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How can a healthy diet help addiction recovery? 

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June 27, 2022
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

Leaving Las Vegas, Trainspotting and Requiem for a dream are some of the most hard-hitting films that depict substance abuse and its consequences. One thing that is common in almost all these movies is that the actors who play the roles of addicts are thin, gaunt and look extremely malnourished. The reason for this is art imitates life and in real life, most people with addiction problems are undernourished and underweight. In fact, (although unfair) it’s not uncommon for parents to doubt that their teenage kids are having a drug problem if they get too skinny and stop eating food. So, let’s understand why people with substance abuse problems are undernourished and can a healthy diet help in addiction recovery.

How does substance abuse cause nutrition deficiency?

Each drug will have a different effect on the body. Alcohol will damage the liver, cigarettes will collapse the lung, cocaine will cause cardiovascular problems, so on and so forth. However, almost all of them impact an individual’s ability to assimilate all the nutrients necessary for healthy living. People who abuse substances are likely to experience one or more of these wide-ranging symptoms.

Loss of appetite: While marijuana may increase appetite, most other substances suppress appetite. A user may also forget to eat when high or may not eat to prolong a high. Either way, less food is being consumed by the user leading to poor nutrition.

Unhealthy choice of foods: Users tend to eat only junk food. It’s very difficult to cook a healthy meal under the influence, so many users stick to chips, pizzas, instant noodles, candies and confectioneries. All of these foods lack the necessary nutrients.

Damage to the digestive system: Constant use of alcohol and drugs can damage the kidneys, liver and gastrointestinal tract. They are vital organs necessary for the proper breakdown and processing of nutrients.

How does a healthy diet help in addiction recovery?

A person with substance abuse issues has to undergo many procedures during the process of recovery and rehabilitation. Along with detoxification and counselling, proper nutrition is also of utmost importance and here’s why:

Uplifts mood and increases confidence: Nutrient-dense foods cooked in a tasty and healthy way increase satiety which leads to contentment. No wonder, the self-help book series titled, “Chicken soup for the soul”, is so popular, because food has the power to heal not just the body but the mind as well. In contrast, people with nutrient deficiencies are prone to depression and anxiety. According to research, deficiency of folic acid (vitamin B9) can lead to depression and deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1) can lead to poor self-confidence.

Increases focus and mindfulness: When it comes to addiction recovery, an individual needs to focus on their rehabilitation and needs the mental agility to respond to their environment. A healthy diet that involves good sources of carbs and proteins helps with the proper functioning of the brain which further helps with being mindful of the task at hand; which is recovery. In fact, as per this case study, recovering addicts frequently suffer from magnesium deficiency, which can lead to confusion and insomnia.

Enhances motivation and energy: To overcome any obstacle one needs motivation, especially if one is trying to recover from substance addiction. It is a known fact and even research backs it that iron deficiency can cause lethargy and abnormal fatigue. Nutrient-rich foods that are rich in protein and iron, can help increase strength and stamina in the body. This newfound source of energy can boost one’s drive and help with addiction recovery.

Helps decrease craving: According to a study, when individuals with alcohol addiction were treated with a combination of traditional therapy and nutritional therapy, they had fewer cravings for alcohol as compared to those who were treated with just traditional therapy. When the body’s needs for the right nutrients are met, cravings become less intense, especially for addictive substances. This increases the success of addiction recovery.

The role of nutrition in improving Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s capability of creating new connections and reorganizing old ones, often in response to injuries, long-term sickness or disease or disruption to a person’s normal environment. In fact, addiction itself is a classic case of neuroplasticity where the brain’s reward circuits chemically adapt to the presence of drugs and alcohol. Brain imaging studies have shown that addiction to drugs disrupts connectivity between different parts of the brain, which makes restabilizing of healthy neurotransmission even more difficult during the process of recovery.

In simpler terms, changes in the brain due to addiction damage neuroplasticity which makes it even more difficult to adjust to sobriety. However, the good news is that proper nutrition can improve neuroplasticity by aiding the brain in replenishing healthy amounts of neurotransmitters.

Here’s how brain plasticity is improved through proper nutrition:

·    Carbohydrates: Aside from being the body’s primary energy source, carbs help the brain produce serotonin. This neurotransmitter is essential for stabilizing mood, inducing healthy sleep patterns and decreasing cravings for substances.

·    Amino acids: The brain cannot produce adequate amounts of neurotransmitter dopamine without the essential quantity of amino acids. A decrease in dopamine negatively affects the mood which can dramatically increase cravings for drugs and alcohol.

·   Dietary fat: The human brain is the fattiest organ in the body and is nearly 60 per cent fat. In recent years, studies have shown that fatty acids are one of the most essential molecules that control your brain’s ability to perform. Dietary fat also enables the regeneration of neuroplasticity by decreasing inflammation and protecting the integrity of cell membranes in the brain.

·   Omega-3s and Omega-6s: Omega-3 fatty acids also reduce inflammation. These fatty acids balanced with Omega-6s, increase the capability of neurotransmitter receptors, which further assist in increasing the overall amount and activity of neurotransmitters in the brain.

How to make a healthy diet part of an addiction recovery plan?

A healthy diet ensures that the body’s nutrient needs are met, which aids in the recovery process. Healthy foods reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol and help one stay on the path of sobriety. One can stay on the path of recovery by following these simple suggestions:

  • Eat whole, fresh, unprocessed foods: Fruits such as bananas are a great source of the amino acid tryptophan, which is essential for the production of serotonin for healthy sleep. Blueberries contain antioxidants that reduce the toxins created by the consumption of drugs, thereby boosting the immune system and increasing the success of recovery. Vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, and potatoes; clean proteins like dairy, tofu, organic eggs, meat, chicken and fish; and nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds should all be an essential part of a recovery diet plan.
  • Avoid junk foods, fast foods and highly processed foods: Processed foods are high in refined sugars, salts and trans fats. They are also highly addictive making it problematic for people who are undergoing the recovery process. Candies, chips, fried foods, instant noodles, and ice creams should be avoided on a recovery diet as much as possible.
  • Eat a wide variety of food: Avoid fad diets that recommend eating only protein or only fats. These fad diets are more focused on weight loss and often do not meet the body’s nutritional needs. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fibre are all building blocks of nutrition and are equally essential to a healthy recovery diet plan.
  • Stick to a food schedule: One should not skip either breakfast, lunch or dinner. If for some reason one has to, always carry a healthy snack. Long gaps between meals and hunger pangs can all trigger cravings and hamper the recovery process.
  • See a food counsellor/nutritionist: Everyone’s nutritional needs are different. Individuals with different addictions may have different nutritional deficiencies. Hence, it’s important to visit a professional nutritionist who can personalize a healthy diet plan that meets one’s nutritional requirements.

In closing, a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and a healthy diet can go a long way in aiding the addiction recovery process. Also, healthy habits, like meditation, sleeping on time, reducing screen time and spending quality time with family can make the path of sobriety less difficult to stay on.

Sources:

Ottley, C. (2000, Sept). Food and mood. Nursing Standard.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11971416/

Flink, E. B. (1985). Magnesium deficiency in human subjects—a personal historical perspective. Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.1985.10720063

Biery, J. R., Williford, J. J., & McMullen, E. A. (1991, April). Alcohol craving in rehabilitation: assessment of nutrition therapy. Journal of the American Dietetic Association

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2016494/

Chang, C., Ke, D., Chen, J. (2009, Dec). Essential fatty acids and human brain.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20329590/#:~:text=The%20human%20brain%20is%20nearly,integrity%20and%20ability%20to%20perform.

(2019, March) How healthy eating can help you with addiction recovery. www.edgewoodhealthnetwork.com

Fernando Gómez-Pinilla (2008, July). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/

Sampedro-Piquero, P., Santín. L and Castilla-Ortega, E. (2019, March). Aberrant Brain Neuroplasticity and Function in Drug Addiction: A Focus on Learning-Related Brain Regions.

https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/66157