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Abusing alcohol and drugs frequently leads to a lack of proper nutrition—typically the result of not eating enough food daily or eating foods that do not contain the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients necessary for optimal mental and physical function. Both legal and illicit drugs are known to create serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which in turn negatively impacts physical and mental health, damages vital organs and the nervous system, and lowers immunity. They are also linked to long-term health issues including diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, eating disorders, and weight problems.
Substances such as stimulants may suppress the appetite, while others, like marijuana, may inadvertently lead to weight gain by increasing the appetite. Micro and macronutrient deficiencies can also lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and low energy—causing or exacerbating co-occurring mental health disorders. Therefore, it is vital for people in recovery to establish and follow a nutritious diet plan for optimal success. Proper nutrition and hydration are scientifically established keys to the healing process. Comprehensive nutritional counseling and education have been found to significantly improve 90 day recovery success rates. Nutritional education and medical nutrition therapy (MNT)—monikers commonly used in addiction treatment—should focus on achieving the following goals:
- Stress reduction and mood stabilization
- Reduction of cravings for alcohol/drugs
- Addressing co-occurring medical issues, as well as those exclusively related to drug abuse
- Nourishing and healing the body
- Encouraging healthy lifestyle decisions and good self-care habits
Consuming regularly planned nutritious meals and snacks with adequate caloric intake enables the person in recovery to address nutritional deficiencies, helps with stress management, managing sugar levels, improving sleep, and reducing cravings. Nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains are important in reducing inflammation and cell oxidation and healing the damage caused by substance abuse. Psychiatric problems are commonly cause by the toxic effects of drugs on brain chemistry. For example, neurotransmitters—key chemical components of healthy brain function—are drastically decreased due drug and alcohol abuse, leaving the addict feeling agitated and depressed in the early stages of recovery. These chemical imbalances eventually disappear over a period of several weeks to months, but can last for up to a year or longer.
Specific mood disorders, as well as overall brain chemistry, are benefitted greatly by adopting a healthy diet. The following provides a general guideline:
- Carbohydrates – are the body’s primary energy source. Without complex carbohydrates, blood sugar becomes unstable, the brain is unable to function properly, and neurotransmitter levels are disrupted. Blood sugar instability leads to cravings as well as feelings of frustration and anxiety. Carbohydrates facilitate the production of serotonin which is responsible for happier and more stable moods, more refreshing sleep, and helping curb food cravings.
- Amino acids – are considered the building blocks of protein and the foundation of all neurotransmitters. Low levels of neurotransmitters—like dopamine or serotonin—can single-handedly trigger substance abuse and fuel mood disorders.
- Good fatty acids – such as Omega 3, help alleviate depression by decreasing inflammation and assisting in the uptake of neurotransmitters. Omega 6 fatty acids also aid neurotransmitter receptors in proper function—thereby increasing neurotransmitters levels in the brain.
- Vitamins – such as vitamin B6, B12, folate, and iron are vital for mood stabil Lack of these key nutrients can create depression, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and attention deficit problems.
- Hydration – drinking adequate amounts of water and other healthy fluids is vital to proper body systems’ functioning as well as mood management. Dehydration can exacerbate drug-induced concentration problems, irritability, and disorientation.
- Proper food portioning – each food should be appropriately combined to create a diet high in complex carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in sugar and fat to help sustain the ongoing recovery process.
Most people in early recovery are unable to differentiate substance cravings from hunger cravings since they have long forgotten what normal hunger cravings feel like. As a result, they frequently switch to unhealthy choices such as caffeine or sugar to replace their drug habit. However, it is wise to avoid these substances as much as possible throughout the recovery process. Educating people in recovery on the importance of proper nutrition cannot be stressed highly enough. Grocery shopping for fresh, unprocessed foods, creating healthy recipes, efficient food preparation, and cooking are all important skills that, if learned, produce long-lasting benefits.