Nutrition therapy, could it be the key to treating alcoholism? Learn about nutrition treatment for alcoholics and how it differs from traditional alcoholism treatment.
AA Meetings Weren't Enough
By the time Kathi Tuff finally discovered the treatment method that ended her dependence on alcohol, she'd been binge drinking for 23 of her 37 years and in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for 13. "I remember being 15 and having guzzling contests with a group of guys at the local pizza joint and winning," says Tuff, who started drinking in the ninth grade. "I could drink anyone under the table."
Tuff first went into rehab in 1989 at the age of 24, but found recovery a series of false starts. "I'd binge for three weeks, then white-knuckle it. I always wanted to drink," she says. She fought depression, cravings, and constant emotional pain. AA meetings helped, but not enough.
"I was sober for ten years until 1999, when I really messed up," she says. The pain of a tough divorce weakened her resolve, and just after starting to date the man who is now her husband, Tuff went on a three-day bender. "Denny went out of town for the weekend and I just lost it. When he came back, he had to pick up the pieces."
Tuff's experience of relapsing after ten years of sobriety is more common than people might think. The shameful secret about modern alcoholism treatment is its abysmal long-term success rate. A commonly cited statistic for alcohol treatment programs nationwide is less than 20 percent recovery after one year. Think about it: That means that of every five people who enter an addiction program, only one will actually stay sober.
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Luckily for Tuff, her husband-to-be was uniquely suited to help her. A recovering alcoholic himself, Denny Tuff is an alcoholism counselor and residential manager at Bridging the Gaps, a treatment program in Winchester, Virginia. Thanks to his 30 years of experience with recovering alcoholics, he knew there was a different approach that might work for Kathi. He insisted that she consult Charles Gant, a Washington, D.C.-based physician (now retired from practice) and author of End Your Addiction Now.
Gant is among a handful of mavericks who are convinced that the standard approach to alcoholism is missing an essential component: a biochemical way to loosen alcohol's grip. Their methods, which are slowly gaining acceptance, put a twist on the mind/body dynamic underlying traditional treatment programs.
Most such programs, with their emphasis on daily counseling sessions and attendance at AA meetings, focus on the mind. The 12 steps of AA couldn't be a more dramatic example of the belief that to control the body, you must first control the mind: "Admit that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable," reads the first of the 12 steps. Another counsels taking "a searching and fearless moral inventory."
Alcoholism - A Biochemical Imbalance
Gant and his colleagues believe that the body's needs must be attended to first. In their view, alcoholism is primarily a brain chemistry imbalance fueled by a deficiency in certain nutrients. A critical part of treating it, then, is to replenish those missing nutrients. Eating a diet high in protein, brain-healthy fats, and high-fiber carbohydrates, and taking supplements that include vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, they say, can actually rewire the brain to reduce cravings.
"We've accepted that alcoholism is a disease," Gant says. "Now we have to start treating it like one." The notion that alcoholism biochemical basis isn't brand new, of course. The first glimmerings came in the 1960s, and it was in 1990 that genetics researcher Kenneth Blum identified a gene that causes some people's brains to react differently to alcohol, setting the stage for addiction. Since then a vast body of research, much of it involving rats and mice, has documented alcohol's biochemical effects on the brain. We now know much more than we used to about why it's so terribly difficult for some alcoholics to get sober and stay that way.
"For the alcoholic, metabolism is far stronger than free will," says Amityville, New York, physician Joseph Beasley, an early proponent of research into the brain chemistry underlying addiction and the author of How to Defeat Alcoholism: Nutritional Guidelines for Getting Sober. "Diet and nutrition therapy should be part of any alcohol treatment program."
Yet most psychiatrists, counselors, and doctors in the field are woefully ignorant of the concept. "Alcoholism is a physical disease," says Joan Mathews Larson, a nutritionist who's the author of Seven Weeks to Sobriety and director of the influential Health Recovery Center, an outpatient treatment program headquartered in Minneapolis. "So treatment should offer more than just talk. It's like saying a person's diabetes can be turned around by 'taking a searching and fearless moral inventory'. Meanwhile, every organ in their body is collapsing." Larson, whose crusade to treat alcoholism with nutrition therapy was launched when her son committed suicide after completing a residential program, published a study showing that 74 percent of alcoholics who finished her program were still sober more than three years later.
It's not that those who advocate a nutritional approach think AA-based programs are entirely off-base. In fact, all the treatment programs that feature nutritional therapy also include either 12-step sessions or some other type of counseling. The point is that beating alcoholism requires shoring up the body as well as the mind.