Today’s nutritionists and addiction specialists largely regard nutrition therapy as an intrinsic part of recovery. While our understanding of the link between nutrition and addiction recovery is relatively new, many rehabilitation centers across the United States have already begun to adopt nutritional therapy as one means of helping patients recover from long periods of substance abuse. Nutrition is an important tool in helping individuals to return to both physical and mental health. However, that relationship is often complex and multi-faceted, as chronic drug and alcohol use affects the body and the gut in different ways, especially depending on the drug in question.
Today, an estimated 18.7 million people struggle with a substance use disorder, meaning that some 8% of the U.S. population over the age of 12 is in need of treatment. Increasingly, that treatment is holistic, treating not just behaviors linked to substance use disorder, but also stress management, physical health, and physical health conditions contributing to poor mood and ill health. This holistic approach attempts to treat the whole patient to increase the total health of the patient and give them the ability to truly recover.
Why are Nutrition Deficiencies and Substance Use Disorder Linked?
Studies show that as many as 70% of addiction recovery patients suffer from nutrition deficiencies. Another 30-50% likely struggle with eating disorders. Why? The issue is multifaceted and complex, as actual problems specifically relate to genetics, drugs taken, quantity and quality of drugs, metabolism, lifestyle, economic situation, and co-occurring disorders or health problems. Some of the most common issues relate to priorities and food selection and to damage to the gastrointestinal tract.
Poor Food Choices – Most of us can easily recognize that we link food to comfort. That’s because food triggers the reward circuit in the brain, stimulating the same dopamine and serotonin releases as social contact, love, and even a lot of drugs and alcohol. Sugar, salt, and fat are the most likely to trigger these reactions. Persons who are addicted to a substance are often described as “sensation seeking” which includes drugs, poor food choices, and little time or attention to eating a balanced diet. As a result, persons with drug and alcohol problems often consume diets based around fast food, takeout, or whatever they can find because they don’t actually care enough.
Physical Damage – Substance abuse often causes real physical damage to the gastrointestinal tract. This is especially true of alcohol, which actually enters the gastrointestinal tract to cause swelling, bleeding, and long-term cell damage. This can inhibit the individual’s ability to absorb nutrition at all. It can also physically prevent the body from absorbing some times of drugs. For example, alcohol directly inhibits fat absorption which directly inhibits zinc and other mineral absorption. Consistent vomiting and urination from drinking too much alcohol typically results in iron deficiencies. Recovering from this type of damage can take years, making it more crucial for individuals to have a healthy diet during recovery.
Eating Disorders – Eating disorders are especially common in alcoholics but can be present in individuals taking any type of drug. Here, the individual develops some form of body dysmorphia or eating disorder related to food prioritization and will typically either consume too much or not enough. For example, some alcoholics derive 50% or more of daily caloric intake from alcohol. This can relate to simply consuming large quantities of alcohol but also often relates to individual perceptions of weight, attractiveness, and social interaction. So, you often get instances where individuals might starve themselves so they don’t gain weight when drinking. Or individuals who start using cocaine or methamphetamine to lose weight or to maintain their weight despite an eating disorder.
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How Poor Nutrition Contributes to Relapse
It’s common to see individuals in recovery who continue to make poor food choices. Most begin to rely on drugs and alcohol early, don’t truly know how to prepare healthy foods, and are losing one of the only things that can make them feel good. Many people struggle with emotional blunting, depression, anxiety, and cravings during recovery. As a result, they turn to comfort foods including sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine. This can lead to a binge mentality where people in addiction recovery lean on other behavioral addictions instead of fully recovering. For example, a patient gets up and smokes cigarettes and has several cups of coffee before consuming food. They have no real interest in cooking so they order food or purchase it pre-made.
But, large amounts of salt, fat, sugar, and caffeine are bad for anyone. Not only do they result in poorer nutritional intake, they also result in behavioral addictions and dependencies. For example, sugar isn’t truly “addictive” because it doesn’t result in physical dependence, but it does create behavioral dependence, where the individual is very likely to show seeking behavior. These “cross-dependencies” inhibit the patient’s ability to learn to live without relying on a comfort or substance. New substance users may also be unable to tell the difference between food and substance cravings, resulting in either new dependencies or a relapse.
Poor nutrition contributes to relapse in other ways as well. One of the most common of these is the strong overlap between nutritional deficiencies and feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, and lethargy. Individuals who don’t feel well or who don’t feel anything at all are significantly more likely to self-medicate to feel better.
Aiding Addiction Recovery with Nutrition
Modern rehabilitation often includes nutritional therapy, healthy food during treating, and quite often cooking classes and group nutrition workshops to help patients learn to navigate the world of food in a healthy and responsible way. This can range from simply providing healthy meals to full Medical Nutritional Therapy (MNT) depending on the recovery center, the individual, and the treatment program. In either case, programs should be tailored based on the individual’s health, personal situation, and abilities. Most MNT programs are geared towards helping the patient recover, to reduce stress, reduce cravings, and improve long-term quality of life. In many cases, this will tackle specific instances such as mental health, cravings, and malnutrition:
Mental Health – Nutritional deficiencies often mimic and overlap mental health problems including mood imbalances, depression, anxiety, and agitation. Here, lack of amino acids (proteins), low levels of vitamins, and low levels of minerals like iron, which is caused by vomiting, poor nutritional intake, or even high alcohol consumption can result in depression. A medical nutritional program will work to directly correct these issues based on a blood panel or other physical diagnosis of health. Unfortunately, recovery isn’t instantaneous, as malnutrition can take months to years to recover from depending on the underlying problems.
Physical Health – Anyone recovering from a substance use disorder is significantly likely to struggle with physical health problems such as malnutrition, metabolic syndrome, poor liver health, etc. A good diet can help to manage and correct these problems or prevent them from getting worse. Here, patients with existing liver conditions or metabolic condition will likely have to manage their diet for the rest of their life to prevent physical health problems.
Maintaining Recovery – Diet can help to reduce cravings, manage energy, and create a sense of discipline and personal fulfilment. Proper nutrition contributes to reducing cravings and reducing the need for reward circuit stimulus. Encouraging balanced meals and limiting caffeine and sugar intake both help to improve energy management and reduce the likelihood of energy crashes which can contribute to relapse. And, long term goals like maintaining an average healthy diet, learning to cook healthy (and tasty) meals, and investing in personal health and improvement greatly help with self-image, life outlook, motivation, and self-satisfaction.
Implementing Nutrition as a Lifestyle Choice
While many aspects of addiction recovery are temporary, such as medication assisted therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, nutrition should be ongoing. It’s not something you can benefit from as a short-term cure, because it isn’t a cure. Anyone who starts a nutritional program and then drops it later will lose all of the benefits.
Instead, adopting nutrition as part of recovery is about changing lifestyle, learning new skills, and building habits that contribute to mental and physical health. Depending on the individual, this might require trips to nutritionists and dieticians, learning to cook, meal prep, or any of a number of other steps. However, eating healthy and balanced meals should be a part of long-term routine because it is essential to long-term health.
If you have any questions concerning addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one, contact us at Truvida Recovery. Call 877-228-1102 to speak in confidence with an experienced treatment advisor now.