Food as Medicine; Health and Well-Being in Recovery

The importance of a healthy diet to maintain long-term sobriety

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Addiction is a pervasive problem in the United States, but treatment recovery rates remain low. The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that 20.8 million people aged 12 or older meet the criteria for a substance abuse disorder, but only 1 in 10 of these people ever receive specialty treatment.i

People with substance abuse disorders are more likely to relapse when they have poor eating habits. Learning more about how food, health and well-being all play a role in continued sobriety is an essential part of recovery.

Importance of a Healthy Diet 

The role of nutrition in maintaining overall health is critical, and food choices made every day are an important part of leading a healthy lifestyle. Combined with physical activity, good nutrition can help support a healthy weight, lower the risk for chronic diseases and promote overall well-being.

Maintaining a healthy diet is important for everyone, but it is especially important for people dealing with a drug or alcohol use disorder who are progressing toward recovery. People moving through recovery need to keep their bodies nourished and strong enough to not only rebuild damaged organs, but also to withstand the stress that accompanies the recovery process.

Health Complications During Detox

The health issues associated with substance use and abuse can be extensive, but complications arising from detoxification can be equally dangerous. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), long-term health effects of drug abuse can include:

  • Gastrointestinal issues like constipation and nutritional deficiencies
  • Kidney damage
  • Lung disease
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Mental illness
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Hepatitisii

Potential long-term effects of alcohol abuse can include:

  • Liver damage that may result in cirrhosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Tolerance that can lead to over-consumption

Going through the detox process for drug or alcohol abuse can come with a whole other set of health complications. When it comes to the withdrawal stage, physical symptoms associated with opioid abuse can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Agitation
  • High blood pressure
  • Blurry vision
  • Weakness
  • Chills

Meanwhile, alcohol is a depressant, so health problems associated with detox are normally the result of over-stimulation from the brain. Typical symptoms include:

  • Tremors and a rapid pulse
  • Alcohol hallucinosis, or alcohol-related psychosis
  • Alcohol withdrawal seizures
  • Delirium tremens*

*Researchers from Harvard Medical School estimate that delirium tremens (or the DTs) occur in 1 out of every 20 people who are going through alcohol withdrawal.iii The condition causes a temporary state of confusion and dangerous shifts in breathing and blood flow to the brain. These symptoms can lead to heart attack, stroke or death.

Attempting self-detox from drugs or alcohol is a dangerous move, because the health complications associated with detoxification can be life-threatening. Choose a facility that provides continual medical monitoring, to help manage any possible withdrawal symptoms, when detoxing from drugs or alcohol.

The Role of Nutrition in Recovery

Maintaining a healthy diet can help people feel better both physically and mentally, and improvements in both of these areas can help to prevent relapse. Nutrients are the body’s source of energy, and the body needs these energy building blocks to strengthen the immune system and help to build and repair damaged organ tissue.

Beyond physical health, nutrition also plays a paramount role in mood regulation. Evidence suggests that changes in diet can affect brain structure both physiologically and chemically – and these alterations can have effects on behavior. Consumption of certain foods has been associated with increased serotonin and other neurotransmitters that help to enhance mood.

Some of these foods include:

  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Pineapples
  • Tofu
  • Salmon
  • Nuts and seeds

In some cases, people in the early stages of addiction treatment are unable to remember what it feels like to be hungry. They may mistake feelings of hunger for drug cravings and this could increase the likelihood for relapse. Frequent, healthy meals are the best way to help people avoid this issue.

Nutritional Tips and Tricks

Here are a few tips on how different nutritional habits can help to ease the health issues that may have arisen during addiction or detox:

Eat Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbs help to provide long-lasting energy, while simple carbohydrates can cause a spike and subsequent crash.

Lower Caffeine Intake

Excessive caffeine consumption can lead to dehydration and appetite suppression.

Increase Water Intake

Dehydration among people with addiction is common. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help avoid this.

Increase Protein and Fiber Intake

Eating more protein can help rebuild muscles that may have been damaged by malnutrition, while fiber helps to keep people feeling full.

Avoid Processed Foods

Processed foods lack nutritional value and usually are laden with unhealthy fats. Limiting sugar intake is also helpful, as processed, sugary foods can be addictive.

Lessons Learned While in Recovery

One study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, revealed a strong correlation between substance abuse treatment programs that offer nutrition education and enhanced substance abuse outcomes.iv Nutritional education plans in addiction treatment is much more than learning about healthy foods.

These education efforts are about learning how to manage general life skills and adopting healthy eating as part of a larger lifestyle change. Examples of valuable lessons learned while in recovery under the umbrella of nutritional education include the following:

Budget Planning

Creating and following a budget is an essential skill in both recovery and in life, especially when it comes to ensuring foods are both nutritious and affordable. Keeping track of money, meal planning and grocery shopping are all important tests for people in recovery, and learning the skills to pass these tests sets people up for continued success.

Food Preparation

Buying food and planning meals is important, but when it comes to actually preparing the food a whole other set of skills come into play. Learning to prepare food helps enhance organizational skills, stokes creativity and increases the ability to clean up after themselves. These skills help to keep them healthy and stand on their own two feet.

Community Meals with Peers

Community is an important part of a sustainable recovery, and breaking bread with peers can help to establish new, healthy relationships with people on a sober level. Developing relationships on the foundation of recovery helps support open and honest communication.

Taking Care of Yourself After Treatment 

Helping people in recovery learn how to take care of themselves after leaving treatment involves more than getting their physical health back on track. It also involves understanding the people, places and things that could ultimately push them back toward substance abuse. NIDA estimates that people recovering from drug addiction face a 40-60 percent relapse rate, compared with 30-50 percent among patients with type 1 diabetes and 50-70 percent of patients with hypertension.v

Avoiding relapse involves developing tools, coping skills and strength to make healthy choices. Improving social interactions is a major part of taking care of oneself following treatment. Subtracting the people who bring negative influences into the equation and trying to make amends with the people who may have been hurt as the result of the person’s addiction are both necessary steps.

Gaining confidence to take care of oneself and gaining independence is a necessary foundation for sustainable recovery. There are many things in life people do not have control over, but nutrition is an area where people can make their own choices and control their own outcomes.

References

i “Early Intervention, Treatment, and Management of Substance Use Disorders.” Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, US Department of Health and Human Services. https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/chapter-4-treatment.pdf

ii National Institute of Drug Abuse: Health Consequences of Drug Misuse https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/health-consequences-drug-misuse

iii Harvard Medical School: Alcohol Withdrawal
https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/alcohol-withdrawal-

iv Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes. Louise P. Grant, Betsy Haughton, Dileep S. Sachan. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004 Apr; 104(4): 604–610. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2004.01.008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15054346

v National Institute of Drug Abuse: Treatment and Recovery
https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

Summit Detox. Why a Healthy Diet is Important During Alcohol Detox. https://www.summitdetox.com/healthy-diet-important-alcohol-detox/

Transformations Treatment Center. Life Skills. https://www.transformationstreatment.center/treatment-options/life-skills/

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