Alcoholic neuropathy, as it’s called, is a neurological disorder in which multiple peripheral nerves throughout the body begin to malfunction, simultaneously. This develops as a result of direct poisoning of the nerves by the alcohol. Degeneration of the nerves will typically occur in both the motor and sensory systems. This type of nerve damage will cause an individual to experience not only pain but muscular weakness, as well. As is the case with most neuropathies, this will occur first in the feet and hands and then, progressively will affect the central core. In alcoholic neuropathy, the main causative factor in the damage to the nerves is the direct toxic effect that the alcohol has on the nerve, however, vitamin deficiencies resulting from poor nutrition associated with alcoholism are also known to contribute to its development.
Long term heavy alcohol use (dependence) or alcoholism, can inhibit or impair your body’s ability
to use and store certain vitamins and minerals. This will create a vitamin deficiency within the body, which in turn can lead to a polyneuropathy.
Prolonged and heavy alcohol consumption can lead to a loss of appetite, decreased food intake and damage to the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Inflammation and damage to the GI tract reduces the absorption of nutrients consumed. We refer to this state as malnutrition. Neurons are totally dependent on a continuous and reliable supply of both oxygen and glucose from the blood for normal healthy function. In cases of prolonged or severe malnutrition, nerve function deteriorates as the body’s energy reserves are depleted.
It is important to recognize that neuropathies can develop with a significant depletion in any of the family of B-vitamins and various other vitamins. Vitamins E, B1, B6, B12, and niacin are essential to healthy nerve function. Thiamine is a critical vitamin necessary for nourishment and healthy function of the nervous system. Deficiencies of these vitamins can cause a painful neuropathy of the extremities. Aside from the roles they play in the peripheral nerves, both Thiamine and Niacinamide are required for normal brain function, cognitive activity, and aid in energy production. We will cover this in greater depth in the nutritional section.
Alcoholic polyneuropathy usually has a gradual onset occurring over the course of many months or even years. Typically axonal degeneration will begin before any symptoms arise. One early warning sign of the ensuing possibility of developing alcoholic polyneuropathy, is weight loss. This usually signifies multiple nutritional deficiencies leading to the development of polyneuropathy.
As is common in most neuropathies symptoms will consist of both sensory and motor loss and will then develop symmetrically, on both sides of the body. Individuals will ordinarily notice the typical ‘stocking – glove’ presentation.
Common symptoms of sensory involvement include numbness or abnormal sensations like “pins and needles,” in the legs or arms, and heat intolerance. Some people may notice a burning sensation in their feet and calves. Sensory symptoms will prevail first, only then to be followed by motor symptoms. These can include muscle cramps and weakness, muscle wasting and decreased or absent deep tendon reflexes. Some people may experience frequent falls and gait unsteadiness due to lack of muscular strength. Other motor symptoms that can be reported are erectile dysfunction in men, problems urinating, constipation, and diarrhea. Over time, alcoholic polyneuropathy may also cause difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) and speech impairment.