The Role of Diet and Exercise in Long-term Recovery
Addiction to drugs and alcohol is notoriously hard on the body and damaging to the brain—especially long-term addiction. Healing from the damage created by drug or alcohol abuse is a long and challenging process, and one that demands a multidimensional approach. For many decades, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and ongoing psychotherapy represented the primary clinical tools available to those in recovery. However, empirical research increasingly emphasizes the need for an additional holistic, diet and exercise-based recovery program beyond traditional methods.
Science has long proven that the human body depends upon food and water for its health and survival. Multiple physiological and psychological processes require adequate nutritional intake for optimum functioning, and food represents the nutritional building blocks that allow for the healing of injury or damage. When people become addicted to legal or illicit substances, they frequently neglect self-care and fail to follow healthy dietary and lifestyle habits.
Many people in the throes of addiction:
- Eat less frequently or consider a drinking session or popping pills a “meal.”
- Suffer from the loss of essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
- Skip meals altogether or choose processed, unhealthy foods and beverages.
- Damage gastrointestinal health and digestive processes, which in turn, negatively affects absorption.
- Lead an on-the-fly, sedentary lifestyle that includes staying out late, overindulging in toxic behaviors, and not exercising or maintaining proper personal hygiene.
Although a positive external environment and internal dialogue are necessary components of healthy living, food is considered equally, if not more, important. Food strongly influences mental function by helping regulate the complex neurochemical systems of the brain. The brain itself is comprised of a vast network of interrelated pathways and neurotransmitters. Once the delicate balance of these systems is lost due to poor dietary and lifestyle decisions, a number of problems arise including anxiety, stress, depression, fatigue, and a general sense of disorientation. Diet and exercise become critical to reversing this imbalance, stabilizing mood, and improving physical-mental function.
THE RECOVERY DIET
As effective as the latest Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medications are for helping to reduce cravings and stabilize mental and physical function, they are not enough, especially if the goal is long-term recovery. Actually rebuilding the body and mind requires healthy, nutrient-rich foods, beverages, and lifestyle decisions. For people in early recovery, when the body and mind are fragile and easily disrupted, dietary toxins are strongly discouraged. Dietary toxins include sugar, fried or processed foods, caffeine, and artificial beverages among a long list of other offenders.
Nutrition experts and dieticians generally recommend a dietary regimen that is pre-planned if possible to avoid unwise, spur-of-the-moment decisions. The following dietary guidelines provide a solid nutritional foundation for those in recovery:
- Consume a balanced variety of foods from each food group including fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, grains, and meat.
- Consume fiber-rich foods that help support digestive function, repair structural damage, and reverse nutrient deficiencies. These include whole grain cereals, legumes, and a wide range of fruits and vegetables— organic if possible.
- Use vitamins, minerals, and dietary supplements as recommended. Multivitamins, fish oils, and probiotics are all excellent examples.
- Always eat a hearty breakfast and don’t skip meals throughout the day. This may require planning and following a standard schedule of mealtimes.
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine intake.
- Drink copious amounts of water as recommended for your specific body weight and height.
- Reduce or eliminate sugar intake and fried or processed foods.
THE NECESSITY OF EXERCISE
Regular exercise is a scientifically proven way to feel great and maintain peak mental and physical function. The multi-tiered benefits of regular exercise include releasing endorphins, regulating a healthy flow of neurochemicals to the brain and central nervous system (CNS), stabilizing mood, reducing cravings, and balancing key nutrient levels. Regular exercise has also been shown to improve the quality of sleep, significantly curb anxiety, and reduce stress. Many people suffering from addiction are anxiety-ridden and chronically overstressed and require a vigorous exercise routine beyond the 30 minutes daily recommended by most health authorities. Thankfully, a variety of exercise options exist that help make working out an enjoyable, even social, activity, and no longer a dreaded chore. These include:
- Team sports
- Martial arts
Implementing a diet and exercise-based component in your recovery program will help maximize your chances of long-term success and minimize the likelihood of relapse. More importantly, it will rebuild healthy self-esteem, improve nutrient levels, and help facilitate cellular growth and repair— all of which are necessary to living a heathy, functional life.