Addiction treatment programs that include good nutrition give their clients a better chance at long-term recovery. A healthy diet can also help a person struggling with addiction deal with some of the challenges of early treatment stages.
By the time an addict decides to seek out help, however, healthy eating can seem like a low priority. People seeking professional treatment to combat addiction are often in physical or psychological crisis, sometimes requiring immediate medical interventions. But many of these issues are not caused by the substances themselves. Substance abuse can lead to poor nutritional habits. Poor nutrition can also be an underlying cause of addiction. For someone battling addiction, an unhealthy diet can make the treatment process more difficult, and true recovery impossible.
Today we have a better understanding of the specific physical and psychological damage that substance abuse can cause. We also have a better understanding of the makeup of different foods, their nutrients, and how different foods affect the body. Armed with that knowledge, treatment centers, and individuals dealing with addiction, can utilize nutrition as a powerful, and necessary tool in their treatment and recovery plans.
Table of Contents:
- Pleasure Centers and Addiction
- Co-Occurring Eating Disorders and Malnutrition
- Physical and Psychological Consequences of Substance Abuse
- Objectives of an Addiction Recovery Nutrition Plan
- Key Components of a Substance Abuse Recovery Diet
- Dietary Obstacles for Recovering Addicts
- References and Further Reading
Pleasure Centers and Addiction
The human brain (and the brains of most animals) has evolved to include pleasure centers. These areas of the brain are stimulated when we perform certain actions, like having sex, eating, or drinking. Pleasure is a reward provided by our brain to give us incentive to perform those actions again. When working properly, the actions that give us pleasure also promote the survival of the species.
For someone struggling with addiction, these pleasure centers are damaged. In the case of substance abuse, these areas of the brain can become desensitized over time. The individual needs more and more of the chosen substance to produce the same level of pleasure.
These same centers of the brain are responsible for the regulation of mood. Damage caused by substance abuse can lead to uncontrollable cravings and depression.
Of course people can be addicted to all sorts of substances and activities. Many struggle with food addictions, particularly to foods that are either high in sugar or otherwise easy to digest (highly processed). For some, a sugary food may provide just as much pleasure as heroin. The addiction can be just as powerful.
When proper nutrition is not discussed or introduced during drug or alcohol addiction treatment, it can be very easy for an individual to develop unhealthy eating habits. In the absence of their substance of choice, sugary foods, drinks, or snacks can represent an attractive substitute. Because these types of foods trigger similar responses in the brain, they do not help with the underlying issues of chemical addiction. They often make addiction more difficult to overcome.
The consequences of a diet high in sugar and processed foods are just beginning to become clear. Some of these consequences include diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The introduction of healthier foods will not only lead to a healthier individual, but proper nutrition can help in the overall process of addiction treatment. At the very least, healthy foods can supplement most common medical and psychological interventions.
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Co-Occurring Eating Disorders and Malnutrition
Sometimes, individuals struggling with addiction will replace meals with drugs or alcohol and develop an eating disorder. Not only will the substances do damage to the body, a suppressed appetite can lead to a person missing out on important nutrients.
Damage to the liver, pancreas, and stomach caused by co-occurring drug and alcohol abuse can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Malnutrition commonly associated with those suffering from an eating disorder leads to the erosion of muscle and bone alike. But the brain also requires nutrients for maximum function. Lack of nutrients make it difficult to focus, can lead to a lack of energy or motivation, and contribute to the inability of the brain to repair damage done by substances to the pleasure centers.
The symptoms of malnutrition include headaches, dizziness, weakness, and fatigue. These symptoms are not dissimilar from those of withdrawal. As a result, it can be difficult to distinguish whether a patient is suffering from the symptoms of recovering from their substance dependency or an eating disorder related to poor nutrition.
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Physical and Psychological Consequences of Substance Abuse
Opiates (heroin, oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, and others)
Unsupervised opiate use is risky in any case. Users sharing needles can contract sexually transmitted diseases. Abuses of opiates can lead to overdose and death. While these are the extreme risks of opiate use, there are other more subtle side effects.
Prolonged opiate use can have a negative effect on gut health. One common symptom of an unhealthy gut is constipation. Opiates make it more difficult for the stomach muscles to digest food. Inflammation from constipation and other gut ailments can cause nausea and vomiting.
Most can probably tell you that alcohol is bad for the liver. Alcohol interferes with the ability of the liver to perform its chief function: keeping toxins out of the bloodstream. Damage from alcohol can lead to liver disease. Some of the consequences of an unhealthy liver include diabetes, blindness, and death.
Alcohol can also damage the pancreas. The pancreas helps with digestion, and regulates blood sugar and fat absorption through the release of insulin. Alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholic pancreatitis, which in turn can also lead to diabetes, as well as cancer and other severe conditions.
Stimulants (crack, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamine, and others)
Stimulant use can suppress appetite. Abuse of stimulants can lead to dangerous weight loss, and eating disorders, like anorexia.
Some stimulants like methamphetamine can lead to poor oral hygiene. In some cases, users can lose their teeth. Those who have lost their teeth due to methamphetamine use have difficulty chewing food, which could lead to digestion issues, or simply a lack of motivation to eat at all.
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Objectives of an Addiction Recovery Nutrition Plan
Any type of treatment should be designed to accomplish specific goals to ensure maximum effectiveness. The same should be true of a recovery nutrition plan. Here are some important objectives for a nutrition plan while recovering from substance abuse:
Repair the damaged body and mind – The body and mind have been ravaged by substance abuse, and the introduction of whole foods can help support the rehabilitation process. Proteins and healthy fats can repair and rebuild damaged organs, muscles and bones. Fiber can help return the digestive system to a working state.
Stabilize mood and reduce stress – Addictive substances have toxic effects in the brain and cause other mental disorders. Healthy carbohydrates can regulate blood sugar, providing better levels of energy and elevated mood. Proteins and omega-3 fatty acids can repair the brain and stimulate brain functions.
Curb Substance Cravings – Good eating habits and a set eating schedule can help individuals deal with harmful cravings. Some individuals who are dealing with substance abuse have a difficult time differentiating substance cravings and hunger. Nutrient-rich, whole foods, eaten at on a regular schedule, keeps the mind fed and distracted from chemical cravings.
Self-Care and Lifestyle Change – Long term recovery requires an individual’s ability to sustain wellness away from the clinical setting. Establishing healthy eating should make the person feel better, and want to maintain that feeling after treatment. Nutrition education must accompany the addiction treatment to ensure that the individual can differentiate between healthy foods/positive habits and unhealthy foods/negative habits.
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Key Components of a Substance Abuse Recovery Diet
A healthy diet for those in recovery should consist of whole foods full of all of the critical macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Just as importantly, there are important foods to avoid:
- Sugary foods and drinks – to help control cravings, energy levels, and mood
- Highly processed foods – that are also high in sugar, but hinder digestive function
- Caffeine – which can make sleep difficult and raise levels of anxiety
Carbohydrates are the body’s chosen source of energy. Foods that are high in sugar are examples of carbohydrates, but these foods should be avoided because of the effect they have on blood sugar and insulin. Similarly, highly processed foods are high in carbohydrates, and should also be avoided. Sugary and highly processed foods can also damage the pleasure centers of the brain and interfere with addiction treatment. Examples of healthy sources of carbohydrates include:
- Whole grain breads
Fiber is a specific type of carbohydrate that aids the digestive process and regulates blood sugar. It is a particularly important nutrient for anyone suffering from an unhealthy gut caused by addictions to substances like Opiates, and related illnesses such as constipation. Examples of healthy sources of fiber include:
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Beans and legumes
Protein is responsible for building and repairing muscle. Foods that are high in protein are also likely to provide a sense of ‘fullness’ for people who struggle with binge eating. Examples of healthy sources of protein include:
- Milk and Cheese
Fat is another source of energy for the body. Healthy fats help your body absorb critical vitamins and minerals, and help regulate your overall body temperature. Perhaps most importantly, the brain is made up of mostly fats, so the consumption of healthy fats supports brain function. Examples of healthy sources of fat include:
- Milk, cheese, and butter
- Nuts and Seeds
Vitamins and Minerals occur naturally in the body, and aid with critical bodily functions. Drug and alcohol abuse can make it difficult for the body to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, making replacement critical to recovery. In some cases, specific vitamins maybe supplemented in pill form, but when possible, whole foods are the best source for these vitamins and minerals, to ensure maximum absorption. Here are some relevant vitamins and minerals and the role they play in recovering from substance abuse:
- Vitamins B1 and B6
Helps the body turn food into energy and is often deficient in both opiate and alcohol addicts
Found in tuna, salmon, chicken breast, beef, watermelon, potatoes, spinach, chickpeas
- Vitamin C
Helps maintain a properly functioning immune system and is usually deprived by alcohol abuse
Found largely in fruits and vegetables
- Vitamin D
Helps the body use calcium to strengthen bones, and is usually deficient in opiate addicts
Mainly produced by the body during sun exposure, also found in fish, egg yolks, and some dairy and grain products
- Vitamin K1
Essential to blood clotting and the healing of wounds, and is usually deficient in alcoholics
Found in leafy greens and vegetables
Aids in the production of healthy red blood cells and their transport through the body, usually deficient in all substance abusers
Found in red meat, seafood, beans, dark leafy green vegetables
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Crucial for brain development and function, usually deficient in all substance abusers
Found in nuts, seeds, salmon, eggs, spinach
Water provides hydration for the body, helping to regulate body temperature, provide lubrication for joints, and transporting nutrients throughout the body to maintain health and function. Water also helps flush toxins out of the body while supporting the digestive system. Many of those suffering through addiction also fight dehydration, and the related symptoms of dehydration such as fatigue, dizziness, and muscle cramps.
Much of recovery depends upon the individual’s ability to replace unhealthy and negative habits with healthy and positive habits. The day-to-day struggle of cravings can make any lifestyle changes difficult. Eating on a schedule can ensure a steady stream of nutrients to the body, making sure the brain has everything it needs for maximum function. The association of a consistent eating schedule with positive, healthy habits can support the mental recovery process.
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Dietary Obstacles for Recovering Addicts
While healthy eating tends to lead to a healthy lifestyle, and a healthy lifestyle is the ultimate objective for individuals seeking addiction recovery, it’s not always easy to include nutrition in an addiction treatment plan. As discussed earlier, medical interventions and counseling often seem more important to a person combatting addiction, particular in the early stages of treatment. Existing, poor eating habits are additional obstacles to good nutrition.
A real obstacle for treatment centers and individuals is the cost of healthy food, and the relatively low cost of highly processed foods and foods high in sugar. Insurance companies do not always cover nutrition at the same level that they would cover other recovery interventions. Those individuals who have suffered from chronic substance abuse may face financial hurdles, due to the expense of purchasing drugs or alcohol, or due to job loss caused by erratic or harmful behavior.
Malnourishment in individuals fighting addiction can either lead to, or be the cause of, co-occurring eating disorders. Clinically, it may be difficult to introduce nutrient dense foods right away, because the body is not ready to support a sharp increase in food consumption. An even-handed and gradual treatment approach is needed, but the goals should be the same.
At Recovering Champions, we believe that proper nutrition is important to one’s overall health, and that this is especially true for someone dealing with addiction. We place an emphasis on improving one’s diet and nutritional choices by creating a large outdoor garden which currently grows everything from lettuce to other key ingredients which are incorporated into the daily meals. Our Chef, Tom Pandiscio has 35 years of experience working in high end restaurants throughout New England and teaches culinary arts at Upper Cape Tech. Through Tom’s passion for nutrition, we are able to provide our clients with the proper diet and nutritional education to aide in their recovery process.