The Role of Diet and Nutrition in Addiction Recovery

Substance use disorder (or SUD; a term that covers both substance abuse and addiction) has profound negative effects not just on a person’s mental health, but also their physical well-being as well. People with severe SUD do not often consider a healthy diet to be a priority. As a result, many people entering rehab also suffer from malnutrition in addition to SUD. 

Diet and nutrition have played a key part in addiction recovery for almost as long as rehabs have existed. Even before we developed our modern understanding of nutrition, most cultures the world over have made connections between one’s diet and their physical state. Virtually all cultures describe certain foods as being beneficial for certain illnesses and conditions, and it wasn’t too great a leap to apply the same thinking when we started treating people suffering from the ravages of alcohol or other substances.

This initial application of better diets in palliative care, while crude, served to lay the foundation for modern nutritional practices as we know them. Today, virtually all residential alcohol and drug rehab centers in Dallas include better nutrition as part of treatment and most outpatient programs will recommend more balanced diets as well. More than ever, eating a proper diet is being given more importance in addiction care.

Why the new emphasis on nutrition?

The role of diet and nutrition in SUD treatment has gained more attention recently due to the challenges of the American Opioid Epidemic, specifically the cost of treatment. 

Scaling up rehab programs to address the issue has proven to be expensive. As a result, policymakers are turning to safe, easily-scaled interventions that have the potential to synergistically work with mainstream psychotherapy and medication-assisted therapy.

Nutrition, along with exercise and meditative practices, has received plenty of hype in rehab circles in the past decade. Aside from the emergence of recent studies touting their benefits, these practices are all cheap to implement and easily be applied to large group settings, something that is especially important given that rehab programs have had to contend with shrinking budgets over the past few generations. 

It’s not just rehab programs that are excited over recent developments either. Individuals in their post-rehab recovery phase may also welcome having affordable but effective ways to maximize the gains from their current therapeutic approaches. Changing one’s diet is is an especially accessible option, as both knowledge and access to healthy food options has generally improved in recent years.

How a better diet benefits addiction recovery

Of course, the low cost of better nutrition ultimately means nothing if it does not have a positive effect on recovery. Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence to support emphasizing better nutrition throughout the recovery process. Below are a few ways a better diet can make addiction recovery a less difficult process.

1.) Promotes the growth of new cells

As mentioned earlier, people with severe SUD usually also have problems with malnutrition. Malnutrition often leads to all sorts of physical problems, which can make it hard for anyone to focus on their recovery. Many of these health problems are related to premature cell and tissue degeneration that comes with an unhealthy diet.

Today, drug and alcohol rehab programs that invest in better nutritive practices will often include foods rich in protein and essential nutrients for regenerating cells and rebuilding damaged tissue, rather than the carbs and sugars that have come to characterize the junk foods many of us reach for.

Additionally, foods rich in antioxidants, such as most fruits and vegetables, are likely to be included as part of a healthy SUD recovery diet. Antioxidants are chemical compounds used by our bodies for regeneration and eating foods rich in these compounds can serve to delay further damage to our cells. They are also a crucial nutrient for our immune systems and are important for our bodies’ detoxification process.

2.) Prevents excessive weight loss or weight gain

Substance misuse can cause erratic eating patterns or contribute to existing eating problems. Opioids and methamphetamines, for example, are notorious for suppressing appetites, leading to a characteristically gaunt appearance over time. Alcohol consumption can also cause some people to increase their intake of fatty, starchy, and fried foods, which can cause weight gain over time. People may also binge eat immediately after coming off a high, which can be unsustainable in older people.

Getting into a healthy diet can help offset many of these dietary issues, not only during the early part of recovery but also later on, when drug or alcohol cravings are no longer as strong. 

Many people who have recovered from SUD often start to develop better appetites, which is usually a good thing. However, if left unchecked, this can also be problematic, leading to excessive weight gain, diabetes, and other related conditions. Thus, making a healthy diet a priority early on can also help prevent this from happening.

3.) May help stabilize mood

There is strong evidence linking diets rich in fat, sugar, and simple carbohydrates to depression and anxiety, along with other mental health issues. Depression and anxiety, in particular, can wreak havoc on our mental resilience, which in turn can leave us more vulnerable to a relapse. Foods that are more nutritively balanced can, therefore, make it easier to avoid a relapse, at least in the greater scheme of things.

It’s also worth noting that most junk foods are also poor in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that is found in plants as well as in our brains. This chemical is important for allowing us to feel relaxed. It’s notably the compound in coffee that helps you feel relaxed even as the caffeine makes you jittery.

People recovering from SUD tend to have low levels of GABA, which not only contributes to irritability and anxiety but also adds to sleeplessness, which in turn, raises the risk for additional depressant misuse.

Thankfully, coffee is not the only source of GABA. Healthy foods like beans, lentils, nuts, mushrooms, seafood, green tea, and yogurt, all contain GABA in appreciable quantities. You may want to stock up on these types of foods during SUD recovery further reduce the odds of a relapse.

Conclusion

Contrary to what you might expect, improving diet and nutrition should be given about as much importance in addiction treatment as counseling and medication-assisted therapy. 

While the value of better nutrition may not be immediately apparent, it can help set a recovering individual up for long-term success, putting them in a better position to make use of any gains they made through other mainstream interventions. 

Given that, in the great scheme of things, eating more nutritious meals costs far less than an extended stint in rehab or future medical bills for lifestyle-related illnesses, it’s something anyone in recovery should consider doing.

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