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July 24, 2022

Why Nutrition and Diet Matter In Addiction Recovery

Abusing alcohol and drugs can cause us to experience nutritional deficiencies that often result in an imbalanced diet. Unfortunately, when we don’t consume enough vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, our physical strength wanes, leaving us fatigued, lethargic, and apathetic. A poor diet can also weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to infections, viruses, and diseases. In addition, imbalanced diets triggered by addiction can negatively impact our mental health, making us feel depressed, anxious, and overly moody. Luckily, addiction recovery programs that focus on nutrition and a balanced diet can help combat nutritional deficiencies, rebuild our physical strength, and enhance our mental health and overall well-being.

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Why is Nutrition So Important For Healthy Living?

Whether we are struggling with addiction or trying to live healthy lifestyles, nutrition plays a critical role in our overall health. What we eat determines how well our bodies are fueled for daily life. Our diet can also influence whether we develop long-term health issues, including diabetes and heart disease.

In order to appreciate why nutrition is so important to our health, it’s helpful to understand how our bodies generate energy from the food we eat, as well as how our food choices can impact our health outcomes.

We cannot think properly, carry out daily activities, or perform well at work or school without food. This is because food (as well as hydrating liquids) supplies us with the energy that we need to live.

We burn that energy when our organs are active, including the beating of our heart and the working of our brain. When we skip meals or eat nutritionally deficient foods, we aren't giving our bodies adequate fuel for our organs, muscles, brain, and other body systems to work properly.

Food becomes energy through a relatively simple process in the human body. When we consume food, our intestinal tract, including our stomach, processes that food with the help of various body chemicals, breaking it down into smaller components that the body can turn into energy.

One of the most important components in the food we eat is carbohydrates, which act as fuel for our bodies. Carbohydrates are found in many different foods, although the largest quantities are found in starchy foods like bread and pasta, as well as fruit, vegetables, dairy products like milk and cheese, and sweet foods. Carbohydrates are fast-acting energy sources that provide our body with immediate bursts of energy.

There are other types of components found in the food we eat which are equally important. These include protein, which is found in animal meats, beans, nuts, eggs, many types of dairy, and some vegetables. Protein can also supply the body with energy, but the body usually uses protein to build up muscles and produce additional body chemicals that are necessary for health and growth.

Another key component in the food that we eat is fats, which are found in foods like butter, eggs, dairy, meat, and cooking oil. In moderation, fat plays an important role in our diet because they also create energy for the body and help the body run more efficiently. Any fat that the body does not use immediately is stored for future use. If we eat less balanced or unhealthy diets, fat can build up in our bodies, which can lead to health complications.

When our intestinal tract breaks down food into these component parts, the body converts carbohydrates into a form of sugar known as glucose, which travels throughout the body and provides us with energy. Proteins and fat can also provide the body with energy, although they take a slightly different route.

Another key player in our body's digestion process is a body chemical known as insulin, which helps to control the levels of glucose in our blood. In most situations, insulin keeps our glucose (also known as blood sugar) levels under control, so we're able to process food into energy efficiently. Individuals with diabetes, however, may not be able to control their insulin levels. This means that they run the risk of health complications if they don't carefully monitor what they eat and take insulin as necessary.

How Substance Abuse Interferes With Nutrition

Using addictive substances like drugs and alcohol can negatively affect our health and nutrition in many ways. Even though each substance impairs the body differently, overall drug and alcohol use can prevent you from receiving proper nourishment and disrupt the way the body functions.

Typically, addictive substances cause nutritional deficiencies and poor diets by:

  • Suppressing users’ appetites. Many addictive substances, such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, Adderall, and alcohol suppress users’ appetites. Typically, people who use these drugs eat less as their consumption of the substance increases. In addition to that, abusing drugs and alcohol can also cause users to forget about eating altogether. Maintaining consumption of their substance of choice, rather than eating nutritionally, becomes one of their top concerns.
  • Encouraging overeating. Similarly, some substances, such as marijuana, can increase users’ appetites, causing them to eat too much. Over time, this can lead to obesity and a number of health conditions caused by excess body fat.
  • Triggering poor eating choices. People under the influence of drugs and alcohol tend to eat lower-quality food. This often means that they eat fast food, sweets, and junk food. As the addictive substance continues to cloud their judgment, they become even more impulsive and reckless, which almost always affects their food choices.
  • Damaging vital organs. Abusing drugs and alcohol can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, stomach lining, and intestines. All of these organs help the body absorb, digest and store nutrients. When they’re damaged, the body can’t properly absorb nutrients, which can cause nutritional deficiencies.
  • Triggering hypoglycemia. Excessively drinking alcohol without eating can cause hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. An imbalanced diet can also trigger hypoglycemia.
  • Causing gastrointestinal issues. Alcohol and several drugs can cause chronic issues in the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract. This stops the GI tract from effectively digesting and absorbing the nutrients in food.

How Specific Substances Affect Nutrition Levels

Here, at Meta, we treat a variety of substance use disorders. Some of the more common addictions we treat include:

  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Stimulants
  • Hallucinogens

Here’s how each of these substances can impair the body and affect our nutrition and physical health.

Alcohol And Nutrition

Alcohol abuse harms two critical digestive organs: the liver and the pancreas. Healthy livers break down toxins such as alcohol in the body. The pancreas helps the body digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Alcohol disrupts these processes, preventing the body from receiving vital nutrients.

Specifically, heavy alcohol consumption can cause severe deficiencies in the following 3 key nutrients:

  • Folic acid, which helps make healthy red blood cells
  • Vitamin B6, which helps the body use and store energy from protein and carbohydrates
  • Thiamine, or B1, which turns energy into food to keep the nervous system healthy
Opioids and Nutrition

In addition to suppressing users' appetites, opioids can cause severe constipation. As constipation worsens, users tend to avoid eating, but the lack of fiber in their diet allows the condition to persist.

Withdrawal from opioids can also create nutritional deficiencies. Eliminating opioids such as heroin, codeine, morphine, OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin can trigger vomiting and diarrhea. Both of these conditions can deplete the body of nutrients and interfere with the body’s electrolyte balance, which may lead to dehydration.

Stimulants and Nutrition

Stimulants can make users feel so “invincible” that they feel as though they don’t need to eat. In fact, many stimulant users “binge,” or excessively indulge, in the drug of their choice for hours or even days. During these binges, most users don’t eat or drink enough to nourish the body, which leaves them dehydrated and malnourished.

This lack of nutrition is often associated with:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Confusion and trouble problem-solving
  • Irregular heart rates and rhythms
  • Muscle deterioration
  • Weight loss
Hallucinogens and Nutrition

Hallucinogens like LSD or MDMA affect users' appetites by altering the body's natural level of serotonin., which helps regulate appetite. Hallucinogens increase the production of serotonin, which evokes the sleepy, hypnotic trance users experience after using these drugs. Serotonin acts like nature’s very own appetite suppressant. Excessive amounts of serotonin can dramatically reduce users’ appetites, allowing them to go hours without food. Sometimes, hallucinogen users forget whether or not they have already eaten, which can cause them to skip meals or overeat.

When users do feel compelled to eat, they typically binge eat. After a “trip,” or hallucinogenic high, users indulge in a variety of unhealthy foods that are often processed and devoid of nutrients. This drug-induced behavior can cause:

  • Dehydration
  • Malnutrition
  • Weight loss or weight gain

Regardless of the substance, people who use drugs and alcohol almost always have poor eating habits. Some users actually forget what being hungry feels like and mistake hunger for a drug or alcohol craving. When this happens, they feed the body with toxins instead of nutrients, which diminishes the immune system.

How Addiction Impacts Brain and Mental Health

brain x-ray depicting the effects of drug useAddiction’s impact on nutrition can harm our brain and mental health in addition to our physical health.

This is because addictive substances impact the production of neurotransmitters or the brain's messenger chemicals. In some cases, such as the use of stimulant drugs, the brain is flooded with unnaturally high levels of dopamine, a "feel good" chemical, causing intense cravings. In other cases, such as the use of alcohol, the brain may increase the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate impulse control.

When the neurotransmitters in our brain no longer behave in standard ways, our brain no longer functions normally. Instead, we may struggle with cravings, lack of self-control, memory loss, and an inability to concentrate or make decisions.

For individuals who have a predisposition to mental illness, these changes to our brain can trigger the development of a mental health crisis. In other situations, individuals with pre-existing mental health challenges may turn to addictive substances to help cope with stress related to their condition.

When individuals in the throes of addiction neglect their nutrition, they make an already difficult situation even worse for the brain. Like other organs in the body, the brain relies on proper nutrition to stay fueled and functional.

For example, key components in food like carbohydrates and protein play a role in long-term brain health. Perhaps you have even heard the term "brain food" to refer to foods that are particularly healthy for our brain functioning.

Carbohydrates, the primary energy source for our bodies, helps produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps stabilize our mood and control our impulsivity. When individuals have fewer carbohydrates in their system, they may find themselves short-tempered and angry, have difficulty sleeping, or struggle with cravings for drugs, alcohol, and food. For individuals with mental health conditions like depression, poor nutrition can also worsen their condition.

Protein also plays a role in brain health. These components of food, which are commonly found in meat, beans, nuts, and eggs, assist our brain with producing neurotransmitters like dopamine, which help us feel pleasure. If we don't eat adequate protein and our dopamine levels fall, we may seek out addictive substances to increase our dopamine instead.

While we often focus on carbohydrates and protein as part of a healthy diet, there are other components in the food that we eat that play an important role in our brain health.

This includes fats, which can help strengthen the cells that make up our body. Fat also provides us with important long-term storage of energy for situations where we may have less access to food.

Luckily, focusing on nutrition and developing a healthy, balanced diet can help restore, strengthen, and replenish the physical body.

Importance of Diet and Nutrition In Addiction Recovery

woman with vegetables depicting the importance of nutritionResearch shows that there’s a close connection between substance abuse, poor nutrition, and mood. Even if you have the best intentions, trying to recover from addiction when you’re malnourished can make you more vulnerable to mood swings, anxiety, a short attention span, low energy, and cravings. Fortunately, establishing a balanced diet and maintaining proper nutrition can help boost your energy and improve your mood as you recover from substance use challenges.

Following a balanced diet can also help:

  • Repair damage to your organs and tissues
  • Reestablish proper functioning of various systems in the body
  • Rebuild the immune system
  • Enhance brain functionality
  • Restore balance in the central nervous system
  • Maintain proper metabolic functioning
  • Improve your concentration

Here, at Meta, we know that those in recovery need a treatment program that will equip them with the necessary elements for a healthy life. That’s why we provide nutritional counseling in all of our outpatient programs. By focusing on nutrition and a balanced diet in addition to counseling and behavioral therapy, we help our clients recover their lives from the inside out. Here are a few specific ways proper nutrition and a balanced diet can benefit the recovery process.

Nutritional Balance Can Help Improve Neuroplasticity

Addiction originates in the brain. When people abuse drugs and alcohol, the brain changes to accommodate those substances. Eventually, the brain “learns” to rely on those substances to feel “normal.” This means that the brain starts to “believe” that the mind and body need those substances in order to function properly. That’s how addiction happens.

Luckily, the brain can change again and “unlearn” those harmful associations and habits.

Doctors call the brain’s ability to change and learn new things neuroplasticity, and this concept is key to addiction recovery. Even after suffering harm from addiction, the brain can still “master” healthier habits and function more optimally. But the process of relearning healthy habits isn’t easy. Once addiction changes the brain, the mind has a harder time re-adapting to sobriety. Fortunately, proper nutrition can help enhance neuroplasticity. Here’s how.

  • Carbohydrates help the brain produce serotonin. Serotonin helps reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol. By doing this, carbohydrates allow the brain time and energy to focus on creating new neural connections that can promote healthier habits. Carbohydrates, when eaten in moderation, can also help create a stable mood and promote healthy sleep patterns.
  • Amino acids help stabilize the brain’s dopamine levels. Without these essential nutrients, individuals in recovery tend to have more severe cravings, sudden and negative mood changes, and higher levels of aggression. Dopamine also helps motivate the brain to change and plays an important role in learning and memory.
  • Dietary fat helps reduce inflammation and protect cell membranes in the brain, which helps facilitate neuroplasticity.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids also help reduce brain inflammation. In addition to that, omega-3 acids help balance the brain’s neurotransmitters or chemical messengers. Restoring that balance helps equip the brain to change, which allows the process of neuroplasticity to create new, healthier neural connections.
  • Omega-6 fatty acids work with omega-3 acids to increase neurotransmitter functionality. This also helps to restore the brain’s balance, which helps prepare the brain to replace old neural pathways with new neural connections.

Recovery from addiction is a multifaceted process, but a balanced diet can help encourage neuroplasticity. And by changing the brain, you can, in many ways, begin to change your life.

A Nutrient-Rich Diet Can Help Rebuild Physical Health

Having a nutrient-rich diet can also help rebuild your physical health. Addiction can wreak havoc on the physical body, but proper nutrition and a balanced diet can help strengthen your body. Repairing the physical damage caused by drug and alcohol abuse may take time, but a diet rich in amino acids, vitamins, and minerals can help you overcome any physical deficiencies you may be experiencing. Replenishing lost nutrients can also help your body heal more quickly.

Balanced Diet Can Improve Your Mood and Mental Health

A balanced diet can also help improve your mood and mental health. Research shows that many people utilize substance abuse as a way to cope with mental health challenges. Recovering from addiction can feel like an uphill battle when you’re also dealing with depression, anxiety, or any other mood disorder. Luckily, a balanced diet can greatly enhance your mental well-being. Consider the following research:

  • According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, people who follow “traditional” diets like the Mediterranean Diet and the traditional Japanese diet show a 25 to 35% lower risk of depression than those who follow a typical “Western” diet.
  • Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can promote a positive mood and clear thinking. Foods that help maintain regular blood sugar levels often include lean meats, quinoa, low-fat yogurt, lentils, oatmeal, and raspberries.
  • Research from 2016 shows that diets high in processed sugar can trigger increased symptoms of depression and fatigue. The research also found that vegetables, whole fruits, and whole grains have a lower glycemic index and can help ward off depression and fatigue.
  • A 2017 study shows that foods and supplements high in zinc, magnesium, omega 3, and vitamins B and D3 can help improve mood, ease anxiety, and relieve depression.

Improving your mood and maintaining a positive, upbeat attitude can be the difference between an inspiring and frustrating recovery journey. Reward yourself, rebuild your strength, and uplift your spirits by eating a balanced diet and maintaining proper nutrition levels.

A Balanced Diet Can Help Improve Your Memory

Maintaining a balanced diet can also help enhance your memory. In addition to causing physical deterioration, addiction can cause cognitive impairment that can affect your memory. Chronic substance abuse can also increase your risk for dementia and Alzheimer's. Luckily, the proper nutrients can combat cognitive decline and help improve your memory.

According to a study published in the journal Neurology, Psychiatry, and Brain Research, nutrients that protect against cognitive decline and dementia include:

  • Vitamins C, D, and E
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Flavonoids and polyphenols

Other foods that can boost brain function include:

  • Oily fish
  • Dark chocolate
  • Berries
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Avocados
  • Peanuts
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Eggs
Eating Well Can Increase Your Energy

Recovery isn’t for the faint of heart. Recovering from addiction requires physical, mental, emotional, and social energy. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol tend to leave users lethargic, fatigued, and drained. Detoxification and withdrawal symptoms can also sap your energy. Fortunately, eating a balanced diet can increase your energy.

Energy comes from the foods we eat. For the most part, our energy comes from carbohydrates, protein, and fats. But the types of carbs, proteins, and fats we eat can provide us with sustainable, productive energy or temporary, fleeting energy. When you’re looking to boost your energy, you should eat nutrient-rich, energy-providing foods such as:

  • Complex carbohydrates, which contain high amounts of fiber. Unlike simple carbs, complex carbohydrates take a longer time to digest in the body, which can provide you energy for longer periods of time. Complex carbs also help stabilize the body’s sugar level which helps you feel satisfied longer.
  • Lean proteins provide longer-lasting energy than carbohydrates. You can find protein in meat, nuts, milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese, and tofu. Doctors typically recommend chicken, turkey, fish, lentils, and beans as excellent sources of energy.
  • Fats. Like carbs and proteins, the body needs a moderate amount of good fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for energy in order to absorb vitamins and to protect the heart and brain. Avocados, seeds, nuts, and coconut and olive oils are some of the best sources of long-lasting, productive energy.

If you’re serious about recovering from addiction, you need to have adequate energy for the recovery process. You can do that by:

  • Drinking 6 to 8 glasses of water each day. Dehydration can sap your energy and leave you feeling fatigued and nauseated.
  • Eating something from each major food group at every meal.
  • Grabbing something nutrient-rich to eat every 3 to 4 hours. Skipping meals can deplete your energy.
A Balanced Diet Can Help You Sleep Well

Research also shows a connection between sleep deprivation and addiction. Excessively using drugs and alcohol can disrupt healthy sleep patterns. At the same time, insomnia and poor sleeping patterns can cause individuals to turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to temporarily escape their sleep challenges. This makes sleep a vital aspect of addiction recovery. Fortunately, maintaining a balanced diet can help you get a good night’s rest.

Studies show that:

  • Consuming an adequate amount of magnesium can help improve the quality of your sleep by reducing the stress hormone cortisol which interrupts sleep.
  • Eating a moderate amount of protein before bed may help you sleep through the night.
  • An antioxidant called apigenin in chamomile tea can help promote sleepiness and ease symptoms of insomnia.
  • The omega-3 fatty acid found in walnuts can convert to DHA in the body, which can increase serotonin production, calming the body and preparing it for rest.

Sleep helps the body heal wounds, build stronger muscle tissue, and restore the brain. A good night’s rest can also help:

  • Improve concentration
  • Enhance productivity
  • Regulate your blood pressure
  • Lower the risk of heart disease
  • Improve your mood
  • Enhance your emotional wellbeing
  • Reduce your risk of depression
  • Boost the immune system
  • Repair damage to muscles, tissues, tendons, ligaments, and organs
  • Prevent relapse

How to Help a Loved One With Proper Nutrition

If you're helping a loved one manage their addiction, you may not always think about the important role that nutrition can play in their recovery.

However, focusing on a healthy diet can help them avoid some of the health pitfalls we've discussed earlier in this article.

Here are some simple steps you can take to help your loved one with their nutrition as they recover from addiction:

Talk to an addiction treatment professional. If your loved one isn't already enrolled in an addiction treatment program, talk to a professional near you. They can give you advice on how to talk about addiction with your loved one and can even schedule an intervention if necessary. If your loved one is already in active recovery, they can advise you on how to incorporate a focus on nutrition into their daily activities.

Discuss meal planning with your loved one. If your loved one is already in active recovery, they have a lot to focus on, including staying sober, attending peer support meetings, and avoiding relapse risks. Thinking about their next meal may seem like a secondary concern. Explain to your loved one that their diet is important and brainstorm ways they can help themselves with a healthier diet. This may mean putting together weekly meal plans or figuring out meals they are comfortable preparing themselves.

Encourage exercise and support for weight loss. Many individuals struggling with addiction have neglected their physical health. In some cases, this may mean they are underweight or malnourished. In other cases, particularly if they are newly sober, they may gain weight as they compensate for a lack of addictive substances with food. If you are someone who enjoys active exercise, consider inviting your loved one to join your workouts. If you're concerned about their health, encourage them to talk to their doctor about a weight loss plan that will work with their recovery.

Nutrition is important for all of us, whether we are newly sober, looking to begin our recovery, or have no history of addictive behaviors. Emphasizing a healthy lifestyle can help both you and your loved one in the long term.

Helping You Recover From The Inside Out

Here, at Meta, our mission is to equip and empower our clients with the knowledge and support they need to obtain and maintain long-term recovery. Addiction can weaken your physical body and harm your mental health. Luckily, a balanced diet can help you recover from addiction, strengthen your body, and enhance your overall well-being. Contact a member of our team today if you’re ready to live sober and change your life from the inside out.

For more detailed information about how nutrition can help you recover from addiction, download our free guide "The Meta Guide to Healthy Eating In Recovery"