For former substance addicts, the road to recovery is long and winding one. Amidst an array of challenges both mental and physical, recovering substance addicts need to rid their bodies of varying degrees of substances, naturally occurring bodily chemicals that have got out of normal balance and external toxins (drugs and alcohol), often through detox or structured reduction/withdrawal plan in a residential detox facility or at home with a reduction plan, MAT program or going “cold turkey. However this isn’t recommended as it can be fatal with certain substances such as alcohol and benzodiazepines among others.
Your overall health and the medication you’re on can also cause complications if they aren’t done and managed correctly.
What is much less publicised for those in recovery is the need for proper nutrition, diet, education, knowledge and the development of a healthy eating regiment. It is often overlooked, neglected or under-prioritised, yet is a crucial step in the process of repairing the damage done over months or years of substance abuse and in turn, abuse of our own bodies and minds which need to be healed, recovered and maintained as you go through your lifelong recovery journey.
So… What Does It All Mean?
Words and terms can get confusing if you’re not used to looking after your diet and nutrition.
Nutrition refers to “the act or process of nourishing or being nourished”. To be nourished, to have good nutrition means getting appropriate amounts of nutrients (i.e. protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water) and making sure you have a balanced and varied range of items that can provide you with all of the specific nutrients mentioned above.
Diet refers to the variety of food and drinks you regularly consume to receive the nutrients from those varied items you eat.
The Weight Of Drug & Alcohol Use
Drug and alcohol addiction harms the body in three ways. First, the drugs and alcohol directly damages the functions of the body. Secondly, addiction influences habits and behaviours such as sporadic eating and poor nutrition that impairs our body and thirdly, the substances changes and damages our brains by altering the structure of our brains, the way they work, our thinking and our ability to avoid or develop mental health conditions.
The findings charted above may appear counterintuitive: stimulant drugs such as amphetamines are associated with a greater prevalence of overweight or obese BMI classifications than other substances studied, even though these drugs have been prescribed in the past for weight loss.
Opioid drugs with depressant effects, such as heroin and morphine, trend toward a greater likelihood that their users will be underweight.
Which Processes Are Behind This?
Opiate and heroin use can be linked to nausea and vomiting, serious organ damage over time and general neglect of one’s health, potentially leading to nutritional deficiencies. Conversely, users of stimulant drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine and methamphetamine may experience elevated blood sugar levels and cravings for sugary foods after drug use ends, which can contribute to weight gain or even obesity.
Diet-Related Symptoms Of Substance Abuse
The Effects Of Opioids
For individuals who use heroin and other opioids such as codeine, fentanyl and morphine, bodily side effects may include constipation, nausea and vomiting. In turn, these symptoms may cause an opioid user to not eat enough, absorb certain nutrients or to suffer an imbalance of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and chloride. Nausea can also cause eating difficulties, which can cause many opioid abusers to become malnourished.
The Appetites Of Alcoholics
Alcoholism is also “one of the major causes of nutritional deficiency in the United Kingdom,” Alcohol damages two major organs associated with digestion: The liver and the pancreas.
The liver extracts toxins and the pancreas manages blood sugar and fat absorption. Damage to these organs sets off an imbalance of fluids, calories, protein, and electrolytes, damaging your overall health and ability to absorb nutrients from food and drinks.
Alcoholics may derive as much as 50% of their daily caloric intake from alcohol on average depending on which types of alcohol are consumed, this then means alcoholics start neglecting the foods and nutrients needed for a healthy and varied diet. Alcoholics are commonly deficient in vitamin B6, thiamine and folic acid. However, they still can gain weight because of the “empty calories” in alcohol.
Systemic Effects Of Stimulants
Like opioids and alcohol, stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine also lead to poor nutrition. While these drugs have been used to suppress appetite, abuse of stimulants is also associated with excessive consumption of unhealthy sugary foods, producing nutritional deficiencies.
People who abuse these substances are often dehydrated and have an imbalance of electrolytes, which can include potassium levels outside of a healthy range with dangerous consequences for the heart.
Nutrition For Overall Recovery
Good nutrition can be a strong ally on the road to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. The right food can not only mitigate drug damage but also help the former addict feel stronger and healthier.
It can set off a positive feedback loop to show how ingesting healthy foods instead of deadly or harmful drugs or alcohol, will make recovering people feel and function at their best. Proper nutrition can contribute to repairing damaged tissues, help repair damaged organs, help with blood pressure, cholesterol, fight and prevent infections, increase energy levels and many, many other injuries and illnesses associated with long-term, chronic substance abuse and addiction. They can also help restore the person to a better mental state as metabolic and digestive processes are known to be linked to cognitive function and the workings of neurons and synapses in the brain are restored including memory and responses to negative thoughts and feelings among many others.
Recovering addicts see improvement in their moods when they eat balanced diets, which often leads to the greater mental and physical willpower necessary to overcome addiction. For instance, the production and use of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, is thought to be promoted by tryptophan and vitamin D, which play a role in serotonin’s synthesis and activation, hence why those who spend a lot of time outdoors often feel more positive due to the vitamin D they are getting from the sun naturally.
Each nutrient offers a unique benefit to a recovering drug and alcohol addict.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and flaxseed, improve mental cognition and have been used to treat patients with mood disorders. B vitamins – found in poultry, eggs, and dairy might also improve memory, as chronic abuse of stimulants can lead to long-term memory problems. Vitamin B12, found in beef and chicken, and folic acid, found in beans, can help prevent mood disorders, dementia, and problems with the central nervous system and Magnesium, which can help with relaxing muscles and settle restless arms and legs when going through a detox and associated withdrawal symptoms can be found in Vegetables such as peas, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, artichokes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, fruits like figs, avocado, banana and raspberries and also in fish like tuna, salmon and mackerel.
Rather than shopping for each vitamin, it’s best to understand the components of a healthy diet. A variety of whole, unprocessed foods with protein, healthy carbs and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, along with a low sugar and saturated fat intake will keep the body and brain balanced for recovery.
Fish, for instance, is healthy in moderation because it’s often low in saturated fat and high in protein; some fish also contain nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. Generally, people who consume more fish report lower levels of depression, though experts have contested the exact fish oil or dietary factor that’s responsible for this.
What To Eat & What To Avoid While In Recovery
Things To Avoid
Those in recovery or coming away from active use/drinking should stay away from certain foods because of their ability to crash a good mood or reinforce pathways to addiction unintentionally without you realising it.
- Foods with high sugar concentrations. Low blood sugar levels are common among former substance users and rehab patients often turn to simple sugar as another easy fix like drugs. Researchers say sugar addiction can affect the brain’s dopamine levels in a way similar to cocaine.
- A healthy diet should be low in added sugars, instead primarily containing the natural sugars found in foods such as fruits and milk.
- Caffeine also offers a temporary fix but is another substance that alters brain chemistry. It hinders the absorption of calcium and can lead to fatigue and a reduced ability to deal with stress, which can impair one’s progress during detox and recovery.
- Processed foods should be avoided. Processed foods are often stripped of the nutrients that are so valuable to a malnourished recovering addict and they often contain high amounts of sugar and sodium which can cause setbacks & makes recovery more difficult than it needs to be.
Things To Eat
On the other hand, some of the best foods for recovering substance users include whole grains, vegetables, eggs, beans and fish.
- Whole grains and other complex carbohydrates contribute to the release of serotonin while also adding fibre to the diet. The body digests them slowly and as a result, they keep insulin and blood sugar levels from spiking and moods from crashing.
- Vitamin deficiency is common among substance addicts. Vegetables restore vitamins and nutrients that substance users might have been lacking. Similarly, egg whites contain essential nutrients such as protein, L-tryptophan and L-tyrosine. Because recovering substance users may mistake natural hunger for drug cravings potentially leading to relapse, it is important that they maintain a balanced diet with sufficient vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
- Beans and other high-fibre foods are recommended by the U.S. National Library of Medicine for recovery from opiate addiction for their fibre and protein which help alleviate the gastrointestinal difficulties experienced during withdrawal
- Fish offers protein and fatty acids that might help regulate mood.
- Magnesium helps to relax muscles, settle restless arms and legs, reduce lethargy and boosts energy, often reported during withdrawal and detox. They can be found in foods such as green leafy vegetables, fruits, dark chocolate and beans among others.
Preparing for Meals
The process of meal planning and preparing meals can be overwhelming for anyone, especially one who is recovering from an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Perhaps you have forgotten what a “normal” and balanced meal should look like, or maybe you have spent quite some time away from cooking.
You may feel uncertain about what is a cohesive meal or intimidated by the kitchen. Regardless of your thoughts and feelings towards meal planning for yourself, it is important to know that you can start right where you are.
Little by little, you can learn and acquire new skills that will allow you to adequately feed your body.
How To Pick & Choose Meals
A good place to start with meal planning is by picking and choosing meals for the week ahead. Recruit the help of a trusted friend or family member, and decide on what you would like to eat for the week.
Sometimes a calendar and recipe book can come in handy, or a quick online search can pull up multiple recipe ideas for you. If the process of cooking is too overwhelming, start with something simple that requires little preparation effort.
Choose meals that will offer you balance and variety. Incorporating fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, proteins and healthy fats can offer you the nutrition you need.
Making A Shopping List
Based on your meal selection for the week, formulate a grocery list. Identify the food items you will need to ensure you have groceries on hand to prepare your meals. You may find it helpful to organise your shopping list by categories to make your shopping experience easier.
Shopping for your food ahead of time can help you have ingredients you need to make balanced meals.
Meal planning if often a trial and error experience that becomes easier with practice. If you need additional assistance with meal planning during your addiction recovery, enlist the help of a Registered Dietitian, who can help support your nutritional restoration you can also get help from your local drug and alcohol service, find yours here.
Download A Comprehensive 50 Page Guide For Free!
You can download a 50 page diet and nutrition guide for those afflicted by drug and alcohol addiction as well as those in recovery. You can download it from our Downloads & Media Page here for free, you don’t need to sign up or register, simply download and read!
Caring For Your Health During Recovery
Recovering from a drug addiction requires a strong body and mind. For both to work together, a healthy, well-planned diet will give both former addicts and those still in active addiction the tools, both mental and physical needed to repair his or her body and willpower. But nutrition is just one aspect of the self-care that those in addicts need. Beyond eating well, addicts and former addicts should exercise, get plenty of sleep, schedule time to relax and rebuild strong social support systems, including family members, friends, Keyworkers, healthcare professionals and therapists. Self-care is far from being selfish; it’s a powerful strategy for addicts to nourish both their bodies, minds and their spirits.
If you or a loved one is rebounding from substance dependence, wanting to leave active addiction but are still in it or even if you’ve been in recovery for some time, please pay special attention to nutrition and proper nourishment. After all, food isn’t only what we’re made of – it’s also what we’re remade of too.
You can also consider supplementing your diet with vitamins, minerals and supplements so that you can be sure you are getting all of your vitamins and minerals you need that you may not have or cannot get from your diet or other normal ways of getting the things we all need, especially if you are going through a detox and/or rehabilitation program or withdrawing/reducing in your community.
Drink ‘n’ Drugs offers resources to guide you through nutrition considerations and can also help connect you to treatment centres that provide holistic programs that integrate wellness and nutrition for recovery. Contact information for these can be found on our help and support page.
Remember, you can also download our free 50 page nutrition and diet comprehensive guide for free, you don’t need to sign up or register, just simply download it on our Downloads & Media Page here! as well as our PDF on supplementing your diet with vitamins, minerals and supplements also on our downloads & media page here.