Nutrition is a key component of any successful recovery journey. When recovering from addiction to substances, simply ceasing use is not always enough to ensure recovery success. Substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, cannabis, opiates, and even sugar, shift the brain out of homeostasis, or balance. This is why, when trying to quit, we don’t quite feel like ourselves.
Drugs and alcohol affect the brain’s natural homeostasis by frequent over-stimulation. The brain wants to adjust and orient towards balance, so when substances are used in excess, it believes that it has over-produced certain chemicals, leading it to aim for balance by becoming less responsive.
Homeostasis is not the only aspect of healthy brain functioning affected by addiction. Over-stimulation as a result of substance misuse also damages neurotransmitter production. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers within the brain that contribute to normal functioning. When substances are taken in excess, neural pathways can become “fried”, diminishing the brain’s ability to effectively communicate with itself and with the rest of the body.
Nutrition for a Healthier Brain
For a successful recovery, brain health must be restored. One effective way of restoring brain health and function is through proper nutrition. Recovery becomes easier when the brain and body are in good health. Nutrients absorbed from healthy, whole foods contribute to the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain, promoting recovery.
Addiction and Malnourishment
Those struggling with addiction are subject to malnourishment, even if they are unaware. Substances can affect our appetite and can even trick our bodies into thinking that our nutritional demands have been met. Alcohol, for example, makes a person feel full even though they are not. Substances like tobacco and cocaine provide us with a surge of dopamine that can give us a temporary boost in energy and reduce the perceived need to eat healthy food.
Furthermore, the power of addiction is such that intake of substances becomes a priority over eating right, as well as other important personal and social factors in daily life.
Nutrition for Healthier Behavior
Lack of proper nutrition is known to lead to stronger experiences of urges and cravings related to drug use, as well as more negative emotional states. These urges and difficult emotional states can be strong obstacles to a successful recovery.
With the right nutrition, these urges may be less intense. Both brain and body are in a stronger position to experience cravings and urges without giving in to them.
What is Healthy Eating?
According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy eating plan involves:
- • Fruits, vegetable, whole grains, and low-dairy products
- • Lean meats, poultry, beans, nuts, eggs, and fish
- • Low intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugar
- • Meeting calorie needs
- The above are the recommended guidelines for the general population. For those addicted to substances, a higher intake of certain nutrients may be required to counter any deficiencies caused by substance abuse.
The Impact of Addiction and Poor Diet on Health
Addiction often goes hand in hand with poor eating habits. This destructive combination diminishes the healthy functioning of both brain and body, leading to malnutrition. This can manifest as:
• Further consequences of malnutrition relate to specific substances.
Alcohol Abuse and Nutrition
Alcohol abuse damages the body by disrupting its ability to absorb nutrients, due to the damage alcohol causes to the stomach lining. Pancreas damage is another consequence of alcohol abuse. This is particularly detrimental to health as the pancreas is responsible for the digestion of lipids, carbohydrates, proteins, and hormones related to blood sugar. When the pancreas can’t function properly (due to alcohol abuse), addicted individuals are at risk of developing pancreatitis, which can be fatal.
Opioid Abuse and Nutrition
Opioid abuse is known to cause chronic constipation. In order to find relief, many sufferers take laxatives. However, overuse of laxatives can cause further health issues, such as electrolyte imbalance, heartburn, and vomiting. Instead of relying on laxatives for relief, patients in recovery from opioid abuse can support digestion by adding whole grains and fiber to their diet.
Stimulant Abuse and Nutrition
Cocaine and amphetamines, which are known as stimulant drugs, suppress a user’s appetite. Suppression of appetite can lead to dehydration and vitamin deficiencies and is a major contributing factor to malnutrition. Prolonged periods of malnutrition can result in:
• Dental issues, such as tooth decay and gum disease
• Hair thinning and hair loss
• Irregular menstrual cycles
• Slower wound healing time
While stimulant abuse suppresses appetite, the comedown following use can create a spike in appetite, which can cause a user to binge eat.
Benefits of Proper Nutrition in Addiction Recovery
Getting the right nutrients offers a range of benefits for those in recovery, such as:
- • Improved Mood and Increased Confidence
• Healthy eating – getting the right nutrients in the right volume – helps those in recovery maintain a stable mood and positive outlook, unlike the mood swings, anxiety, and depression associated with nutrient deficiency according to research.
Healthy eating improves overall brain function. With healthy functioning, those in recovery can experience greater focus and awareness of their thoughts and emotions, key to successfully maintaining recovery. Deficiencies increase the likelihood of distraction, which in turn can lead to relapse. For example, a magnesium deficiency can lead to feelings of confusion and insomnia which are dangerous for those in early recovery.
- Increased Motivation and Energy
With proper nutrition, clients give themselves the best chances at staying motivated and maintaining energy levels through the recovery journey. With motivation and energy, it is easier to stay consistent with other important healing tools, like meditation and regular exercise.
Nutrient deficiencies, like those caused by substance abuse, cause those in recovery to experience more unstable and inconsistent energy levels. Deficiency in iron is known to cause apathy and feelings of fatigue, which can jeopardize recovery success.
Eating healthy can improve a person’s ability to deal with cravings by reducing their intensity. Cravings are amplified by nutrient deficiency. One study by Biery et al. observed that patients addicted to alcohol reported less intense cravings when receiving talk therapy in combination with nutritional therapy, compared with patients who had not received nutritional therapy.
Nutrition, Exercise, and Meditation for Addiction Recovery
Nutrition is one of a multi-pronged approach to supporting the recovery process. Proper nutrient intake, regular exercise and daily meditation can all contribute to the whole person healing necessary for recovery to be successful in the long term.
Proper nutrition has a profound effect on the recovery process. Healthy food intake leads to significant improvements in our overall well-being and promotes a positive outlook. This improved mood and well-being reduces the likelihood of relapse in those in recovery.
Recovery is a long road, but small steps can be taken every day to ensure success. When it comes to healthy eating, it is best for those in recovery to receive consistent support from a nutritional counsellor or therapist to help them first understand the importance of nutrition and then figure out a realistic plan to ensure that the right nutrients are consumed on a daily basis.
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 “What Are Neurotransmitters?”. Qbi.Uq.Edu.Au, https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-physiology/what-are-neurotransmitters. Accessed 8 Oct 2020.
 “Food Components To Enhance Performance”. 1994. National Academies Press, doi:10.17226/4563. Accessed 8 Oct 2020.
 “Dietary Guidelines For Americans”. HHS.Gov, https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/eat-healthy/dietary-guidelines-for-americans/index.html. Accessed 8 Oct 2020.
 Ottley, C. (2000). Food and mood. Nursing Standard (through 2013), 15(2), 46.
 Flink, E B. “Magnesium Deficiency In Human Subjects—A Personal Historical Perspective.”. Journal Of The American College Of Nutrition, vol 4, no. 1, 1985, pp. 17-31. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/07315724.1985.10720063. Accessed 8 Oct 2020.
 Ottley, C. (2000). Food and mood. Nursing Standard (through 2013), 15(2), 46.
 Biery, J. R., Williford, J. J., & McMullen, E. A. (1991). Alcohol craving in rehabilitation: assessment of nutrition therapy. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 91(4), 463-466.