The Effects of the ‘Addiction diet’ on the Brain & Body
Proper nutrition is fundamental for anyone, but the importance of nutrition in addiction recovery is especially vital.
We know all too well about the visible damage that comes from addiction. The external losses become glaringly obvious once recovery begins. Though we tend to focus on the more blatant effects of a lifestyle of substance abuse, there are many invisible monsters hiding in the closet of addiction, creating changes that aren’t so visible.
In recovery from addiction, our focus tends to be on understanding our behaviors, correcting harmful thought patterns, and learning new ways of dealing with painful emotions. What we don’t hear about enough is just how important nutrition is during this time as well, and just how deeply our bodies have been affected by ongoing substance misuse.
When in the throes of addiction, our dietary habits are low on the list of priorities. We grab what we can when we can. Often choosing the wrong foods or skipping meals altogether.
The good news is, we can repair the damage to our bodies and even heal our brains by maintaining healthy nutrition in addiction recovery.
The Power of Nutrition in Addiction Recovery
Studies indicate that the prevalence of malnutrition in addiction is common . A study published by the British Journal of Nutrition found that 74% of drug addicts were experiencing nutrient deficiency, and that over 60% of addicts were suffering from malnutrition .
Proper nutrition contributes to how we feel, how we sleep, and even to how our brain functions. It affects our energy levels and our mood - two things that can feel particularly unstable during recovery. Just because we are in recovery doesn’t automatically mean we start making the right choices around our diet. Often, the choices we make are influenced by years of habit. Other times, it is simply because we do not know any better.
The good news is that physical recovery from addiction is possible. In its simplest form, mindful eating habits and good nutrition can go a long way in restoring balance in both body and mind. Prioritising sound nutrition in addiction recovery can provide you with a foundation for long-lasting change.
Before we jump into how to repair the damage of addiction through diet, let's take a look at some of the damage that drug and alcohol use does to the body.
Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Body
Throughout the course of addiction, there are many different elements that cause nutritional deficiencies and internal damage to the body.
Malnutrition in addiction can happen for the following reasons:
Vitamin deficiency in addiction happens as a result of ongoing drug and alcohol use. The immune system can become compromised due to substance abuse, as your body is deficient in the necessary vitamins and minerals to build and maintain strong immunity. Chronic substance use can also cause deficiencies in calcium, zinc, and magnesium .
Important B-Vitamins Don’t Get Absorbed
Consistent substance use inhibits the absorption of essential B vitamins, including thiamine, folate, and cobalamin (aka Vitamin B12). A lack of B vitamins can lead to anemia, which can cause you to feel drained, weak, and even dizzy. Lack of B vitamins can also contribute to neurological problems, like Wernicke-Korsakoff. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a disease that occurs due to a lack of thiamine, or Vitamin B1. The importance of thiamine is crucial for those recovering from alcohol use disorder, as ongoing alcohol use diminishes the body’s supply of thiamine .
Alcohol use takes a huge toll on the liver and the pancreas, which are part of the digestive system. The liver, when healthy, works to break down and store certain vitamins and minerals. The pancreas works to regulate blood sugar. Alcohol use prevents nutrients from being absorbed, even if nutrients are consumed. The effects of alcohol use on the liver and pancreas also result in an imbalance of protein, electrolytes, and calories within the body .
GI Tract Issues
Ongoing opiate use causes damage to the gastrointestinal tract, causing issues with constipation. One study indicated that 80% of individuals struggling with opiate use disorder suffer from constipation . GI damage can also cause leaky gut syndrome and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Unsteady Insulin Levels
Opiate use also adversely affect insulin levels. One study indicated that “fasting insulin levels were found to be four times higher in heroin addicts than in control subjects .”
Excess dopamine production from opiate use can also lead to appetite suppression, which causes you to consume less food and therefore, less nutrients .
Brain’s Reward Pathways Are Disrupted
During active addiction, the brain’s reward pathways are altered and disrupted due to the presence of the substances. Connections between different parts of the brain become “disrupted” due to addiction .
Optimal Nutrition in Addiction Recovery: What to Eat
Fortunately, it is possible to help repair the damage active addiction causes physically, through diet. Here are some of the best foods to help the body and brain heal.
Complex carbohydrates help your digestive system recover with much-needed fiber. These carbs digest slowly over time, which helps you feel satisfied. Some examples of complex carbs are sweet potatoes, whole wheat bread, quinoa, and beans. Prioritize complex carbs over simple carbs, such as white bread and sugar .
Poultry and fish contain the amino acid tyrosine which contributes to dopamine and norepinephrine production . Some other protein-rich foods containing tyrosine are cottage cheese, yogurt, turkey, and almonds . Tofu is a high protein, low-fat food that can assist in the physical recovery from addiction by helping to repair the damage done to the liver .
Healthy fats help contribute health nutrition in addiction recovery. They also assist brain function, healthy immune function, and the absorption of vital vitamins and minerals . Some foods that contain healthy fats are fish, avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
It’s important to get enough calcium in, whether it’s in the form of dairy or other sources such as kale or tofu. One study indicated that many individuals who struggle with substance use are low in calcium, which is a major contributor towards pain and muscular disorders while in detox .
Vegetables are a staple for having sound nutrition in addiction recovery. They provide the body with the vitamins and minerals that it needs to return to a healthy state and function optimally. Eating vegetables can also help to relieve constipation, and filling up on vegetables can help you feel fuller for longer .
Fiber, whether it’s in the form of whole grains, fruit, or leafy greens and vegetables, is imperative when it comes to healing the digestive system .
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Foods that are rich in Omega-3’s, such as fish and flax seeds, help increase dopamine production in the brain . Speak with your doctor about the possibility of taking supplements such as fish oil, to assist in the journey towards healing.
Drink plenty of water is such an important part of nutrition in addiction recovery!. Your body needs fluids, so be mindful of consuming coffee and soda, which may contribute to dehydration .
Foods that are high in fiber, filled with protein and complex carbohydrates, and are rich in vitamins and minerals are some of the best foods for recovering addicts and will help you on your way towards physical recovery from addiction.
Maintaining Mindful Nutrition in Addiction Recovery
It is important to be mindful of nutrition in addiction recovery and of overeating. It can be easy to replace the habit of using substances with the habit of eating. Doing this can lead to additional health problems in itself
Sometimes a craving for food can be mistaken for a craving for alcohol or drugs. It is common, especially in early recovery, to forget what it feels like to feel hungry, and to confuse this feeling with a craving for substances . The best way to prevent this from happening is to eat 3 to 4 healthy and satisfying meals throughout the day, being mindful not to skip meals.
Drug and alcohol use wreaks havoc on the mind, body, and spirit. The road to recovery is filled with twists and turns, peaks and lows. Remember, as always, to give yourself grace on your journey and to be easy on yourself. The damage to your body didn’t happen overnight, so the healing won’t either.
With time and consistency, you can help to fight the invisible monsters. As well as healing psychologically from the past, it is also possible to repair the physical damage caused by substance abuse and poor diet.
Taking control of what you eat and emphasising your nutrition in addiction recovery can ultimately help assist the whole healing from the inside out process. It is an important aspect that is all too frequently overlooked. You can learn more about nutrition from our Nutritionist Melissa Kuman who delivers regular classes and healthy recipes within our Wellness hub.
Author - Thurga