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Eating Healthy In Recovery From Addiction

Dr. Gerardo Sison

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Gerardo Sison

April 1, 2019

When a person suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction, they often let many aspects of their life and self-care fall to the wayside. A person’s physical health can deteriorate quite rapidly as an addiction accelerates. This physical decline can also lead to and perpetuate mental and emotional problems. Proper nutrition is a cornerstone of good health. Unfortunately, this is one of the most often overlooked aspects of self-care.

An Addiction Depletes And Damages Your Body And Mind

Substance abuse or addiction and health are inversely related. As a person’s substance abuse increases, and as addiction takes hold, their body’s physical state of wellness decreases. On top of the fact that a person may not be deriving key components that their body needs from their diet, the addiction itself depletes the body.

Many drug and alcohol abusers suffer from gastrointestinal difficulties, such as indigestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation that can hinder their body’s ability to absorb or process food. The drugs and alcohol themselves can actually prevent your body from absorbing nutrients as well.

An addiction drains your body’s vital resources, exhausting the crucial supplies of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and chemicals that are the building blocks for health and vitality. In its optimal state, your body’s systems are fueled by these things. When your body loses these elements or becomes depleted to the point where crucial bodily functions and systems are impaired, your chance of illness and disease increases.

Just because you’re sober, does not mean that you are free of the effects of the drug or alcohol you were using. A newly recovered person needs to take steps to safeguard their health by establishing healthful practices that can carry them throughout their recovery. In order to understand the role that diet and nutrition has within recovery, we need to first and foremost understand how addiction can destroy it.

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Malnourishment: When a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they may knowingly place precedent on finding and using drugs or alcohol over other crucial acts, such as eating. Some may simply forget to eat while under the influence. Secondly, when a person is using, if they do choose to eat, they may be more apt to eat foods that hold little nutritional value.

People who are addicted to alcohol face another challenge—alcohol is full of carbohydrates and empty calories, thus the body may mistakenly think that it has been taken care of because it feels full, when in reality, it is not receiving anything vital at all. This, in turn, presents another challenge—the body of a person who was addicted to alcohol becomes accustomed to this influx of calories. Once a person is sober, it still craves this, which can lead a person to consume larger than healthy quantities of sugar or high-carbohydrate foods, which can lead to weight gain and other health issues.

Weakened Immune System: Drugs and alcohol both suppress a person’s immune system. Your immune system is your body’s most important defender. It is responsible for maintaining your ability to heal, fight off infections, and protect your body against sickness and disease.

Chemical Imbalances: Within your body, there are countless chemical processes that are underway at any given moment. These processes are responsible for an array of critical physiological and neurobiological functions. An addiction imposes a chemical overload on your body, one that can impair your body’s capability of absorbing the key compounds that are fundamental to these.

Of particular importance to a person that used drugs or alcohol is this—a variety of these revolve around balancing and promoting a sense of well-being, by supporting the functions of neurotransmitters that are responsible for mood regulation, something that the vast majority of substance abusers struggle with.

When a person becomes sober and sets forth on their recovery journey, overcoming their substance abuse is not the only thing they must do to ensure that they can regain and maintain an optimal state of physical and mental wellness. Proper nutrition, supported by a healthy diet should be a chief concern and goal for a person that is striving towards living a healthy, sober, and balanced life.

The Importance Of A Balanced Diet During Recovery

An addiction exerts an overwhelming toll on your body, and subsequently your mind, offsetting many important processes that your body relies on to become and stay healthy. Now that you’ve achieved sobriety, it is up to you to continue to invest in your recovery by taking steps to ensure that your body’s nutritional needs are met.

When a person feels healthy and is experiencing a state of wellness, they are less apt to desire using drugs or alcohol. A properly balanced diet helps to improve the quality of both your physical health and your mood. MedlinePlus reiterates this, saying that “A person with substance use is more likely to relapse when they have poor eating habits… Drug and alcohol addiction causes a person to forget what it is like to be hungry and instead think of this feeling as a drug craving.”

For this reason, it is important that a person begins to make conscientious and informed decisions about their diet early within their recovery so that they can set a precedent and develop healthy habits to follow down the road. In fact, this should start during treatment, a good treatment facility should provide you with healthy food choices and educate you on how to do so after you leave.

A well-balanced diet protects you and prepares you to better handle your life. Here are the ways that a healthy diet can offer you better stability and protection against life in general and relapse.

Mood Regulation: As we’ve already noted, eating a proper diet can actually help to restore, upkeep, and balance your mood. In an example, some foods help to regulate dopamine, an important neurotransmitter that is responsible for your brain’s pleasure and reward systems. Dopamine is a drug that is strongly tied to addiction; the majority of drugs in some way alter or influence your body’s production of this essential chemical, thus it is very important to support your body in its natural production and balance of this, once you are sober.

Energy: Lethargy is common during an addiction. As an addiction overwhelms your body, your energy can quickly wane. Eating well provides your body with the fuel that it needs to run properly and gives you the energy to complete and conquer the tasks that your day brings.

Focus: An inability to focus and concentrate is common to those who suffer from an addiction. Drugs and alcohol take a massive toll on your brain making it harder to stay on task and pay attention to the responsibility at hand. There are certain nutrients in food that are reported to help maintain your focus.

Immune System: It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to have a strong immune system. Consuming a healthy diet helps to repair the damage done to your body and mind by the addiction. It also helps to build your immune system back up so that it will be prepared to handle any future onslaught or sickness.

Taking Steps Towards Eating Healthy

It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to eating well. Today, there is a lot of information on the subject, some of which conflicts. Try to eat soon after you wake up, generally within a half-hour, that way you don’t start the day with a sugar crash. Try to maintain a regular schedule for eating and don’t let too much time pass between meals. Some experts recommend eating a series of smaller meals—every two to four hours—to avoid the danger of having a sugar crash.

Here we break down the basic things that you need to keep in mind when preparing meals and taking care of yourself so that you deliver your body the nutrients it needs.

Eat Foods High In Antioxidants: Antioxidants are powerhouse nutrients that help to bolster your immune system and fight free radicals which can increase your risk of cancer by causing cellular damage. Fruits and vegetables are great ways to get these. Try to incorporate as many fruits and vegetables into your diet as you can. Examples of antioxidant-rich foods include berries, garlic, kale, spinach, broccoli, and even prunes. Black, green, and white teas also contain antioxidants but are forewarned, they do contain caffeine, black containing the most and white, the least. Choose decaf versions, or drink in moderation.

Amino Acids: Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. They are also essential for the production of certain neurotransmitters. After an addiction, a person often has neurotransmitters that are quite out of whack. Certain foods, such as lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy, quinoa, and soy provide these, while certain supplements can help to deliver these foundational organic compounds as well.

Protein: Protein is essential within your body to help rebuild damaged tissues and organs, including your brain. It helps to give you energy. Protein doesn’t always have to come from animal sources, beans, and tofu is great vegetable-based protein sources.

Fiber: An addiction can upset your body’s digestive system and cause damage to the delicate tissues within it. Try to stay away from refined flour-based products as much as possible. Eating foods that are high in fiber will help your body to recuperate and regain a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Mayo Clinic recommends that “Women should try to eat at least 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day, while men should aim for 30 to 38 grams a day.”

Good choices include brown rice, barley, bran flakes, peas, lentils, black beans, and whole grain pasta or bread. People often forget that fruit has fiber too, in fact, one choice—raspberries, are both high in fiber and antioxidants. In certain cases, some doctors may suggest that you take a fiber supplement.

Good Fats: Not all fats are bad. Your body needs fat for energy and for certain organs, especially your brain. Again, an addiction can derail your brain’s neurotransmitters, so after, in recovery, it is crucial to consume foods that help to restore balance to these important chemical functions. Omega fatty acids are one such thing that can help these processes.

According to Today’s Dietician, a leading publication for nutritionists, “Omega-3 fatty acid consumption may help with depression by assisting in the uptake of neurotransmitters and decreasing inflammation. Having a proper balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids helps neurotransmitter receptors function, which in turn helps to increase the number of neurotransmitters that can be active in the brain.”

Fat should be consumed in moderation, even the good sorts. Examples include eggs, avocado, nuts and seeds, fish, olive oil, and even dark green vegetables.

Other Vitamins And Nutrients: There is a wide variety of other vitamins and nutrients that you need, here we mention a few examples. Bananas are rich in potassium and also contain tryptophan which helps with neurotransmitter development. Certain fermented foods and yogurt contain probiotics which can help to re-establish the important and beneficial good bacteria that normally reside within a healthy digestive tract.

B vitamins are often depleted during an addiction, especially alcohol addiction. B vitamins promote energy and help with stress, they help with heart and nerve health, and are also important for cognitive function. Food sources include green leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts, nutritional yeast, dairy, certain meats, brown rice, and whole grains.

Smart Snacking: Snacking isn’t always bad, in fact, research suggests that the right snack choices can be beneficial between meals. This especially holds true for a person in recovery. Drops in blood sugar can trigger feelings that might bring about a craving, having a small snack on hand helps to avoid this. Try to pair a protein with a carbohydrate, that way your body assimilates the sugar appropriately. Pair fresh fruit or vegetables with nuts or low-fat cheese or yogurt.

Vitamins And Supplements: Even when you eat a well-balanced diet, your body may still be in need of certain vitamins, minerals, or nutrients. The specifics can vary from person to person, as each person’s nutritional demands and health concerns are unique. Every addiction and each type of drug of abuse takes a different toll on a person’s body and mind, thus the supplemental support that they need might vary.

Taking a supplement may help to fulfill these requirements. Some examples include B-Vitamins, Vitamin D, and Omega-3’s. It is advisable to seek the direction of a physician before you begin a new vitamin or supplement regimen, to make sure that what you’re taking is right for you and does not present any problems. Some supplements may interfere with certain medications or should not be used if a person has certain medical conditions.

Integrating these things into your diet can help your body to have what it needs to heal and continue to be healthy. Any time you begin a new diet, you should always check with your doctor. This holds especially true for a person that is in recovery, as their body and organ systems may have experienced undue amounts of stress, illness, or even disease—things which should be taken into account when choosing what and what not to eat.

Eating The Right Things For The Right Reasons

Most of us have comfort foods, but be wary of “emotional eating.” Emotional eating is when a person seeks to find comfort from eating instead of doing it as a means to fulfill hunger. Oftentimes, these food choices are unhealthy, to begin with, but eating when your body is not asking you for food can lead to weight and other health problems down the road. Additionally, this is another form of self-medication and avoidance—instead of dealing with your problems or using healthy coping skills, you are side-stepping the problem—similar to the reasons and ways you might have used drugs or alcohol.

While it is important to be conscientious of choosing the right food and beverages, it is equally important to pay attention to the things that are not good for you. Try to altogether avoid, or in the least consume moderately the following: refined sugars or refined carbohydrates, caffeine, energy drinks, sugary juices or sodas, or snacks that have high fat, sugar, or salt content. Some of these things (sugar, energy drinks, and other caffeinated drinks) can lead to mood swings, crashes, fatigue, and anxiety, all of which can put you at greater vulnerability to a craving.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and you’re unsure about how best to revamp your diet, speak to your physician or a nutritionist. They can give you a multitude of tips and resources to make your meal-planning more informed and easier in the long run.

Strive For A Well-Rounded Pursuit Of Wellness

Eating well is a huge part of wellness, but it is not the only thing. In order for your body and mind to stay balanced, you need to take care of yourself on many levels. The following are other things that impact your general state of health and well-being. To ensure that you have a well-rounded approach to health that can help you achieve lasting recovery, try to incorporate the following into your life:

  • Stay hydrated. Your body relies on water to eliminate toxins and help important physiological systems run properly. Caffeinated beverages can be a diuretic, which means that they encourage your body to release water from its system, which can lead to dehydration.
  • Exercise (helps to promote energy and release endorphins, which are your body’s naturally occurring feel-good chemicals).
  • Get ample sleep
  • Try to cut back on your caffeine intake (this includes tea and soda, not just coffee).
  • Strive to quit smoking
  • Continue, or start, receiving support from a counselor or a support group.
  • Engage in healthy activities that make you feel good and relieve stress.

Find Good Health Today And Protect Your Sobriety And Recovery

If you’re struggling in your recovery journey and you’d like a little help or direction, please give us a call. We can help refresh you with expert advice that can get you back on track to wellness. If you’re still using drugs or alcohol but would like to find sobriety and become healthy, can help you with that too. Please contact us today, we are here to help!

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