Brain Foods for Addiction Recovery
Brain foods for addiction recovery can be a wonderful way of healing the addicted brain naturally.
As Hippocrates famously said:
‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’
This statement is so incredibly profound as we consider the natural healing properties of different foods.
Substance abuse and addiction causes untold damage to the brain. Which in turn, can have a huge impact on mood and on our ability to function.
Not only do the brains tissues and cells become damaged during addiction but lasting structural changes also occur.
Therefore, it is great news that there are many proven ways in which to heal the addicted brain organically. Brain foods beings one of them.
The complexity of the human brain
The human brain is a complex organ weighing an average of 3 pounds in an adult. The brain reaches full maturity at the age of 25, on average.
The brain consists of 60% fat with the remaining 40% constituting water, protein, carbohydrates and salts. Although the brain only weighs 2% of the body mass, it uses 25% of all of the body’s energy.
The health of our brain is so important as it literally controls every single part of us. Therefore, anything that can contribute to good brain health has to be a good thing. This is where brain foods for addiction recovery become an incredibly valuable tool in their own right.
Brain foods have the power to not only heal but to build a better and healthier brain.
Amongst its numerous functions, the brain is responsible for controlling and regulating:
- decision making
- information processing
- information gained from our senses
- motor skills
- communicating with and controlling the body
Our physical and emotional needs are met by our brains reward system. This is hardwired to ensure our survival. However, when an addiction develops, it hijacks the brains reward system. It takes over and changes it.
When your brain is healthy, it is programmed to reward healthy behaviours that feed and nourish your whole being. Healthy behaviours include eating, exercising, resting, sex, playing and learning. During addiction, your brain will have cast all of these aside to prioritise and reward whatever it was you were addicted to.
Coming into recovery from addiction, as well as learning new skills and coping strategies, brain foods can assist the recovery process.
Brain foods (whilst they cannot repair all of the damage) they can make a substantial impact on overall brain health. They can also improve how your brain communicates with your body and improve all of the functions listed above.
The brain-gut connection & its relevance to recovery
Brain foods can actually heal and enhance the brain-gut connection, something that is so important for those in addiction recovery.
The brain-gut connection is made possible by the vagus nerve which is the longest, most complex cranial nerve. It is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system oversees crucial bodily functions, such as immune response, digestion, heart rate and mood control.
Simply put, the brain and gut literally talk to each other. Have you ever noticed how you get a “gut feeling” or, how you may feel “butterflies” in your stomach before an important event ?
This is all due to the sensitive connection between our brain and gut. A person’s gut feeling can be either the cause or result of emotions, be it joy, anxiety or depression.
An important aspect of gut-brain-connection in relation to nutrition is that of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate our emotions and is widely thought to help reduce anxiety and depression.
Our gut is responsible for producing 90-95% of serotonin. The remaining, is produced in the pineal gland in the brain.
Serotonin affects how sensitive your gut is to feelings of fullness or pain after eating.
Brain foods high in serotonin are paramount not only to our brain health in addiction recovery but also for our gut health.
Serotonin rich brain foods for addiction recovery
Eating serotonin rich brain foods can improve our mood, something that is so very important during recovery from addiction.
If you ever notice your mood slipping, it can be helpful to boost your serotonin intake through the foods you consume. This can help both as a preventative and a healing measure in overcoming depression and anxiety.
Tryptophan-rich foods help to produce serotonin in your gut. If you eat meat and diary, it is suggested you ensure adequate tryptophan intake by including turkey, milk, cheese, canned tuna, and eggs in your diet.
Dairy free and meat free serotonin foods include Spirulina. Although I discussed the importance of spirulina in the superfood article, it is worth a further mention here.
Research published in 2018, found that Spirulina can be used as the main source of tryptophan supplementation when treating mental illness. Spirulina supplementation can help in managing and preventing mental illness. Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and ADHD. Not forgetting substance use disorders!.
Spirulina provides an excellent source of protein, lipids, minerals and vitamins and has strong antioxidant effects. Evidence suggests that Spirulina may be able to preserve our healthy gut bacteria also.
The importance of good gut bacteria
Good gut bacteria plays a crucial role in digestive health and therefore naturally impacts on brain health.
The general consensus now is that several diseases are thought to be influenced by certain processes in the gut involving bacteria, especially if inflammation is present. These diseases include autoimmune disorders such as MS, cancer, and certain mental health disorders.
Together with tryptophan, omega-3 fatty acid levels (found in high quantities in the human brain) can increase the levels of good bacteria in your gut. This can help to reduce your risk of the onset of an early cognitive decline.
Omega-3 is also responsible for building membranes around each cell in the body, including brain cells. They can therefore improve the structure of brain cells (neurons).
A study conducted in 2017, found that people tested with high levels of omega-3 showed increased blood flow in the brain and therefore had better cognition. Oily fish are a well-known source of omega-3. This includes salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel and sardines.
Another constituent that is beneficial to the gut-brain-connection is that of polyphenols. Polyphenol-rich foods could help increase your good bacteria and improve brain cognition.
Both omega-3 and polyphenols are considered critical brain foods. Together, they have the capacity to counteract oxidative stress and inflammation; the two main culprits of cognitive decline.
Happy Gut = Happy Brain
The walnut has been long heralded as on of the most powerful brain foods for addiction recovery brain health
Together with their high tryptophan content, walnuts are rich in alpha-linoleic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid. They also contain the highest levels of polyphenolic compounds than any other type of nut.
Vascular dementia is a specific type of dementia caused by a poorly oxygenated brain. Because walnuts are also rich in vitamin B6, which helps supply the brain with adequate oxygen, this could help to prevent the onset of disease. Vitamin B6 also helps the body to form haemoglobin as well as helping the body to use and store energy.
Walnuts are also high in antioxidants and vitamin E, both of which are key in preventing oxidative stress in the body. The brain is the most vulnerable to oxidative stress as it consumes 20% of our body’s oxygen.
The importance of B vitamins for those in recovery from addiction
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) deficiency has also been found to result in depression and anxiety. In fact, all the B vitamins have been found to play a profound role in brain health.
Vitamin B1 is found in brain tissue. B1 deficiency is a well recognised factor in the development of brain diseases associated with alcoholism. Alcohol misuse depletes vitamin B1 in the body and prevents its optimum absorption.
If you have ever suffered from alcoholism, it is even more crucial to ensure that your levels of B1 are restored to where they should be.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause you to suffer a spectrum of mental illnesses, ranging from depression to severe psychological disturbances.
Research has shown that B12 and folic acid deficiency are frequently present in patients who suffer from a psychiatric illness. It is so important to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of these vitamins in protecting your own mental health in addiction recovery.
All eight B-vitamins play a key role in brain function and so should be factored into diet wherever possible. If this feels an overwhelming prospect, there are plenty of supplementations around that can help. Just ensure that source your B vitamins from a doctor or a reputable health retailer.
Vitamins for good brain health & recovery
Not everyone is keen on eating greens, however, Broccoli, is a vegetable that is amazing for good brain health. Broccoli contains vitamins B1, B6, B9 (folate) and B12 making it a nourishing brain food.
Broccoli also contains sulforaphane, a constituent that is being studied by scientists for its apparent ability to ‘shift’ brain chemicals. Potentially it could be used in the treatment of schizophrenia for example.
Broccolis rich vitamin and sulforaphane content make it onto my list of best brain foods.
Another good source of B-vitamins are eggs. Eggs are high in vitamins vitamin B6, B9 (folate) and B12. All of which play a crucial part in preventing the cognitive decline associated with depression and dementia.
Resveratrol is a plant-based antioxidant making it an important brain nourishing compound. This can be found in red grapes, peanuts, pistachios, blueberries and cocoa and has been found beneficial to the brain.
Clinical trials found that resveratrol was able to improve cognitive blood flow, potentially preventing a cognitive decline which may result in Alzheimer’s.
Superfoods - Their role in preventing brain disease in addiction recovery
Blueberries, and indeed all berries are seen as a “superfoods”. Wild blueberries in particular are extremely high in antioxidants. These antioxidants are especially beneficial to the brain. They reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Antioxidants are also said to improve the communication between brain cells, as well as increasing plasticity. This helps the brain cells form new connections, thereby improving memory. They could also help to prevent the onset of age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
No brain food article would be complete without mentioning mushrooms. Mushrooms, particularly Reishi and Lion’s mane, may reduce neuro-inflammation and the development of beta-amyloid plaque that drives Alzheimer’s and Dementia. These mushrooms can also assist in treating fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and mood changes.
If you haven't heard of Reishi mushrooms you can learn more about them in my superfoods article. They are well worth considering for their neuroprotective effects.
In studies, Lions mane mushrooms have been shown to help prevent Dementia, Alzheimer’s, MS and nerve damage. This is why it has been named ‘nature’s nutrient for the neurones’.
A word of caution if you have never tried these wonderful medicinal mushrooms before. Over-consumption may cause diarrhoea or stomach cramps. It is a good idea to start slowly and build up your dose with the advice of a healthcare professional.
Keep your brain hydrated
A final note on brain food and the importance of water intake. Of course, it is not a food but it is equally as important as the foods mentioned above for optimum brain health.
Many of the nutrients we consume dissolve in water (especially B-vitamins). This is so they can be easily absorbed in the digestive tract. Drinking enough water helps to ensure that you are actually absorbing what you are putting into your body. Water plays such a vital role in our overall health and is key to keeping cells active and healthy.
Prolonged dehydration can cause brain cells to shrink in size and mass. A common condition which results in decreased mental clarity, occasionally referred to as ‘brain fog’ can be caused by not drinking enough water.
Here's to good brain health in addiction recovery
In conclusion, the foods discussed above are by no means the only foods beneficial to brain health. Different authorities will cite their own favourites.
There is no doubt however, whether you are a vegan or meat eater, incorporating as much variety as possible into your diet will ensure an abundance of the vitamins and minerals that your brain, and body will thank you for.
Wishing you all good health!
Authors - Debbie/Sam
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