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The Importance Of Nutrition In Recovery From Addiction

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

Medically reviewed by

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

February 4, 2019

Drugs and alcohol not only affect a person’s outer appearance, but also their internal systems like metabolism, organ function, and mental well-being. Eating a proper diet during recovery can help the body get back to functioning properly.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, substance abuse hurts the body in multiple ways, including physically and mentally, having a particularly negative impact on lifestyle and nutrition. Drugs and alcohol not only affect a person’s outer appearance, but also their internal systems like metabolism, organ function, and mental well-being.

Implementing proper nutrition can help someone recovering from addiction heal faster and more effectively. When the body is out of balance, it throws everything off and nutrition can help bring the body back into balance to regain normal functions.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 22.5 million people aged 12 and older needed treatment for drug and alcohol abuse in 2014. However, only about 20 percent of those needing help received addiction treatment.

Drug addiction can be treated, but it isn’t simple. Recovery requires many stages and components to fully help a person enjoy long-term abstinence.

What Is Drug Addiction?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a disease of the brain and it is often relapsing that causes the person to continue to take drugs despite any negative consequences, like health effects and deteriorating relationships.

Although the decision to take drugs for the first time is usually voluntary, people become addicted to drugs and alcohol when the effects of those substances actually change pathways and signals in the brain. After a while, the addicted person continues to take drugs to achieve the messages the altered brain is telling them, and it is not simply a matter of morality or will power.

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Some of the most common substances people become addicted to are alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, opioids, stimulants, and hallucinogens. When most people think of drug addiction, they picture hardcore, illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine, however, many people abuse prescription drugs like opioid painkillers (legal but with the same active ingredients as illicit drugs like heroin) and become addicted to those, even though they may have been prescribed by a physician.

What Does It Mean To Be Addicted?

When someone is addicted to a substance, they cannot stop using despite the desire to as well as the negative consequences resulting from use. The use has become an involuntary response and is for the purpose of achieving a physical and emotional experience that the brain craves, rather than for social reasons in a controlled environment.

The two most distinctive symptoms of addiction are tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance is when a person has to increase their dose of a drug or alcohol to experience the effect once had at a lower intake rate. Withdrawal is the physical dependency on a drug with symptoms that include agitation, insomnia, anxiety, sweating, and muscle aches. Serious cases of withdrawal include vomiting, dilated pupils, diarrhea, nausea, seizures, heart failure, and even death.

How Do Drugs And Alcohol Affect The Brain?

Drugs are chemicals that affect the brain’s communication system and influence the way the brain cells send, receive, and process messages. Drugs can actually imitate the brain’s natural chemical messengers, confusing the brain, and overstimulating its reward centers. The reward circuit is responsible for the euphoric sensation drugs and alcohol provide the user and for, in turn, developing the habit of addiction.

Drugs like cannabis and heroin trick the brain and activate abnormal messages in neurotransmitters. Cocaine and other methamphetamines cause the nerve cells to send abnormally high amounts of naturally occurring neurotransmitters like dopamine. They also prevent the normal recycling of chemicals that is used to turn off the signaling between neurons.

This results in a surge in dopamine, which is the chemical that creates the happy, euphoric sensation. This reaction then leads to a reinforcement of behavior that teaches the person to continue taking drugs for this rewarding sensation.

To regulate the surge of dopamine, the brain reacts by producing less dopamine or reducing the receptors that receive the signal. This results in a crash in dopamine levels and the person feeling depressed and lifeless. To boost their dopamine levels, they need to take drugs again.

Long-term effects of drugs on the brain can impair cognitive function. People suffering from addiction have been found to be impaired when it comes to learning, judgment, making decisions, and memory.

How Do Drugs And Alcohol Affect The Body?

According to drug facts presented by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs and alcohol affect the rest of the body, as well. They can cause problems like heart attacks and high blood pressure. Smoking cigarettes can cause cancer, emphysema, lung infections, and death. Smoking marijuana can also cause lung infections and cancer.

Heroin and other opioid painkillers can actually cause you to stop breathing and inhalants can harm the lungs and block airways. Heroin, painkillers, and cocaine can cause dangerous amounts of vomiting, lead to heart issues, cause seizures, and bring about kidney problems, like kidney disease, which can be fatal.

Alcohol and inhalant use can lead to liver disease, mouth cancer, stomach cancers, blood poisoning, organ failure, heart problems, and neurological distress. Injecting drugs can damage veins and nerves. Using unsanitary or shared needles can also lead to major infections, HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis.

With these major risks in mind, drug and alcohol use also leads to lifestyle changes which can include irregular eating and poor diet. Proper nutrition is a vital part of the healing process in addiction recovery because it can improve and maintain healthy organs and help to fight off infection.

How Do Substances Affect Nutrition?

People suffering from an opiate addiction will typically experience constipation and withdrawal symptoms, which include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. All of these purge the body of its nutrients and may result in a nutrient deficiency and an imbalance of electrolytes.

Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of nutritional deficiency in the country. People suffering from an alcohol addiction typically suffer from vitamin B6, thiamine, and folic acid deficiencies, which can cause anemia and neurological problems.

Alcohol also affects the liver and the pancreas. The liver is responsible for removal of toxins from the body; the pancreas regulates blood sugar and fat absorption. When these organs are damaged, it causes an imbalance of fluids, calories, and improper toxin removal. Complications include diabetes, high blood pressure, permanent liver damage, seizures, severe malnutrition, and a decreased life expectancy.

Stimulants like cocaine, crack, and methamphetamines reduce appetite and can cause severe weight loss and poor nutrition. People dealing with a stimulant addiction may be dehydrated and missing key electrolytes. Users may also suffer from memory problems, which may become permanent as a result of long-term drug use.

How Important Is Nutrition For Overall Health?

Nutrition helps people feel well and perform better overall in their lives. When a person feels better as they go through life, they are generally less likely to use damaging substances like drugs and alcohol. Properly balanced nutrition improves a person’s emotional health and physical health, and can actually elevate mood and prevent depression.

According to the Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council, eating a balanced diet is vital for overall good health and well-being. Food provides our bodies with energy, protein, essential fatty acids for brain health, vitamins, and minerals needed to live, grow, and function properly.

Nutritious food is also imperative for disease and cancer prevention, because high-quality nutrients create a healthy, well-oxygenated body that is not suitable for diseased and cancerous cells.

When nutrition is out of balance, it can lead to some major causes of death in the U.S., which include heart disease, stroke, hypertension, atherosclerosis, obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, dental caries, gall bladder disease, dementia, and nutritional anemia.

How Can Nutrition Influence The Mind And Body?

According to the Harvard Health Publications Harvard Medical School, foods greatly affect how we feel on a day-to-day basis. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate emotions, and reduce pain. About 95 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut, and it is your gut that is lined with hundreds of millions of nerve cells. As a result, the health of your digestive system does a lot more than just digest food; it also helps guide your emotions.

Good bacteria in your gastrointestinal areas is also responsible for producing and maintaining serotonin levels and other neurotransmitters, as well as providing a barrier against toxins, limiting inflammation, and helping to absorb nutrients from food. Not only can proper nutrition and bodily functions affect your physical health and nutrient absorption, they can also affect your mood and determine how you feel and respond to situations.

Why Is Mental Health Vital For Addiction Recovery?

According to SAMHSA’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 7.9 million adults suffered from substance abuse and mental health disorders in 2014. Co-occurring disorders are when substance addiction occurs at the same time of a mental health issue like depression or severe anxiety.

Oftentimes, for addiction recovery to be truly successful, therapies need to look at mental health in addition to physical health as a result of drug use. If addiction recovery treatment can improve someone’s emotions as well as their physical health, sustainable abstinence is possible.

How Can Nutrition Affect Addiction Recovery?

Because of the strong influence of nutrition on mood and physical health, it is vitally important to incorporate a healthy diet within an addiction recovery program to promote long-lasting healing. However, it may be difficult for the person suffering from addiction to stop taking drugs and adopt a strict diet.

So, it is important to first and foremost work on eliminating drug and alcohol use while only implementing simple, step-by-step dietary changes. Easy changes include trying to stick to regular mealtimes, adding in more protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber, and starting some vitamin and mineral supplements to aid in recovery while improving nutrition.

Drug and alcohol relapse is more likely to occur when the person has poor eating habits. This is what makes regular meals so important. Drug addiction can cause the person to confuse hunger for drug cravings, and they should be encouraged to try eating when cravings become strong.

Drinking plenty of water is also an important part of nutrition in addiction recovery because dehydration is common during the recovery process. People going off of drugs may also experience increased appetite which may lead to overeating. It is important for the person in recovery to eat healthy, nutritious meals and snacks, and to avoid nutritionally-void foods like sweets and processed foods.

When the person thinks of nutritious foods, they should be encouraged to seek whole foods in their purest form, like whole grain rice, ancient grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and animal products like meat and eggs. Also, the importance of healthy fats should be encouraged because they are vital for healthy brain and mood function.

Why Is Nutrition So Important For Addiction Recovery?

When someone first decides to receive help for addiction, a long healing process will begin that includes many components. One of the first stages of addiction recovery is detoxification which involves getting the drugs out of the person’s system and allowing them to go through withdrawal side effects while under medical supervision. Professionals also monitor the person’s overall health and nutritional intake to help them become stronger and better able to handle addiction recovery.

The next step involves rehabilitation with a number of therapies, which may include nutritional counseling. Someone in addiction recovery may see a nutritionist for help with improving nutrition and health through custom dietary regimens and healthy supplements.

Nutrition and nutrition counseling are vital parts of developing good overall health and helping your body to recover from the effects of addiction. If nutrition can help you balance your emotions and repair cerebral functions and processes, just imagine what it can do for addiction recovery. Combined with other physical and behavioral therapies, nutrition has the power to literally change your body’s makeup and address the way you feel about and react to drug use.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most successful combination of therapies to treat addiction involve detoxification, behavioral counseling, medication, evaluation and treatment for mental health issues, and long-term follow up to prevent relapse.

When nutrition is combined with behavioral therapies and individual, group, and peer supports, those suffering from addiction have the best chance at recovering and maintaining sobriety for life.

Improve Your Nutrition And Recover Faster From Addiction

Changing the way you eat isn’t necessarily simple and many people need support to stay on track. If you’re interested in more information about addiction recovery, contact us at We can teach you more about the proven therapies that are vital in achieving successful, long-lasting addiction recovery.

US Library of Medicine - Substance Abuse Recovery and Diet - Drug Addiction Treatment Approaches

SAMHSA - 2014 Survey on Health

Harvard Medical School - Nutritional Psychiatry - How Drug Abuse Hurts the Body

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction

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