How Important is Nutrition in Recovery?

Nutrition is largely accepted by dieticians and nutritionists as a powerful tool for helping addicts to recover from substance abuse, but this information is not common knowledge.

Most substance use disorders are intrinsically linked to unhealthy habits and bodily harm, as substances not only cause direct damage to the brain and the body, but also encourage poor eating habits, poor sleep patterns, and a lack of exercise. Nutrition can be key to recovery, because it helps to restore physical and mental health. For example, micro and macro nutrient deficiencies lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and low energy, which are common triggers for relapse.
Because studies show that 30-50% of all substance abusers suffer from co-occurring eating disorders, nutrition therapy or proper nutrition can help to improve both the physical and mental health of the recovering addict. Many addicts also develop a binge mentality, where they use sweets, greasy food, or processed foods to make up for the lack of the high from their substance, but this mentality not only makes recovery more difficult, it makes relapse almost certain.
Nutrition therapy is increasingly used by rehabilitation centers and therapists to promote bodily health and wellbeing as well as improved habits and discipline. While nutritional therapy for substance use disorders must necessarily be as complex as substance use, general nutrition is frequently adequate to help recovering addicts to improve their health and to stay clean for the long-term.

The Role of Substance Abuse in Nutrition Deficiency

Substance use typically discourages healthy eating, whether through lack of food or through eating poor quality foods. For example, many stimulants suppress the appetite, leading addicts to eat very little. Others, increase the appetite, typically causing the addict to consume larger quantities of unhealthy foods.
Alcohol actually prevents nutrient breakdown, making it difficult to avoid nutrient deficiencies over prolonged use. Some alcoholics also derive as much-as or more-than 50% of their daily caloric intake from alcohol, which also serves to reduce nutrient consumption. Opiate users suffer from similar issues, because many opiates cause gastrointestinal distress, suppress the appetite, and reduce caloric and nutrient intake.
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In other cases, addicts who spend a large portion of their income on drugs or alcohol are unable to afford to eat well, and may rely on cheap foods for sustenance or may not eat at all. Poor nutrition then exacerbates existing conditions such as depression or anxiety, which makes it more difficult to get or stay clean.

Medical Nutrition Therapy and Recovery

Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), is increasingly popular as part of addiction recovery because it targets physical and mental issues, to help the patient to make a full recovery. In most cases, MNT programs in addiction recovery aim to heal the body, stabilize the mood, reduce stress, reduce substance cravings, and encourage long-term self care and discipline.
Because nutrition deficiencies create cravings for drugs and alcohol, it is important for nutrition therapy to begin soon after the initial detox period is over. Most rehabilitation centers will start by offering balanced meals designed to correct any patient nutrient deficiencies, balance weight level, and provide the correct level of nutrients for the recovering addict.
Neurotransmitters and Mood – Substance use affects neurotransmitters and therefore the mood in two ways. First, the substance directly affects amino acid absorption, creating deficiencies in the brain. Second, poor nutrition through altered food intake exacerbates this issue to cause depression, agitation, and anxiety. For example, not eating enough carbohydrates can cause mood imbalance, blood sugar imbalance, and low levels of serotonin.
At the same time, vitamin deficiencies like B6, B12, folate, and iron can mimic the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Low amino acids and Omega-3 fatty acids can cause depression by reducing the ability of neurotransmitters to function in the brain.
While these types of disorders may have already been present at the time of addiction and may stem from causes other than nutrition and addiction, it is important to eat well to balance out chemicals in the brain. Recovery can take anywhere from weeks to over a year, depending on the amount of damage and how well the recovering person eats.
Reducing Cravings – Proper nutrition can also help to reduce cravings. Poor nutrition, high levels of caffeine, and low energy all commonly create triggers such as anxiety and irritability or depression. Encouraging balanced meals, a regular diet, and limited sugar and caffeine consumption reduces these cravings by removing the causes. While many addicts initially struggle to differentiate hunger and thirst from substance cravings, rehabilitation centers typically provide balanced meals and snacks to anticipate hunger, which can help to reduce substance related cravings as well.
Malnutrition – Studies show that approximately 70% of substance abusers suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Many more suffer from vitamin C, iron, Vitamin A, or vitamin E deficiencies, which result from both poor diet and damage to the gastrointestinal tract. Each of these deficiencies can cause mental as well as physical symptoms, which hurt recovery and make relapse more likely.
Metabolic Syndrome – Many addicts, especially alcohol addicts, are victims of metabolic syndrome. This syndrome develops through sustained abuse to the gastrointestinal tract, and leads to abdominal obesity, hyperglycemia, cholesterol, and hypertension. This can create significant and permanent side effects including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Weight management, a balanced diet, and regular exercise are crucial to managing metabolic syndrome.
Liver Care – Liver health is a primary concern for many recovering addicts because they must take care not to sustain additional damage to an organ that has likely already been damaged a great deal. For this reason, recovering addicts must typically avoid high protein diets, must manage their weight, and must eat healthy foods to maintain the health of their liver.
Binge Behavior – Many addicts are prone to binging, resulting in substance use, smoking, drinking caffeinated beverages, and overindulging in sweets or greasy foods. Managing this behavior and substituting it with a healthy and disciplined eating routine ensures that the recovery is complete and that the user does not swap their substance addiction for a food addiction.
Energy Management – Poor nutritional intake can create energy highs and lows, leading to crashes and depression like symptoms. A regular, balanced diet helps to avoid these crashes, helping recovering addicts to avoid symptoms that are addiction triggers. Protein-energy malnutrition can also cause weight gain through an increased consumption of carbohydrates, which leads to more binge eating and poorer energy regulation. For this reason, recovering addicts greatly benefit from eating a diet with both protein and carbohydrate energy sources.
In many cases, rehabilitation centers use medication including naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine to manage withdrawal symptoms as well as the temporary symptoms of nutrition deficiency during withdrawal.

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Many rehabilitation facilities will include some form of nutrition treatment in their program. Most begin by offering balanced, calorically appropriate meals soon after the initial detox period is over. Nutrition education may be provided, alongside exercise to help patients overcome their mental and physical issues. Addicts who learn about self-care, nutrition, exercise, and proper sleep are able to take care of themselves to manage their health for the long-term, to reduce cravings, improve mental health, and stay substance free.
Avoiding Sugar – It is important for most recovering addicts to avoid sugar and caffeine, because these substances are highly addictive. For example, large amounts of sugar cause a blood sugar crash, resulting in a craving for more sugar. Newly substance-free individuals can rarely even differentiate hunger from a substance craving, and this sugar craving typically leads towards a relapse.
For many recovering addicts, the process of building discipline routines around food and exercise can also improve mental stability and can greatly help to reduce the chances of relapse.
Proper nutrition, a regular diet, and exercise improve physical and mental wellbing. For a recovering addict, this works to heal the body, to reduce symptoms that could cause triggers, and to balance the mood to prevent relapse. Because many addicts suffer from nutrient deficiencies and binge behavior, choosing a rehabilitation facility that offers nutrition as part of their treatment can be essential to long-term recovery.
If you or a loved one struggles with drug addiction or alcoholism, please contact Oceanfront Recovery today to discuss addiction treatment options. One of our professional, experienced, and concerned admissions advisors will speak with you at 877-279-1777 today in complete confidence.