“Although we all eat, few really think about what we are eating and what it can do to our bodies. We rely on very incomplete, simplistic, and often incorrect bits of nutritional “knowledge” in making our food choices, and we expect our bodies to cope with whatever we give them. In recovery, this kind of behavior simply doesn’t cut it.”
~Dr. Joseph D. Beasley, MD, and Susan Knightly, Food for Recovery: The Complete Nutritional Companion for Recovering from Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, and Eating Disorders
One important element of healing from addiction and a successful return to sobriety that is often overlooked is proper nutrition.
During active addiction, unhealthy eating habits are the rule, not the exception. A constant diet of fat-, salt-, sugar-, and preservative-laden processed and fast food, combined with a cycle of either overeating or not eating at all inevitably leads to vitamin and mineral deficiencies and host of health problems.
The smartest thing a person can do for their current and future health is to quit abusing alcohol and/or drugs, but there may still be a lot of damage that needs to heal.
That means the second-smartest thing a person in recovery from a substance abuse disorder can do for their health is to start paying attention to what they put in their body.
Alcoholism and Nutrition-Related Maladies
“There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages in humans… Alcoholic beverages are carcinogenic to humans.”
~The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization
Alcohol is a co-carcinogen, meaning it promotes cancer growth. Some of the cancers associated with alcohol include:
- Breast cancer – just one drink a day can increase a woman’s risk by 13%.
- Colon cancer – one drink per day increases the risk by 70%.
- Pancreatic and Liver cancer – heavy drinkers experience a 36% increased risk.
- People who both smoke and drink have a cancer risk that is 35X GREATER than those who do neither
Many nutritional scientists believe that diet may cause 40%-70% of all cancers. Eating foods with the proper nutrients replaces what was lost during active addiction or alcoholism, and that may be the main factor when it comes to developing or avoiding certain other diseases and conditions, such as:
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also known as “wet brain disease”
- Adrenal Fatigue
- Leaky Gut Syndrome
What Changes Can I Make to My Diet to Improve My Health and Support My Recovery from Addiction?
Most people just starting out in substance abuse recovery suffer lingering withdrawal symptoms, including disturbances in their sleeping patterns and memory/concentration difficulties. A healthy diet can aid in the alleviation of these symptoms and even speed up the withdrawal process.
Drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs that incorporate nutritional strategies can help restore biochemical balance, correct nutritional deficiencies, and aid with digestive problems. These improvements will increase and stabilize energy levels, mood, mental clarity, and sleep.
- Foods to restore biochemical balance – Amino acids are important to the manufacture of neurotransmitters that can affect mood, memory, mind, and behavior. Concentrate on high-protein foods that contain tryptophan, such as:
- Meats and seafood
- Sesame, sunflower, cashews, or pumpkin seeds
- Almonds or hazelnuts
- Foods to combat hypoglycemia – The best way to eliminate the low blood sugar “crashes” associated with alcoholism or drug addiction is to have a regular stream of healthy sugars entering the body, primarily through complex carbohydrates:
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole-grain bread and cereals
- Foods to eliminate adrenal fatigue – Your adrenal glands regulate your mental efficiency, your mood, and even your personality. Eat regular meals – ESPECIALLY breakfast – that contain:
- Whole grains
- Plenty of vegetables
- Healthy oils
People with adrenal fatigue should also avoid processed sugar, refined carbohydrates, chocolate, caffeine, hydrogenated fats, and other junk food.
- Foods to help with vitamin and mineral deficiencies – Vitamins and minerals work together to promote various biochemical functions within the body.
- Zinc (Liver, brain, immune system) – oysters, shrimp, beef round steak, lamb, potatoes, peas, parsley, and ginger
- Chromium (blood glucose levels) – whole-grain wheat and rye, cornmeal, shellfish, brewer’s yeast
- Calcium/Magnesium (mood) – dairy products, almonds, leafy vegetables, kelp, seafood, molasses
- Iron (fatigue, memory, depression) – liver, red meat, oysters, eggs, beans
- Potassium (liver and adrenal glands) – bananas, oranges, sunflower seeds, potatoes
- Selenium (liver) – smoked herring, butter, bran, wheat germ, eggs
- Vitamin C (brain function and detoxification) – citrus fruits, tomatoes, green peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage
- B-complex vitamins (mood stabilization, mental clarity, and using of cravings) – potatoes, chili peppers, beans, molasses, brewer’s yeast, tempeh
Can Nutritional Supplements Help with My Recovery from Addiction?
“…an oversupply of nutrients is necessary at the start of a recovery program because the body is so thoroughly depleted both of nutrients and of the ability to digest and absorb nutrients correctly.”
~Rebecca Place Miller, Nutrition in Addiction Recovery
Many nutritional experts believe that merely “eating right” at the start of a program of recovery from addiction is insufficient – in some cases, it takes up to 10 weeks before the body can start absorbing nutrients from food correctly.
For this reason, nutritional supplements are recommended, with two caveats:
- ALWAYS discuss any nutritional supplements with your doctor.
- Nutritional supplements should be used IN COMBINATION with a healthy diet, not INSTEAD of it.
Are There Any Other Changes I Should Make to My Eating Habits to Help My Recovery from Addiction?
There are several “Best Practices” that a person in addiction recovery should develop as habits to aid with hunger, cravings, and most importantly, to help them adhere to a diet that is supportive of their regained health and continued sobriety.
- NEVER skip breakfast – Eating every morning will “program” your body to expect FOOD – not alcohol or drugs – at the start of the day. Beginning your day with a proper meal also maintained your energy level, mood, and helps you avoid hunger pangs that can be mistaken for drug/alcohol cravings.
- ALWAYS have healthy drinks and snacks close at hand –This is critically important. When you get hungry during the day, learn to recognize it for what is – hunger, not craving for some intoxicating substance. Satisfy the hunger with a quick, healthy snack.
Fruit, granola bars, nuts, or yogurt are all energy sources that can conveniently be taken anywhere. They also keep you from making not-so-healthy choices like fast food or junk food from vending machines.
- Plan for success – Many people in early keep a busy schedule revolving around their recovery, so the only way to maintain healthy choices during the day is by planning ahead – packing a lunch, bringing along snacks, staying away from fast food places, etc.
Eating right during recovery from addiction doesn’t have to be an unpleasant chore. Think of it instead as an investment in your own health. And, you don’t have to do it alone – the best substance abuse recovery programs will include nutritional therapy, education, and counseling.