Nutrition and Alternative Therapy

for Drug Abstinence

What Is Nutritional Therapy?

The focus of many drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs has shifted to a holistic one. This means that instead of treating an addiction, a rehabilitation facility’s staff focuses on a person’s mind, body, and spirit. As a result, quitting drugs now involves an emphasis on healthy behaviors, including nutritional therapy.

Nutritional therapy involves eating healthy foods and diets to heal and nourish a person’s body.1 Nutritional therapists believe that proper nutrition and lack of key nutrients can affect a person’s body and recovery. While the concepts behind nutritional therapy are a fairly new one in terms of addiction research and treatment, there have been some supporting research found to have improved patient outcomes by incorporating nutritional therapy. 1

What Is the History of Nutritional Therapy?

Some of the information related to diet and substance abuse treatment over the decades includes the following:6

1940s and 1950s:

A biochemist named Roger J. Williams published animal-based studies on the impact between alcohol abuse and vitamin deficiencies.6 In addition, Williams’ research revealed that rats who consumed high-quality diets were less likely to consume alcohol excessively than those who consumed low-quality diets.

1960s and 1970s:

Endocrinologist Dr. John Tintera found those with a history of alcohol abuse were more likely to experience instances of low blood sugar.6 Dr. Tintera also found that patients may experience continued hypoglycemic episodes years after achieving sobriety. As a result, Dr. Tintera recommended efforts to maintain blood sugar levels while a person was in rehabilitation.

1970 to 1982:

Probation Officer Barbara Reed Stitt with the Cuyahoga Falls Municipal Court in Ohio starts a dietary therapy program for those on probation.6 She documents the successes of the program and reports that 80 percent of participants were able to lead healthy and crime-free lives after completing the nutritional therapy program.

1983:

A researcher at the University of Texas named Ruth M. Guenther studied alcoholics participating in an Alcoholics Anonymous treatment program, separating participants into two groups. The first group participated in nutrition education sessions, which includes nutrition, meal planning, shopping, and food preparation sessions, while the second group was a control.6 At the conclusion of her study, Guenther reports that 81 percent of the group who participated in nutritional counseling were not drinking compared to 38 percent of the control study group who were.

Future research surrounded types of vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition,3 As a result, a person may find they don’t feel hungry after drinking, but they haven’t “fed” their body with significant nutrients that promote a healthy body.

In addition to considerations for alcohol abuse, doctors also know that people who abuse opioids or stimulants, such as cocaine, are often on a cycle of using drugs, crashing, and seeking drugs again.3 As a result, a person often neglects other important parts of their healthy, such as their diet.

Drug and alcohol abuse is also known to cause damage to the digestive system and affect typical digestive processes. For example, alcohol and heroin abuse can damage the lining of the intestines. This can affect the body’s ability to absorb any nutrients a person does take in via their diet.3 Additionally, opiates and heroin can slow the digestive processes. This can affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and transmit them to the brain.

What Are the Goals for Nutritional Therapy?

According to the journal “Today’s Dietitian,” the goals for nutritional therapy include:

  • encouraging positive self-care
  • healing a body damaged by substance abuse
  • promoting a healthy lifestyle
  • reducing cravings for drugs and alcohol
  • reducing stress
  • stabilizing moods

Healthy Diets Restore Energy

Eating a healthy diet can help a person restore their energy, which is often sagging after completing a detox program. For example, nutritional therapy programs often emphasize selecting healthy, whole-grain carbohydrate sources.

These carbohydrates serve as the body’s main energy source. They are vital to helping a person’s blood sugar levels remain stable and reducing the anxiety and drug and food cravings that can occur when a person’s levels aren’t stable.3

In addition to emphasizing carbohydrates for energy, lean proteins are another vital component of a healthy diet in recovery. Proteins are required for the brain to produce neurotransmitters. Examples of these neurotransmitters include dopamine. Using drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines increase levels of dopamine in the brain.

However, the brain and body make dopamine on their own. Without enough lean proteins, a person cannot produce enough neurotransmitters. The results can be imbalances that lead to affected moods and potentially drug cravings.1 Another nutrient that can enhance neurotransmitter uptake is omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in fatty fish. Omega-6 fatty acids, such as flax seeds, may also benefit a person by promoting receptors in the brain.

You Need Vitamins and Fluids

Other foods, a person should seek out include iron, folate, and B vitamins. Patients should also be encouraged to drink plenty of fluids, such as water or herbal teas, to reduce the incidence of dehydration. 1 Otherwise, dehydration can lead to irritability and difficulty concentrating.

However, most nutritional therapists recommend avoiding caffeine-containing products as they can affect a person’s ability to sleep well. They may also cause irritability that increases anxiety. Doctors know that for many people, substance abuse and eating disorders co-exist.

According to “Today’s Dietitian,” an estimated 72 percent of women who struggle with alcoholism have an eating disorder. Those who abuse cocaine also experience high rates of eating disorders as they may attempt to use the drug as an appetite suppressant. For those who struggle with eating disorders as well as substance abuse, a nutritional therapist can help a person start to heal their substance abuse problem as well.1

How Does Nutritional Therapy Work?

When a person struggles with substance abuse, they often neglect their daily diet. The results can be lack of healthy vitamins and minerals in the body. Also, alcohol abuse can deplete the body of key nutrients, especially the B vitamin thiamine. Poor nutrition can affect a person’s immune system as well as nervous system. These risk factors can lead to medical conditions that include:1

  • diabetes
  • eating disorders
  • high blood pressure
  • metabolic syndrome
  • weight gain

To combat these, a nutritional therapist will work with a client in recovery to help them identify healthy foods they can eat. A therapist will meet with a client to discuss any food allergies and preferences they may have. They will discuss their history of substance abuse, as abusing certain substances is known to cause distinct nutritional deficiencies.

Examples of food recommendations include:

  • Those who abuse stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, often have multiple nutritional deficiencies because they tend to be malnourished and dehydrated. In addition, methamphetamine users may have experienced tooth loss that can make eating some foods difficult. A nutritional therapist can recommend foods that are both nutritious and also easier to eat. They can then recommend a diet plan that includes healthy foods, such as vegetables, fruits,whole-grain foods, lean meats. and low-fat dairy products.
  • Those who abuse alcohol often have deficiencies in vitamin A, vitamin C, and thiamine.1 They often require nutrients such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to enhance liver function.
  • Those who abuse opioids (painkillers) often have stomach-related conditions, such as frequent diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting as a result of their substance abuse. A person often can turn to nutrition to enhance electrolytes in the body that are commonly lost due to dehydration.
  • Those who abuse marijuana often have strong cravings for food and increased appetites. A person may get the “munchies” and eat excessively. They may have a co-existing binge eating disorder. A nutritional therapist can recommend a healthier diet to reduce binge eating episodes and help a person maintain steady blood sugar levels throughout the day.

Tolerating Withdrawal

Sometimes, a person may not be able to tolerate eating in the initial phases of withdrawal.3 They may have suffered injuries to their bowel that can affect their initial abilities to digest nutrients. A person may initially require intravenous nutrition therapy, such as total parenteral nutrition (TPN). These are usually short-term solutions until a person can begin eating again.

In addition to eating healthy foods, nutritional therapy can include short-term counseling. This counseling may involve talking about a person’s relationship with food and how it makes them feel to eat healthy foods. They may be asked to reflect on how their body feels as a person progresses through their sobriety.

How to Differentiate Drug Cravings from Hunger

Another important aspect of counseling is helping a patient learn how to differentiate their cravings for drugs and alcohol from hunger cravings.1 Because those who struggle with addiction have not paid significant attention to their hunger cravings in some time, they often find they cannot easily recognize feelings of hunger. Instead, they may mistake them for cravings for drugs or alcohol – both are seeking a pleasurable response through different physiological means. By helping a person identify their hunger, they can ideally continue their sober lifestyle.

Sometimes, when a person returns home after a rehabilitation stay, they may find they start substituting foods and eating for the times when they would have previously used drugs or alcohol. This can cause weight gain and further health problems. By engaging in nutritional therapy at an early time in their sobriety and detox process, a person can ideally keep this from occurring. Weight gain is not always an unwanted side effect, however. Some people may experience significant malnutrition as a result of their addiction. A return to healthy eating can help a person return to a healthier weight.

Sometimes, a person may not be able to tolerate eating in the initial phases of withdrawal.3 They may have suffered injuries to their bowel that can affect their initial abilities to digest nutrients. A person may initially require intravenous nutrition therapy, such as total parenteral nutrition (TPN). These are usually short-term solutions until a person can begin eating again.

In addition to eating healthy foods, nutritional therapy can include short-term counseling. This counseling may involve talking about a person’s relationship with food and how it makes them feel to eat healthy foods. They may be asked to reflect on how their body feels as a person progresses through their sobriety.

How to Differentiate Drug Cravings from Hunger

Another important aspect of counseling is helping a patient learn how to differentiate their cravings for drugs and alcohol from hunger cravings.1 Because those who struggle with addiction have not paid significant attention to their hunger cravings in some time, they often find they cannot easily recognize feelings of hunger. Instead, they may mistake them for cravings for drugs or alcohol – both are seeking a pleasurable response through different physiological means. By helping a person identify their hunger, they can ideally continue their sober lifestyle.

Sometimes, when a person returns home after a rehabilitation stay, they may find they start substituting foods and eating for the times when they would have previously used drugs or alcohol. This can cause weight gain and further health problems. By engaging in nutritional therapy at an early time in their sobriety and detox process, a person can ideally keep this from occurring. Weight gain is not always an unwanted side effect, however. Some people may experience significant malnutrition as a result of their addiction. A return to healthy eating can help a person return to a healthier weight.

What Are Some Common Misconceptions About Nutritional Therapy?

A common misconception about nutritional therapy is that nutritional therapy alone may be enough to treat addiction. However, nutritional therapy is not a standalone solution to helping a person overcome drugs and alcohol. According to William Billica, MD, a doctor at InnerBalance Health Center in Loveland, Colorado, interviewed on Healthline.com: “If people only work on their nutrition and the biochemical part of alcohol treatments but don’t work on things like their lifestyle and stress management skills, their chances of fixing their addictions are much less,” Dr. Billica said. “And, although some people may do OK without the biochemical repair approaches, combining all of these therapies significantly improves the odds of staying sober.”4

A person should always combine nutritional therapy with other addiction therapy treatments. These include treatments such as psychotherapy, participation in 12-step groups, or family therapy. Some people may also benefit from medication management, which is the use of medications to reduce cravings for drugs as well as medications to reduce the symptoms associated with drug withdrawal.

How Effective Is Nutritional Therapy?

According to an article in the journal “Drugs and Alcohol Today,” a brain that is well-nourished with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other elements of a healthy diet can reduce the symptoms associated with withdrawal in its early stages. 3 In addition to this benefit, the journal reported that a person has a better chance of achieving long-term recovery if they have a well-nourished brain.

Nutritional therapies can ideally boost a person’s chances for long-term recovery. According to William Billica, MD, a doctor at InnerBalance Health Center in Loveland, Colorado, interviewed on Healthline.com: “If you give the brain the nutrients it needs to get past biochemical and genetic deficiencies, inefficiencies, and blockages, people treated for addiction have a better chance of staying sober.”

While there are not a significant amount of large-scale (or even small-scale) studies to validate the use of nutritional therapies in substance abuse treatment, doctors do know there is a strong link between good nutrition and good health. Also, eating healthy is also unlikely to cause significant adverse side effects.

What Training Is Required for Staff for Nutritional Therapy?

Often, those who provide nutritional therapy are registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN). These professionals have completed at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition as well as coursework required by an accrediting body. 2 An example is the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Sometimes, an RDN will pursue specialty education certificates, which may include in caring for renal patients or patients with diabetes.

Dietitians are specially trained in the planning of meals to help a person with health problems (including addiction) to manage their conditions. They also may help to diagnose eating disorders and work with medical doctors and other psychiatric experts to help a person overcome their eating disorders.

While all RDNs are nutritionists, not all nutritionists are RDNs. A nutritionist may not have a bachelor’s degree, but have specialty certifications in nutrition. A person can also pursue additional education to become a certified nutrition specialist or CNS.

In addition to these specialists in nutrition, there are other medical disciplines that a person may choose to pursue related to eating healthy. Examples include medical doctors (MDs), doctors of osteopathy (DO), chiropractors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, naturopathic doctors, and those who have degrees in food and nutrition science and may pursue additional certifications. Chefs and other cooking-related specialists may also provide instructional classes on healthy eating and preparing healthy foods.

Where Can I Find Nutritional Therapy?

Many rehabilitation facilities may incorporate nutritional therapy into their services offered. Some may have a registered dietitian who can recommend meal planning and preparation tips. In addition, some organizations may offer healthy cooking classes that provide budget-friendly options for those who wish to learn more about how nutritional therapy can benefit them.

In addition to rehabilitation facilities, hospitals and community groups may offer nutritional therapy services. If a person does seek rehabilitation help, a case worker can often help a person identify experts that can help a person get the nutritional support and therapy they need.

How Can I Integrate Nutritional Therapy In My Life After Treatment?

According to “Psychology Today,” a typical “prescription” for nutritional therapy for a person in recovery may include some of the basic tenets:

  • Eating breakfast every day
  • Drinking at least 2 liters of water each day
  • Eating either a fruit or vegetable with a meal each day, and at least one serving of raw vegetables or fruit a day
  • Eating nuts, beans, or seeds with every meal or snack
  • Attending a cooking class and nutrition group at least once a week
  • Refraining from eating desserts only two times a week. Instead, a person can enjoy fresh fruit as a dessert.
  • Refraining from drinking beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners, such as sodas or energy drinks
  • Eating whole grains only, avoiding refined-grain breads
  • Avoiding fried or frozen foods

In addition to following these basic ideas, a person can also participate in nutritional counseling sessions. They can seek out community cooking classes that emphasize preparing healthy, whole foods. They can educate themselves on healthy eating through trusted websites like MyPlate.gov or the American Dietetics Association.

They can also ask their social worker or therapist for recommendations as to nutritionists or nutritional counselors in their area. A focus on nutrition and living a less anxious and stressful life can tremendously help a person in recovery. While nutritional therapy shouldn’t be the only approach to substance abuse treatment, it can be a beneficial one to those struggling with addiction.