Q&A: Vitamin Deficiencies and Alcohol Use

By: Anna Ruokis, RN

How does long-term alcohol use cause vitamin and nutritional deficiencies over time?

With long-term (chronic) use of alcohol, people can consume up to 50 percent of their daily calories from alcohol and, subsequently, the amount of food eaten decreases. Essentially, the more a person drinks, the less they eat. This can eventually cause severe weight loss and weakness. They can also start experiencing nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, which makes food less appealing.

In addition, heavy alcohol use causes essential vitamins and nutrients to get “lost”, because alcohol decreases the body’s ability to fully absorb these nutrients from food.

What are common vitamin deficiencies that occur with chronic alcohol use and what are the symptoms of deficiencies?

Thiamine (Vitamin B1)

Low thiamine causes various symptoms, but the most commonly seen are neuropathy/nerve damage, numbness/tingling, irritability, constipation, muscle cramps, and fatigue. In severe cases, people can experience confusion due to brain/nerve cell damage, inability to control body movements or visual changes/hallucinations.


Common deficiency symptoms include fatigue, tongue swelling, headaches, irritability, diarrhea, depression, mouth sores, memory loss, confusion and muscle weakness.


Common deficiency symptoms include pale skin, cold hands and feet, fatigue, arrhythmias, shortness of breath and weight loss.


Early deficiency symptoms include fatigue, stiffness, muscle spasms, nausea, weakness. Severe symptoms include abnormal heart rhythms, numbness and tingling, personality changes, disorientation, diarrhea, difficulty walking and/or seizures.

How do vitamin deficiencies get treated in a treatment center?

Upon admission to a detox facility or treatment center, bloodwork is done to determine if there are any vitamin/electrolyte deficiencies. If detected, the patient is treated with either oral supplements and/or vitamins. In the case of severe deficiencies, an intramuscular injection is administered as needed, until vitamin/electrolyte levels reach normal levels. Test on levels will be run again later to see if the vitamin supplementation was helpful.

During this treatment period, patients are regularly assessed for safety by staff as some vitamin deficiencies can cause seizures, disorientation, changes in levels of consciousness, etc.

Why shouldn’t people try to detox at home?

It is not safe for people who have used alcohol and/or drugs at high levels to detox on their own at home. Specialized medical staff at a detox or medical facility can assist patients in safely detoxing and decreasing the risk of severe medical complications.

If you or someone you know is ready to detox from alcohol or any other substance, contact a hospital emergency department, or ideally a detox facility. Pine Rest has a specialized detox unit in Grand Rapids, Michigan. To learn more, call 866.852.4001 or visit pinerest.org/addiction.

You are not alone! We can support you or your loved one at every step of recovery.

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