April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Thus, I want to pay tribute to one of my mentors, Joan Mathews Larson, PhD, who wrote the seminal book, Seven Weeks to Sobriety, which I require as a text for my Level 1 Training. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly encourage you to do so. Many of my students found that it dramatically changed their perception of people with Alcohol Use Disorder, and it gave them concrete nutritional tools of which they weren’t previously aware.
One of the greatest gifts her book offers is the idea that there are different biochemical types of alcohol use disorder. On the one hand, this seems like common sense. A weekend binge drinker acts very different from the businessman who can drink everyone under the table with no hangover, or from the mother who has to have a bottle of red wine every evening, and feels crappy the next day. Or, the “happy drunk” seems very different from the “mean drunk”. Many teenagers have very different experiences during their very first drinking episode, whether or not they continue to drink. But we don’t usually ask ourselves “WHY?”. She did! She identified 3 underlying biochemical processes in people with alcohol use disorder. I am sure that there are more, but that research is yet to be done. I would love for you to write in and share your experience with any of these types.
Jeff Jones MA, LPC, CACIII, a member of our community has studied and written about these in depth.
Here are the 3 underlying biochemical processes in people with alcohol use disorder.
Addicted Allergic Bio-Type: This type actually has an immune response to the presence of alcohol that is quite noticeable. These are the people who often turn red, tend to binge drink, and may get very mean and even violent after a few drinks. They frequently got very sick during their first drinking episode and can still get bad hangovers even after years of drinking. However, their cravings can be so strong and out of the blue, that they have a hard time staying abstinent.
To make a very long story short, ANY exposure to fumes or alcohol in these people can set off a strong craving. This includes gasoline fumes, fingernail polish remover, alcohol-based hand sanitizer or even hair spray. Alcohol-allergic people who work around fumes have the hardest time staying sober because of this reaction. I once had a chronically relapsing client who couldn’t come to session because she was drunk, again. So we had a phone session, and I had her take out every single product in her house that contained alcohol. By the end of the hour, her dining room table was covered from end to end with cleaning products, hair spray, body care products, eyeglass cleaner, etc., etc., etc. No wonder she couldn’t stay sober! Her cravings were set off every time she used one of these products. What’s in your cupboard?
Ethnicity-Based Alcoholic Bio-Types: Might your family’s ethnicity have anything to do with your craving for alcohol? Yes indeed! Those of us from Irish, Native or Scandinavian backgrounds, can often trace alcohol use disorder through our family tree. And depression! In this bio-type, clients from these ethnic backgrounds suffer from a deep, dark, treatment resistant depression which started in young childhood. They then discover that even a little bit of alcohol (for me it was 3/4th of a beer) significantly relieves the depression until the next day. I spent my days looking forward to my 3/4th of a beer (a whole beer put me to sleep!) and organized my life around making sure it was waiting for me at the end of each day. Full-blown alcohol use disorder then gets triggered in susceptible people. When we stop drinking, the deep, dark treatment-resistant depression may return with a vengeance and may even cause suicidal ideation.
It turns out that those of us with this issue don’t do a good job converting omega 6 fatty acids from our food into a conditionally essential fatty acid called GLA (gamma linolenic acid). GLA makes a brain chemical called PGE1, which has anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory actions in the body. When this brain chemical is low because of a deficiency in GLA, life-time depression may result. Alcohol temporarily potentiates PGE1 in the brain, thus temporarily relieving this depression. And it doesn’t take much alcohol either! So, what to do?
Well, GLA can be found in seeds from plants like Borage, Evening Primrose, and Black Currant. My favorite is Borage Oil. I personally find that daily taking 1-1000mg capsule of borage oil from my favorite company, which contains 240 mg of GLA, keeps the depression at bay, along with any alcohol cravings. It also may help moisturize dry skin, reduce the intensity of menstrual cramps, and relieve menopausal symptoms. Good stuff! Not everybody with Alcohol Use Disorder, needs GLA, but for those of us for whom it relieves the symptoms of depression, it is a life-saver!
THIQ Bio-Type: This type was first identified by a cancer researcher, Virginia Davis, who discovered a highly addictive opioid compound, tetrahydroisoquinoline in the brains of men with late-stage alcohol use disorder, due to a genetic anomaly in the breakdown of alcohol in the liver. These clients often start out with type A personalities and find that alcohol initially energizes them and helps them function more effectively. At the beginning of their drinking career, they have very high tolerance and don’t have hangovers. Later however, the heavy drinking catches up with them, and now they need to drink to feel normal or to avoid serious hangovers.