Alcoholism - The Biochemical Connection

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Alcoholism - The Biochemical Connection.

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by Joan Mathews Larson, PhD in consultation with Keith W. Sehnert, MD

Villard Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 201 E. 50th St., N.Y. 10022 1992, Hardcover, $22.50, 317pp.

Alcohol is one of the oldest mind-altering substances known to humans: even primitive societies use alcohol, some of them, excessively. In our culture the social-acceptability and legal status of alcohol is so imbedded that it has become somewhat invisible, so much a part of normal social life it's hardly noticed. And with all the emphasis on illegal drug use in recent fears, alcohol abuse has receded into the background.

Yet the suffering, physical disintegration and early death from alcoholism affects millions of Americans; alcoholism is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. A contributing factor is the abysmal success rates of most conventional treatments. Only about 24% remain abstinent for two years. Although many researchers have established the links between genetic predisposition and the great bulk of studies support the conclusion that alcoholism is a diagnosis of a primary disease, it is still treated as a psychological disorder, even a character flaw. The root of the problem of diagnosis and treatment lies in the bible of American psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders where alcoholism is classified as a mental disorder. Current standard treatment in this country consists almost entirely of counseling. As with many standards and treatment options in medicine, the current standard treatment of alcoholism is outdated. And like so many other treatme nts that are outdated, the conventional treatment, "talking it out," is an unmitigated failure.

The author lost a teenage son to alcoholism and suicide, and began to question why he was not able to be helped. Her studies led her to take a doctorate in nutrition, and in 1981 Dr. Larson opened the Health Recovery Center in Minneapolis to test her theory that physical rehabilitation, using an orthomolecular approach, was the missing link in the treatment of alcoholism. Her success has been stunning - getting a 75% recovery rate with the more than 1,000 alcoholics and drug addicts she's treated. She has been able to validate the strong link between alcoholism and hypoglycemia, the efficacy of replenishing nutrient stores which have been disastrously depleted by alcohol abuse, and importantly, her work confirms the continuing underlying biochemical deficiencies which keep the "recovering" alcoholic fighting depression, cravings, and neurological symptoms long after his last drink.

The newer research on brain chemistry, neurotransmitters, and the liver enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase II, are all validating the biochemical model for addiction. Researchers have discovered that alcoholics are much more likely than nonalcoholics to have a certain gene affecting receptor sites for dopamine (a central nervous system neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure-seeking behavior). Researchers theorize that the gene alters dopamine receptor sites in the brain. It has been found in 77% of alcoholics studied.

In research on the liver enzyme, it was found that many alcoholics process alcohol differently than nonalcoholics. Their livers change alcohol into acetaldehyde at twice the normal rate, while the subsequent conversion of acetaldhyde into acetic acid is abnormally slow and takes twice as long as normal. Two decades ago, Texas researcher Virginia Davis noticed during autopsies of skid row alcoholics that their brains contained an opiate that she first thought was heroin. Of course the indigent men could not have supported such an expensive drug habit. The heroin-like substance turned out to be potent psychoactive compounds called tetrahydroisoquinolines (THIQs), that had been manufactured inside their brains when acetaldehyde from the breakdown of alcohol had combined with natural neurotransmitters. Davis's data support the concept of alcoholism as a true addiction stemming from specific biochemical events leading to the formation of an addictive substance similar to opiates such as heroin. Although this book is focused entirely on alcoholism, a drug is a drug is a drug. All "recreational" drug use may ensue from a need for pleasure (wired in), which, when induced by an exogenous substance, changes our biochemistry and produces a dependent, or addictive state. The research all points in that direction.

The seven-week program at the Health Recovery Center begins with a thorough assessment, including genetic history, detailed symptomology, lab testing including chemistry profile, thyroid function, 5-hour glucose tolerance test, food allergy assay, hair analysis, and amino-acid panel. The next step is the Detox formula, combining high levels of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrients, to cleanse the body of the effects of alcohol, eliminate cravings and dramatically reduce withdrawal symptoms. After one week, the nutrient levels are cut back and some new ones added, to bring the blood sugar under control. The glucose patterns of patients in treatment at the Center show as many as 88% suffering from hypoglycemia. Dr. Larson says that the elaborate concept called the "dry-drunk syndrome," ignores the fact that the symptoms are caused by a physical condition - hypoglycemia.

Patients are also introduced to a special diet excluding refined sugars, and caffeine and cigarettes as well. The author shows her frustration with the typical AA meeting room full of people drinking sugared coffee and smoking. These things, she points out, both aggravate hypoglycemia. Dr. Larson thinks there is a place for the AA program, by the way, but she notes that it is a support group, not a treatment program.

Alcoholism - The Biochemical Connection is so detailed, particularly regarding the supplementation that I believe anyone, under the supervision of a practitioner, could follow this program on their own with good results. The author has included additional chapters on contributing factors in alcoholism: chemical sensitivity (it's well-known that painters, who inhale fumes daily are often alcoholic), food allergies, and Candida albicans.

It's heartening to find that there are some biochemical treatment programs even if we don't hear much about them. With all the new biochemical research going on, perhaps it won't take the usual fifty years to put a new idea into practice. Anyone who thinks they may have a drinking problem, or any other addiction, won't go wrong following this innovative program back to health.

Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients.

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By Irene Alleger

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