Addiction to any substance changes how a person interacts with food. The new relationship with nutrition has far-reaching effects on the body that can disrupt a person’s ability to stay healthy and sober. Until now, few treatment programs have given nutrition the attention it deserves as a significant part of recovery. By learning how food affects the recovery process, you’ll gain another tool to help you build a strong foundation in recovery from addiction.
How Substance Abuse Disrupts Nutrition
Substance abuse can affect nutrition in many different ways, and some of them depend on the substance used. The following are the most common disruptions caused by addiction.
1. Failing to Eat
Many drugs cause appetite suppression. People who use heroin, for example, usually have very little interest in eating during active periods of use. They tend to eat very infrequently, which deprives their bodies of the minimum nutritional requirements for healthy function. Once in treatment and in the beginning of recovery, many people struggle to control their newly-activated appetite and may even worry about becoming overweight.
Choosing Poor Foods
Many people in the grip of addiction simply lose the motivation to cook. Instead, they opt for quick and convenient fast foods or survive on snacks. These foods might meet caloric requirements, but they also tend to be laden with sugar and salt. Too much sodium in the diet has serious effects like high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Few people know that excess sodium can actually pull calcium from bone, weakening it significantly over time.
Sugar is also a culprit in cardiovascular disease, so combining it with sodium is one of the quickest ways to harm your heart.
3. Eating Too Much
Some people overeat while intoxicated. This is particularly common with alcohol and marijuana. A person can quickly put on a lot of excess pounds when engaging in binge eating, and that comes with many health risks. People who develop obesity are at a markedly increased risk for all causes of death in addition to:
- Coronary heart disease
- Gallbladder disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Mental illness
- Sleep apnea
- Type 2 diabetes
Becoming overweight also makes it harder to exercise, which is a key element in staying healthy during recovery.
The Effects of Specific Substances on Nutrition
In addition to general influencing behaviors that result in inadequate nutrition, addiction interferes with nutrition on a chemical level. Different drugs affect the body in different ways, leading to unique deficiencies.
Chronic use of opioids disrupts the balance of fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals that are necessary to properly digest carbohydrates. This results in tiredness and lethargy as the body is not absorbing enough energy to fuel its regular function. People in recovery from opioids need to re-balance their diets by adding more whole grains, vitamins and proteins to facilitate the efficient absorption of carbs.
Opioid withdrawal is also a source of nutritional problems. The symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting, which deprive the individual of most of the nutrients they may have consumed. This is part of the reason why medically-supervised detoxification is necessary to keep people healthy as they go through withdrawal from opioids.
Stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines work in the brain to suppress appetite. They essentially turn down the volume on the desire to eat, while at the same time producing feelings of increased energy. This causes users to expend more energy while taking in fewer energy sources, leading to effects like:
- Muscle wasting
- Immune system suppression
- Impaired wound healing
Stimulants are also linked to increased oxidative stress, which can have a severe impact on the body’s ability to absorb what little nutrients are available.
Alcohol has extreme effects on the digestive system. It directly irritates the lining of the stomach, causing it to produce more acid than normal. Chronic drinking can trigger inflammation of the stomach lining called gastritis, which causes stomach pain as well as vomiting and diarrhea.
Once alcohol moves to the small intestine, it causes harm by killing off the mucosal lining and the beneficial bacteria that break down food and absorb its nutrients. Alcohol also reduces the muscle movements that keep food in place for complete digestion, but it doesn’t stop the muscles that move food through the intestine afterward. This is partially the reason people addicted to alcohol experience diarrhea frequently. Those with an alcohol addiction often have a reduced capacity to absorb:
- Folic acid
- Vitamin B12
Without these nutrients being absorbed properly, those who abuse alcohol often experience symptoms like chronic fatigue and mental confusion.
The Role of Nutrition During Recovery
Both the body and mind are adversely affected by the nutritional deficiencies that result from substance abuse. During recovery, you’ll use nutrition to accomplish several goals.
- Repair your body: A healthy, balanced diet will help undo some of the damage to major bodily systems after a sustained period of drug or alcohol abuse.
- Defend your immune system: Most people in recovery have an immune system that’s been compromised to some degree. The right nutrition will help support immune health.
- Increase your energy: Recovery is an intense process that takes energy to commit to. With proper nutrition, you’ll feel more prepared to keep taking the next steps in your journey.
- Improve your mood: Staying sober is easier when you feel happy and positive. When your body is getting all the nutrients it needs, your emotional state will improve.
All of these effects together will result in a happier, healthier person who can better engage in therapy and other treatments. Proper nutrition is also essential in facilitating one of the most important aspects of recovery — exercise.
Exercise has been proven to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, which most people struggle with during the early days of recovery. It also helps build a routine that keeps people healthy in the long term. However, exercising with proper form and intensity just isn’t possible when you’re feeling fatigued due to a lack of nutrients in your diet.
How Nutrients Affect the Body
There are two types of nutrients we need. Macronutrients are the ones we need in large quantities, and micronutrients we only need a little bit of. Macronutrients that provide energy to the body are:
Fiber and water are also macronutrients that don’t provide us with energy but are still necessary for our bodies to function properly. Micronutrients are the ones that people with addiction are often most deficient in. These have a range of functions in the body that are impaired when someone isn’t getting enough.
- Potassium: Regulates energy and keeps the nervous system and heart healthy.
- Sodium: Helps regulate energy and is important for nerve function.
- Calcium: Supports muscle, heart and digestive health as well as synthesizes blood cells.
- Magnesium: Necessary for muscle movement and facilitates the work of hundreds of enzymes.
- Zinc: Helps regulate the nervous system and immune system.
- Iron: Necessary for proteins and enzymes, and facilitates oxygen transfer in the blood.
Vitamins are essential as well. There are 13 known vitamins, all of which play roles in multiple body systems. Vitamins B12, C, D and E play important roles in everything from cognition to the health of your skin and hair.
Stages of Nutrition in Recovery
There are multiple phases you will go through where nutrition plays a role in your treatment and recovery. First, you’ll need to undergo detoxification to get all of the drugs out of your system. The more severe your addiction, the more likely it is that you’ll experience powerful withdrawal symptoms that can interfere with your body processing and absorbing the nutrients in food. In this stage, nutrition is more about replacing the nutrients your body is losing at a rapid clip. Your treatment may include things like an IV drip to replenish electrolytes and supplements for nutrients such as B12.
Once you’ve stabilized, the real work of recovery begins. As you explore different types of therapy, you’ll also work on stabilizing your nutrition. Some treatment programs offer nutritional counseling as an important part of the process. This phase is about building up consistent levels of nutrients through good dietary choices. If you are in a residential treatment program, you can learn a lot from the meals provided. If you’re in outpatient treatment, more of the task of learning about how to eat properly will fall to you.
After your program is over and you’re taking your first steps into independent recovery, nutrition is all about maintaining the healthy habits you learned and implemented in treatment. It’s not always easy to follow a diet plan, especially during your first few months of independent sobriety. Consistency and commitment are key to staying healthy.
Establishing a Nutrition Program
If you’re participating in a treatment program with a nutritional element, you’ll receive a lot of helpful guidance from your counselor. Here are five of the top tips for meeting your nutritional needs during recovery.
1. Establish a Routine
Addiction almost always results in people throwing out their previous eating routines. Someone struggling with addiction is more focused on their next opportunity for substance abuse than eating at set and consistent times. Your appetite will likely go through some fluctuations in the beginning of recovery, which can make it challenging to stick to a set schedule. However, creating the habit and eating at the established times even when you don’t feel like it is necessary to maintain nutrition levels.
If it’s difficult to eat at a set time, you don’t have to go all-out with a full meal each time. Even eating a small snack like an apple or a handful of baby carrots will help you get used to the schedule as well as provide you with good nutrients.
2. Cut Out Sugar
Sugar is highly addictive, and many people turn to sugary foods for comfort while working to maintain their sobriety. Excess sugar consumption is common in those recovering from alcoholism, as blood sugar drops when alcohol use ceases. This can lead to blood sugar spikes that affect mood, making people feel anxious and stressed and therefore more likely to experience cravings.
It’s okay to have a treat once in a while, but avoiding sugar as much as possible help maintain emotional stability. When possible, indulge your sweet tooth in fruit rather than a candy bar or something similar.
3. Minimize Caffeine
While caffeine isn’t an intoxicant, it does alter the way we feel in a manner many people find pleasurable. People in recovery may start over-indulging in coffee, leading to blood sugar crashes after consumption. Along with sugar, caffeine intake should be limited — especially in the early days of recovery. One cup of coffee should be the maximum.
4. Focus on Vitamins and Minerals
Nutrition programs for those in recovery focus less on calorie counts and more on the amount of vitamins and minerals consumed. However, it just so happens that the foods highest in vitamins and minerals are also some of the lowest in calories. Fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens, are packed full of nutrients at low-calorie cost, so you can eat them to your heart’s content without worrying about weight gain. Other important sources of vitamins and minerals include:
- Fresh fish
- Lean meat
While it’s optimal to get all your vitamins and minerals from food, there’s nothing wrong with using supplements to ensure you’re getting enough.
5. Choose Easily-Digested Foods
Alcohol and opioid abuse are particularly harmful to the gastrointestinal system. Those who abuse opioids frequently suffer from constipation which turns to diarrhea once the person has detoxed. Users of both substances may find that a normal diet results in nausea, diarrhea and a feeling of bloating. To counteract this, choose foods that are high in fiber. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are excellent high-fiber choices that can be easily digested. One of the easiest ways to incorporate more fiber is to choose oatmeal over cereal for breakfast, and ensure that either lunch or dinner prominently features a high-fiber vegetable.
Nutrition for Long-Term Success
Successful recovery is based on a multitude of factors, with nutrition being a crucial one. Anyone who has struggled with addiction knows the profound impact made by what you choose to put in your body. Understanding how nutrition helps recovery, choosing healthy foods consistently and creating routines you stick to can help reverse some of the damage drugs or alcohol have done to your health.
Eating well will help you feel better, faster during and after completing an addiction treatment program. Good nutrition along with exercise and a strong aftercare plan is also the cornerstone of stable sobriety once you’re living independently again.
If you have questions about addiction treatment and recovery, Tranquil Shores is ready to provide answers. Our treatment programs offer a range of lengths for your stay and evidence-based treatment methods that provide you with the tools you need to succeed. To find out more about our addiction treatment programs, call us at (727) 591-4119 or fill out our contact form to take the next steps toward recovery.