Recovering from an addiction is a long and difficult process that relies on personal motivation, appropriate medical care, and dedication.
Nutrition is an element that is often stressed as part of that medical care and therapy, but without knowing the importance of proper nutrition in recovery, you have no way to prioritize it in your own life once you go home.
Nutrition and good eating habits are important for recovering addicts for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that creating disciplined eating and exercise habits can help you to fight cravings. The second is that as a recovering addict, you are very likely suffering from a nutrient deficiency which can and will affect your recovery, your mood, and your long-term health.
Eating a balanced diet and improving your health is a crucial part of the recovery process because nutrition deficiencies can cause depression, cravings, metabolic syndrome, and relapse through indirect causes.
How Substance Abuse Affects Nutrition Deficiency
Addiction causes myriad mental and physical problems which go on to affect how and when you eat and how your body absorbs nutrition. Many stimulants directly suppress the appetite, leading you to avoid food altogether. In fact, some of us become addicted in this way, using amphetamines as diet drugs to lose weight. Other stimulants (like alcohol) increase the appetite, typically encouraging larger consumptions of fatty and greasy foods which offer less nutritional value.
Substance abuse can also affect how the body is able to process nutrition. For example, alcohol directly affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrition by affecting the gastrointestinal tract.
Studies show that 30-50% of all substance abusers suffer from co-occurring eating disorders, causing them to not eat, binge, or intermittently fast and binge. This can lead to long-term eating disorders, which must be dealt with during recovery.
Many addicts also begin to prioritize their substance over food, so that when faced with buying a meal or a substance, a truly addicted person will choose the substance. For example, alcoholics often gain as much as 50% of their daily caloric intake from alcohol. Others are unable to support a drug habit and healthy foods, and slowly switch to eating cheap foods that offer less nutritional value.
How Nutrition Deficiency Affects Recovery
Nutrition deficiencies negatively affect your recovery by reducing your mood, causing cravings, and causing health problems. For example, deficiencies in amino acids can cause depression by changing how neurotransmitters function in the brain. Because depression and sadness can cause drops in the mood, triggering cravings, this can indirectly set you on the path to relapse. Deficiencies in B6, B12, folate, and iron can also cause symptoms like anxiety and depression, which can trigger the same emotions that cause a relapse. Similarly, Vitamin D deficiencies, which nearly 70% of all substance abusers suffer from, can cause depression and fatigue.
Deficiencies in micro and macro nutrients cause a variety of symptoms which can increase mental and physical problems, creating negative emotions, and making it more difficult to stay focused on recovery.
Medical Nutrition Therapy
Many rehabilitation centers now offer Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) as part of their recovery plan. During your stay at a rehabilitation center, you will be fed foods that are high in nutrition, possibly given blood tests to determine nutrient deficiencies, and sometimes given classes on proper nutrition and healthy eating habits. MNT is designed to teach you to eat correctly so that you can repair problems, stabilize your mood, reduce stress, and learn self care and discipline that will help you with overcoming your addiction.
Proper nutrition can help to combat a range of symptoms that could cause a relapse or less enjoyment of life, but it can also be used to combat specific symptoms or physical problems. For example, many recovering substance abusers find themselves prone to binge behavior, which is a process of binging on large amounts of food or sugary drinks. This can lead to weight gain and even relapse, because it is most often fueled by cravings for a drug. Studies show that patients with binge mentality often can’t tell the difference between a craving for sugar and a craving for a substance, so unhealthy eating habits can quickly lead to relapse.
Managing Metabolic Syndrome – Most substances, but especially alcohol and opioids, damage the gastrointestinal track by causing inflammation. Over time this can lead to a permanent issue known as metabolic syndrome, or a reduced metabolism. Metabolic syndrome can lead to obesity, hyperglycemia, high cholesterol, and hypertension, each of which can cause other health problems, mental problems, and difficulties in your life. Eating a healthy and balanced diet can help you to manage metabolic syndrome to reduce symptoms as much as possible.
Caring for Your Liver – Substance abuse damages your liver, especially if you have been addicted for some time. Eating healthy foods, managing your weight, and taking care of your water intake can help you to maintain your liver health so that you can live a healthy life.
Avoiding Crashes – Recovering from an addiction means working to keep your energy levels up, so that you avoid lows where it is more difficult to avoid temptation and cravings. A healthy diet can help you to feel better, have more energy, and experience fewer cravings for sugar and other high-energy foods, which can lead you towards a relapse. While your doctor or nutritionist should offer you advice on choosing the best diet plan for your needs, most recovering substance abusers benefit from a mixed protein and carbohydrate meal plan, where a large portion of each plate is vegetable or fruit.
Proper nutrition can help you to balance your energy, reduce symptoms, improve your mood, and improve your overall health. While it can seem difficult to eat healthy, especially if you are on a budget, making small choices towards your health, choosing meals based on nutritional content, and getting advice on what and when to eat can greatly improve your health and your chances of recovery.
If you or a loved one is addicted to a substance, it is important to get help. A good rehabilitation clinic will offer assistance, medical guidance, and therapy you need to get over physical dependence on a substance, as well as therapy, exercise, and nutrition assistance to help you get to a place where you can stay clean.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, or you just have questions, please call Lighthouse Treatment Center today. We are happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors. Help is available today.