How Important Is Nutrition in Recovery from Addiction?


Nutrition in Recovery

Successful long-term recovery from addiction results from a number of factors of which one is a healthy diet. Chronic substance abuse is likely to cause malnutrition and reversing this is a key element to be addressed in early sobriety.

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The Physical Toll of Substance Abuse on the Body

Heavy and long-term substance abusers are often malnourished because they are likely to have neglected the need for a balanced diet while also impairing their body’s natural digestive functions, through the intake of toxic chemicals. The brain suffers too when it is deprived of the right nutrients.

What Is Meant by Healthy Nutrition?

Eating a balanced diet helps improve a person’s physical and mental health and is important for successful recovery. The body requires a wide range of nutrients, and proper food intake improves positivity, energy levels, and cognitive functions. Here are a few essential nutrients:

  1. Vitamins: the body needs a balanced supply of these micro-organisms through its daily diet, so as to work properly. Healthy eating of fruits, vegetables, and pulses normally provides this.
  2. Minerals: in a similar manner to its vitamin intake, the body’s biochemistry requires regular tiny amounts of base minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, and magnesium. When this does not happen, the consequences show as depression, tiredness, insomnia, and poor concentration.
  3. Carbohydrates: such as bread, pasta, and potatoes provide energy and supply the brain with chemicals it needs daily, such as the mood regulator, serotonin. Some carbohydrates are high in fibre which helps the digestive system to function correctly, avoiding the dangerous build-up of blood sugar or cholesterol.
  4. Protein: this is the body’s cell builder that provides strength and endurance as well as keeping the body’s immune system in shape. It provides amino acids which can help reduce brain fog and fatigue and increase alertness and focus.
  5. Fats and oils: not all fat is unhealthy. Excessive consumption of the wrong kind of fats (usually animal fats) can lead to obesity and serious health problems, but other kinds of fat such as from fish, nuts, or olive oil can produce acids that are essential for good brain functioning and thus for wellbeing and a healthy mood.
  6. Water: Although proper water intake is sometimes neglected, it is indispensable to all bodily functions, especially digestion, muscle movement, and brain function. People, whether substance abusers or not, can often be unaware of their dehydrated state which can lead to disorientation, irritability, insomnia, and poor concentration.

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Most Types of Substance Abuse Affect Your Appetite

Substance abuse can severely reduce your desire for food or in some cases (marijuana for example) it can cause you to eat more than you need. The effects are always unhealthy and a balanced diet becomes impossible. Here are some ways that substance abuse upsets your normal eating habits:

  • Forgetting to eat while intoxicated.
  • Eating too little, perhaps for financial reasons, because drugs take priority over food.
  • Malnourishment is a result of full-blown drug dependence where nutrition of any kind becomes unimportant.
  • Disinclination to eat through feeling unwell, perhaps as a result of drug-induced organ damage to the liver or pancreas.
  • Gastrointestinal complaints that make eating difficult, are often caused by alcohol damage to the stomach lining or duodenal ulcers.
  • Immune system damage leads to infections and diseases that reduce the desire to eat. Alcohol and opiates are particularly damaging to the body’s immune system.
  • Craving or binging on certain foods such as sugar because your brain craves some kind of feel-good substance.  
  • Chronic overeating can be psychological – originating in a person’s need for comfort of some kind when laid low by substance abuse.
nutrition in recovery

Substance Abuse Damages the Body’s Ability to Process Food

Long-term substance abuse affects the mind and the body, and particular types of substances have differing effects. Here are some examples:

  • Alcohol – long-term alcohol abuse can lead to several nutritional and vitamin deficiencies including:
  1. Vitamin B, especially B1 and B6, and deficiencies of thiamine which is crucial to many bodily functions. It is thought that up to 80% of alcoholics have thiamine deficiency. This can result in Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome whose symptoms include memory loss, cognitive dysfunction, and muscular impairment.
  2. Mineral deficiencies in zinc, magnesium, and calcium can contribute to feelings of depression and confusion as well as skin lesions.
  3. Metabolic problems caused by alcohol damage to the liver and pancreas result in distortions to levels of blood sugar and cholesterol.
  • Stimulantscocaine, crystal meth, and amphetamines increase the body’s metabolic rate making them attractive to people with body image and eating disorders. They also tend to remove feelings of hunger so that users soon become underweight and under-nourished. Anaemia and deficiencies of vitamins A, B, and C are common.
  • Opioids – these substances affect the body in the opposite way to stimulants by slowing down the metabolic rate. Resulting in constipation and loss of appetite leading to general malnutrition and irrational cravings for substances such as sugar. The net result is often a poor balance of nutrients and minerals in the body.
  • Marijuana – heavy use can stimulate the appetite for food (known as having the munchies) and the resultant binge eating can leave people with hypertension, diabetes, and overweight.

Key Benefits of Good Nutrition for a Sober Life

  • A sense of wellbeing and absence of mood swings
  • Positivity and a higher energy level
  • Improved ability to concentrate and a longer attention span
  • A strong immune system
  • Better metabolism and functioning of all vital organs.
  • Secondary benefits from a healthy lifestyle that include improvements to social, intellectual, and spiritual life.

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The Importance of Good Nutrition in Addiction Recovery

A healthy mind in a healthy body is not just an old piece of advice – it really works. Addiction is a physical, mental, and spiritual disease and successful recovery needs us to address all three aspects because they are interconnected through the biochemistry of the body: if you treat your body well, then you will also be mentally and emotionally healthy. Successful recovery requires sustained effort but it also needs vigilance, awareness, and coping strategies. Addiction tries to catch you unawares and it never gives up. A healthy lifestyle strengthens your ability to deal with challenges such as:

  1. Motivation: recovery must be worked on, it doesn’t just happen. Daily action and perseverance help us learn new habits and nutrition give us the energy to keep up the momentum we need at times when we can’t be bothered because doing nothing is dangerous.
  2. Cravings: as well as the psychological element, there is a physical part to cravings that can be intensified by malnutrition and lack of essential vitamins. Cravings can sometimes be so strong that we need deep resources of energy and resilience to face them and the more mentally and physically fit you are, the better you will cope.
  3. Self-esteem: we all have moments of low self-esteem but a strong sense of self-worth comes from knowing you are doing what is right and that you are trying your best. When you are feeling good and healthy in yourself then you are more capable and confident in facing life’s challenges.
  4. Overall mental health: depression, mood swings, anxiety, fear, and anger are examples of mental states that can over time become clinical problems if not addressed properly. Early recovery may find you dealing with thoughts and emotions that are difficult to cope with. The best fighting chance you can give yourself is to make sure that your whole self – body, mind, and spirit is in the best possible state to handle what may come along.

Practical Ways to Change Your Diet

Because drug and alcohol abuse cause these nutritional deficiencies it is important in early recovery to make timely changes to your dietary habits. The sooner a healthy balance can be restored to your body the better. Here are some practical steps you can take:

  • Avoid fast food and ready-prepared foods that contain additives and preservatives and aim instead for fresh food whenever possible.
  • Always vary your diet so that it covers the main food types – meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, cereals and pulses.
  • Eat food containing fibre regularly so that your metabolism keeps in shape.
  • Don’t miss meals such as breakfast and allow sufficient time so meals are not rushed.
  • Avoid or minimise your intake of caffeine – you may crave the caffeine but you will end up feeling less tired.
  • Avoid sugar wherever possible and don’t binge on chocolates. Test your blood sugar levels and act accordingly.
  • Remember to keep hydrated by drinking lots of water. Drinking at mealtimes helps digestion too.
  • Take a blood test for signs of vitamin and mineral deficiency, especially iron and take supplements if needed.
  • Limit your intake of salt and salty foods
  • In general, try to eat sensible amounts and exercise regularly too.

Nutritional Needs for Detoxification and Sobering Up

The time when you finally quit substance abuse should always be addressed carefully, using every help that is available. Quitting on your own can be extremely dangerous and you should seek medical advice before trying. It is an important moment for your nutritional needs and these should be professionally assessed before withdrawal from any kind of drug is undertaken. If you are seriously malnourished by substance misuse your nervous system and other parts of your body may respond negatively to withdrawal and detoxification. Dehydration can easily happen at this time leading to dizziness, seizures, heart palpitations, and confusion.

You Will Feel the Benefit of a Healthy Diet

At Castle Craig Hospital every person is physically assessed at the time of admission and their nutritional needs are thoroughly addressed. All aspects of their dietary requirements are discussed and included in their overall treatment plan. Where serious malnourishment is evident, this may include snacks throughout the day, extra vitamins, and other supplements if necessary. Changing to a healthy balanced diet can bring noticeable benefits quite quickly, such as:

  • An increase in energy levels and reduced tiredness
  • A better sleep pattern
  • Improved immunity to infections and other diseases
  • A stable and generally improved mood
  • A generally improved sense of physical well-being as organs such as the liver starts to recover
  • Improved ability to concentrate and think things through
  • Improved self-esteem from following a programme of self-care.

Improved mental health generally: a balanced diet supports mental wellness by giving the brain the nutrition it needs to focus on everyday situations and process them without high levels of anxiety, depression, or confusion.

If you are worried that you or someone close to you may have an addiction problem, please don’t hesitate to call us. Our lines are open 24/7 and we are always glad to listen and discuss the best options according to your circumstances.

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