Research shows that eating healthy can go a long way toward helping you on the road to addiction recovery. There is a common belief in the addiction recovery world that when you are overcoming a drug or alcohol addiction you should allow yourself to indulge in all the sweets, fats, and junk food you want. After all, why restrain yourself from harmless junk food when you have bigger beasts to battle? Evidence suggests, however, these eating habits may be hindering you more than they’re helping you on your path to recovery.
The Nutritional Dilemma
The nutritional dilemma faced by recovering addicts is two-fold. First, the very act of ingesting drugs or alcohol wreaks havoc on the body.
Alcohol, for example, impedes nutrient breakdown and digestion resulting in nutritional deficiencies. Opiates tend to cause gastrointestinal issues, and, during opiate withdrawal, severe vomiting and diarrhea can lead to nutrient depletion. Stimulants suppress appetite which can lead to an insufficient intake of calories and nutrients.
In addition to the purely physiological indications of drug and alcohol abuse, there is another factor that results in a less than stellar nutritional report card for addicts: lifestyle. A person consumed by addiction is less likely to eat healthfully. Some drugs cause you to eat too much, others too little. At the height of their drinking, alcoholics often derive as much as 50 percent of their daily calorie allowance from alcohol itself. In most cases, the need for the addictive substance is prioritized over the need for, say, a whole-grain turkey sandwich or other high-quality, nutrient-dense food.
Nutritional Therapy in Recovery
Given the nutritional standing of most recovering addicts, it’s surprising that proper nutrition is not emphasized more in recovery programs. Mounting evidence points to one emerging consensus: nutritional therapy can significantly help those recovering from addiction. It seems like common sense, but proper nutrition has the potential to make those in recovery feel better both mentally and physically. Furthermore, research shows that the inclusion of nutrition education in substance abuse treatment programs can increase participants’ success in achieving recovery.
Proper nutrition helps recovering addicts feel better because nutrients give the body energy, help build and repair organ tissue, and strengthen the immune system. Because recovering addicts have usually damaged vital organs during their drug or alcohol abuse, good nutrition provides them with the nutritional building blocks they need to begin restoring these damaged tissues.
Nutrition also plays an important role in mood. Research suggests that changes in your diet can alter brain structure both chemically and physiologically, and influence your behavior. The consumption of certain foods has been tied to increased production of key neurotransmitters like serotonin, which enhances mood.
This means recovering addicts can use food to feel better physically (as their bodies receive the nutrients they need to repair prior damage and operate on a more optimal level) and mentally (as they eat foods that enhance their mood and overall well-being). In many cases, feeling better will reduce the risk of relapse, as demonstrated conversely by the fact that recovering addicts with poor dietary habits are more likely to relapse. Additionally, in some cases, addicts are so unfamiliar with the feeling of hunger, they misinterpret hunger as a drug craving and fall face-first into relapse. This potentially deadly mistake can be easily remedied by eating frequent, healthy meals.
When adding nutrition to your addiction-fighting tool-box, it is important to collaborate with a trained nutritionist who can tailor your diet to your specific needs in recovery. No matter where you live, there is surely a trained nutritionist nearby, and there are even some who specialize in addiction recovery.
In some cases, a nutritionist’s own struggle with addiction sets him or her on the path of healing through nutrition. Having overcome addiction, the nutritionist brings a passion to the addiction-focused nutrition practice that comes from a personal understanding of the challenges the clients face.
In practice, a nutritionist will strongly emphasize sugar regulation. It is not uncommon for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction to become addicted to sugar. Alcoholics are especially prone to sugar addiction and to the energy roller coaster that accompanies it, but sugar addiction affects other addicts too. Eating in a way that promotes blood sugar spikes and crashes is a recipe for disaster when it comes to maintaining your sobriety.
When you get that blood sugar crash, your body craves sugar. In an alcoholic’s mind, and it works this way in a drug addict’s mind too, when you crave sugar it immediately translates in your brain to alcohol and you get a strong craving for alcohol. It may be a craving that you can’t control.
By regulating their blood sugar, recovering alcoholics can avoid the sugar highs and lows that often send them running for a drink. In many cases, an addict’s overwhelming urge for his or her next fix is actually a sugar craving in disguise.
The tendency for recovering addicts to develop sugar addiction as they withdraw from alcohol or drugs is an example of a very common phenomenon in addiction recovery: the development of a substitute addiction to food. It is not uncommon for those recovering from addiction to turn to food as a replacement. Per a study published in the international research journal Appetite, men in the early stages of recovery often practice dysfunctional eating habits, including substituting food for their drug of choice.
Some people can gain up to 20 lbs. in their first month of treatment from binge eating, emotional eating, and food addiction. By disrupting these patterns through nutrition education and counseling, most patients end up staying sober and become interested in a healthy lifestyle, including nutrition and exercise.
How Food Affects Your Brain
One of the most promising areas of nutritional therapy for recovering addicts relates to neurotransmitters, amino acids, and how they affect the brain. Research has demonstrated the substantial role neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons and other cells in the body, play in addiction.
The connection between neurotransmitters and addiction results from the ability of drugs and alcohol to impact the brain’s output of certain neurotransmitters. For example, cocaine causes the brain to increase its production of the neurotransmitter dopamine which impacts mood and stimulates the feeling of pleasure. A problem arises, however, when the brain has been artificially stimulated to produce a neurotransmitter so often that it no longer produces this neurotransmitter on its own. Essentially, what this means is those recovering from addiction are dealing with a brain that no longer creates neurotransmitters, like dopamine, which play an integral role in their well-being.
Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are precursors to neurotransmitters including those most related to addiction like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This connection indicates the potential to treat addiction through the targeted consumption of amino acids, which can be done through the intake of certain foods or supplements.
Since dopamine is the key neurotransmitter involved with addiction and is associated with ‘reward,’ it is critical to restore depleted dopamine levels through a higher protein intake. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid which is widespread in food that becomes tyrosine, which is converted to dopamine.
An example of how amino acid supplementation works for addiction can be found in the instance of alcohol withdrawal. Alcoholics going through withdrawal experience an increased turnover of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. The amino acid phenylalanine, however, is a precursor to norepinephrine. If an individual recovering from alcohol addiction eats foods high in phenylalanine, like meat and fish, he will be helping to fulfill the need for this neurotransmitter during withdrawal.
Amino acid therapy has become an increasingly popular treatment for addiction in recent years and often involves amino acid injections administered by a physician. Recovering addicts don’t necessarily need to inject amino acids to get results; making the right dietary changes to get specific amino acids in their food could have the desired effect as well.
In her own personal journey of recovery, one addict turned nutritionist says she spent seven years trying to heal her neurotransmitters. “It takes a very long time to get to a place where you’re satisfied, and you’re happy, and you feel joy,” she states. “That takes a long time because you’ve misused and reprogrammed your neurotransmitters. And so those lock and key type mechanisms are not working properly—they’re totally misfiring and that does take time to heal.”
Amino acids are critical to the neurotransmitter healing process, and it is highly recommended to take a supplement of the amino acid GABA to restore proper brain function. In addition to amino acids, a few other vitamins and minerals that can benefit your neurotransmitters, including the B vitamins, vitamin D, and foods or supplements that contain Omega 3 like fish oil or flaxseed.
When it comes to nutritional guidelines for recovering addicts, most nutritionists offer similar advice. Eliminating added sugar is high on their lists, as is incorporating whole grains into your diet. The elimination of processed foods in favor of a diet of whole foods is key. Nutrition specialists also emphasize the importance of protein because of its correlation with the production of amino acids.
Other important dietary factors for recovery include how much you’re eating and when you’re eating it. For example, increasing protein intake but also spacing it out over the course of the day. Instead of having one or two large protein-based meals in the day, make sure every meal or snack contains a minimum of 10 to 15 grams protein.
Nutritionists also suggests more frequent and evenly disbursed meal times, a practice that corresponds with a mantra: never hungry, never full. It is recommended eating smaller meals every two to four hours, starting with breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up. Furthermore, it is also suggested that recovering addicts always keep a healthy snack on hand, like a bag of nuts, to avoid sugar crashes and help keep blood sugar levels stable. Nutritionists also acknowledge the importance of good old fashioned sunshine (for vitamin D) and exercise in any recovery plan.
Dietary recommendations do vary somewhat depending on the substance you are withdrawing from. Alcohol and opiates, for example, negatively impact the stomach, so people recovering from these substances should work to restore gut health through increased intake of probiotics. Cocaine is associated with essential fatty acid deficiency, so those recovering from cocaine addiction would benefit from increased consumption of Omega 3. Because of these nuances in each recovering addict’s dietary needs, it is important to collaborate with a trained nutritionist to determine what nutritional approach will help you most on your road to recovery.
After long-term dietary neglect, what matters most is deciding to finally give your body the nutrients it needs to be healthy. This does not mean your diet will always be perfect. And, obviously, it is more important to stay on track with your sobriety than to worry about adhering to a strict diet. But in the end, making dietary choices that support your body and brain as they heal will only help you prevail on the path to sobriety.