system in a manner similar to valium, leading to relaxation and drowsiness.
DOPAMINE: Alcohol is a particularly lethal toxin to the dopamine system, one that attaches itself to the dopamine neurotransmitter and triggers compulsion.
ENDORPHINS: Alcohol affects the endorphin system in a manner similar to opiates, acting as a pain-killer and giving an endorphin “high.”
GLUTAMATE: Alcohol’s effects on the glutamate system lead to staggering, slurred speech and memory blackouts.
NOREPINEPHRINE: Alcohol causes a release of norepinephrine (also known as noradrenalin) in the brain, which is one reason why alcohol acts as a stimulant and not just as a depressant. As a stimulant, alcohol peps you up, but as a depressant alcohol can trigger depression.
ADRENALINE: Alcohol causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. This is another reason why alcohol has stimulant properties. The release of adrenaline stimulates the “fight or flight” response, which then calls for the calming “rest and digest” adrenal cortex hormones. Constant stimulation of adrenaline—which happens in spades when alcohol is combined with coffee—can lead to adrenal exhaustion.
INSTEAD OF ALCOHOL
What does the recovering alcoholic drink with meals? What does he take that is more refreshing and more enjoyable than beer, wine or whiskey? Why, kombucha, of course! Therapists may warn against kombucha because it contains a small amount of alcohol—0.5 percent or less—but the same is true of fruit juices. And if the recovering addict continues to eat sugar and refined carbs, he will make small amounts of alcohol out of those. Kombucha may indeed be a problem if it is too sweet, so look for brands that contain less than five grams of sugar per serving. Even better, make your own9 to ensure that it is sufficiently sour.
Another great beverage with meals is a vinegar drink made with raw apple cider vinegar plus sparkling water, and maybe a squeeze of lemon or lime.
HERBAL TREATMENTS FOR ALCOHOLISM
The use of herbs to treat alcoholism dates back thousands of years. Those in the process of renouncing alcohol can determine their effectiveness on a trial-and-error basis. However, exercise care when buying extracts, tinctures and essences to ensure that they do not contain alcohol. Alcohol is commonly used as an aid to extract the active elements of an herb. Be sure to read labels carefully!
KUDZU, an Asian root, is attracting considerable interest for the treatment of alcoholism. Studies have indicated that test animals drink less alcohol than controls when given kudzu root. Studies with humans give mixed results. Kudzu seems to lessen the amount that non-alcoholic people drink, but it does not reduce cravings in alcoholics. And a word of caution: the active ingredients in kudzu are diadzin and daidzein—estrogen-like compounds similar to those in soy.
ST. JOHN’S WORT can help alleviate depression, as shown in many studies. Because alcoholism and depression often go hand in hand, St. John’s wort is a natural choice for supporting those struggling with alcoholism. As with kudzu, those who take St. John’s wort tend to drink less than they otherwise would.
MILK THISTLE can be helpful in the treatment of liver dysfunction. The seeds contain a compound called silymarin, which helps to cleanse the liver of poisons. Those undergoing alcoholism detox often receive milk thistle to help rid the liver of alcohol. However, silymarin is not effective with severe liver damage, such as alcoholic hepatitis or alcoholic cirrhosis.
PASSION FLOWER is the herbal treatment of choice for opiate withdrawal, helping to relieve nausea. Research indicates that the herb can also help with alcoholism detox and the associated withdrawal symptoms.
GINSENG is valued for its revitalizing and energizing qualities. Its main effect is to increase the metabolism, thus helping the body break down alcohol more quickly and aiding in detox. Be sure to purchase pure ginseng—many products contain fillers that greatly dilute its effects.
CAYENNE PEPPER is a great tonic for the stomach. Those who drink too much alcohol tend to suffer from stomach problems and, in particular, gastritis. Cayenne pepper relieves the pain and reduces the inflammation of the stomach lining that is caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Be sure to purchase cayenne pepper powder that is organic.
DOPAMINE BALANCE—BROTH TO THE RESCUE
Dopamine is an important “feel-good” neurotransmitter. In well-adjusted individuals, two types of dopamine—tonic and phasic—work together in balance to provide both stability (tonic) and flexibility (phasic) to our mental processes. In addition to the arachidonic acid and vitamins A and D required for the production of dopamine, we need various nutrients for the activation and balance of its tonic and phasic forms.
Alcohol disrupts the delicate dopamine balance. In the long run, heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to overproduction of tonic dopamine, resulting in an even greater need for alcohol to achieve a calming effect and a temporary lift in mood. In other words, the increase in tonic dopamine levels leads to cravings for alcohol to restore production of phasic dopamine.10
The process of methylation is involved in the activation of tonic dopamine. A methyl group is simply one carbon attached to three hydrogens (CH3); this tiny molecule can act as a switch, turning chemicals on or off in the body. The methylation of dopamine results in the production of tonic dopamine, which provides mental stability. However, too much methylation can cause a higher level of tonic dopamine than required, leading to a state of distractibility and hyperarousal. Hypermethylating individuals often tend to be highly creative and energetic, but also display symptoms that may include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sleep disorders, restlessness, histamine intolerance, sensitivity to environmental toxins and schizophrenia. The flexibility supported by phasic dopamine allows us to deal with difficult situations with patience and calm, but hypermethylation blocks the production of phasic dopamine.10
Because the amino acid methionine and animal-food vitamins B6 and B12 are required for dopamine methylation,
practitioners may advise those suffering from symptoms of hypermethylation to switch to a plant-based diet—even
though many plant foods, especially legumes, also contain methionine. While a meatless diet may help temporarily,
it can lead to deficiencies in the long run and even symptoms of undermethylation, including pathological inflexibility
and brittle mental states.
The key in helping alcoholics restore balance between the tonic and phasic dopamine systems is the amino
acid glycine, which blocks hypermethylation. Although pharmaceutical companies have proposed a number of
drugs to dampen down hypermethylation, why not just use bone broth, our best food-based source of glycine?
Those treading the difficult path of alcoholism recovery will find a true friend in bone broth, known for its calming
effect. A cup of warm bone broth (seasoned with unrefined salt) should accompany every meal—especially meals
containing meat—or serve as an ingredient in gravies and sauces.
- Ross J. The Craving Cure: Identify Your Craving Type to Activate Your Natural Appetite Control. Flatiron Books, 2017.
- Nutrition therapy for treating alcoholism. https://www.healthyplace.com/alternative-mental-health/addictions/nutrition-therapy-for-treating-alcoholism.
- Miller JM, Kinnally EL, Ogden RT, et al. Reported childhood abuse is associated with low serotonin transporter binding in vivo in major depressive disorder. Synapse 2009;63(7):565-73.
- Cod liver oil. https://www.westonaprice.org/cod-liver-oil/.
- Ferland G. Vitamin K and the nervous system: an overview of its actions. Adv Nutr 2012;3(2):204-12.
- Masterjohn C. The pursuit of happiness. Wise Traditions 2008;9(4):14-24. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/the-pursuit-of-happiness/.
- Sequerra EB, Gardino P, Hedin-Pereira C, de Mello FG. Putrescine as an important source of GABA in the postnatal rat subventricular zone. Neuroscience 2007;146(2):489-493.
- The surprising link between the brain, gut bacteria, and anxiety. https://www.anxietyhack.com/chemical-imbalance-anxiety/.
- Kombucha like fine champagne. http://nourishingtraditions.com/kombucha-like-fine-champagne/.
- Grace AA. The tonic/phasic model of dopamine system regulation and its implications for understanding alcohol and psychostimulant craving. Addiction 2000;95 (Suppl 2):S119-28.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019