Nutrition and Addiction Recovery
By The Recovery Village
Editor Abby Doty
Last Updated: May 16, 2023
Editorial Policy | Research Policy
Substance abuse causes nutrient deficiencies that can make the recovery process more challenging. Good nutrition is essential to a successful recovery.
Good nutrition is a critical part of the recovery process from addiction. Eating the right foods can help a person manage withdrawal symptoms during a detox and replenish nutrient deficiencies resulting from prolonged substance abuse. Adequate nutrition during recovery restores physical health, supports brain function and ultimately increases the chance of continued sobriety.
How Substance Abuse Affects Nutrition
Chronic heavy drinking or drug use has a negative impact on a person’s nutritional status. Some substances lead to a loss of appetite and undereating, while others result in overeating or making poor food choices. Substance abuse can also damage digestive organs and cause a variety of gastrointestinal disorders.
Many people become depleted in vitamins and minerals because alcohol and other drugs disrupt gut bacteria and impair nutrient absorption. The nutritional deficiencies that result from substance abuse can exacerbate anxiety and cravings, making the withdrawal process and sobriety more difficult.
Chronic alcohol abuse disrupts healthy gut bacteria and impairs the absorption of nutrients. Depleting vitamin A and E stored in the liver increases the risk of liver damage, which further reduces the body’s ability to digest nutrients. Alcohol also affects the body’s response to glucose, resulting in either too high or too low blood sugar levels.
Eating a variety of nutritious foods will replenish these nutrient stores and reduce the alcohol withdrawal symptoms of nausea, anxiety, headaches and cravings.
Chronic opiate/opioid use slows down the digestion process, which causes constipation, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. These symptoms can make it difficult for someone using opioids to eat enough food and contribute to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. When partially digested food stays in the gut for too long, it can also trigger inflammation that leads to leaky gut syndrome. People suffering from a leaky gut are often deficient in vitamin C, vitamin B3, folate, potassium, selenium, zinc and magnesium.
Healing the gut is a key part of the recovery process when detoxing from opiate/opioid use. A diet rich in protein, fiber and probiotics will help restore gut health.
Stimulants suppress appetite, so people often lose weight and become malnourished when using stimulants. They also prevent sleep, which disrupts hunger and fullness hormones. A person using stimulants may not feel hungry or thirsty, which leads to nutrient deficiencies and dehydration.
Another outcome of chronic stimulant use that can affect nutritional status is poor oral health, because it can make chewing food more difficult. When detoxing from stimulants, it’s important to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and gradually increase food intake.
Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs, so they slow down body and brain functions. This can have a range of effects on a person’s nutritional status. Delayed digestion can cause many of the same symptoms as opiate use, such as constipation and nausea. Slower brain function can reduce a person’s desire to eat or lead to unhealthy food choices. Benzodiazepines’ sedative effects can cause fatigue and a reduced activity level, which, combined with poor food choices, could lead to weight gain.
Occasional marijuana use often can lead to an increased appetite for junk foods, referred to as “the munchies.” However, as marijuana use becomes chronic, these effects on appetite wear off. Being dependent on marijuana can decrease a person’s desire to eat, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies. Smoking marijuana also damages taste buds, so marijuana abuse can lead a person to eat more high-salt, high-sugar foods that are low in nutrients and contribute empty calories.
Common Nutrient Deficiencies in People Recovering from Addiction
Many people in recovery from substance abuse can be depleted in vitamins A, B, C, D and E, as well as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. These are essential nutrients that must come from the diet, so when someone is eating less food or unable to properly digest the food they eat, levels of these nutrients fall.
Substance abuse and common withdrawal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea also lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This means sodium, potassium, chloride and phosphate levels may be elevated in a person in recovery from addiction.
Why Good Nutrition Is Important During Recovery
A healthy, balanced diet can help the body heal faster and promote better health throughout recovery. Certain foods can help a person manage the physical symptoms of withdrawal, such as reducing nausea, anxiety and headaches. Foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals will help restore healthy gut bacteria and replenish nutrients depleted by substance abuse.
Nutrition also significantly impacts mental health, as certain nutrients can help reduce anxiety and cravings, decrease stress, improve sleep and boost brain function. Eating a balanced diet during recovery ultimately increases the likelihood of sustained sobriety.
Essential Nutrients for Addiction Recovery
Recovery from substance abuse begins with a detox period, and certain foods can help a person manage the symptoms of withdrawal. Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods also replenishes low vitamin and mineral levels.
Vitamins and Minerals
Many vitamins and minerals are depleted after chronic substance use. Not eating enough nutritious foods combined with impaired nutrient absorption can deplete levels of vitamins A, B, C, D and E and minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Vitamins and minerals play an important role in countless body functions, from energy production to the immune response. Replenishing these vitamins and minerals will help a person better manage the detox and recovery process.
The richest sources of vitamins and minerals are whole, fresh foods like vegetables, fruits, lean meats and whole grains. However, in the early stages of recovery when a person is severely depleted of nutrients and may not be able to tolerate many foods, a daily multivitamin supplement can help make up for deficiencies.
Staying hydrated is key to a successful recovery. Common withdrawal symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea and sweating can both cause dehydration and are made worse by it. Drinking plenty of water can help alleviate these symptoms and help the body flush out toxins.
Helpful tips to get more water throughout the day include:
- Infuse water with citrus or herbs to make it more fun
- Set a reminder on your phone to help you stay on track
- Drink a glass of water right when you wake up in the morning
- Snack on hydrating foods like watermelon, cucumber, celery and citrus
Protein repairs tissues and rebuilds muscle that may have been lost during prolonged alcohol or drug use. Protein also helps maintain blood sugar levels between meals, which can reduce cravings. Certain amino acids are used to make neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which improve mood and lower anxiety. Plant-based proteins like soy and lentils have the added benefits of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
If meat is not appealing during the detox process, bone broth is a great source of protein and key electrolytes.
The best proteins to support recovery include:
- Fish and seafood
- Chicken and turkey
- Soy (tofu, edamame, tempeh)
- Beans and lentils
- Greek yogurt
- Bone broth
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fats are a powerful anti-inflammatory and can help speed up the healing process. They have been shown to stabilize mood and fight depression. A particular type of omega-3 fat found in fish, called DHA, plays a major role in brain function. In addition to fatty fish like salmon and tuna, other good sources of omega-3 fats include walnuts and chia, flax and hemp seeds.
Whole grains are high in fiber and B vitamins that help improve the symptoms of withdrawal. The complex carbs in whole grains help stabilize blood sugar and sustain energy. Keeping blood sugar balanced reduces irritability, anxiety and cravings. Carbs and B vitamins are also involved in the production of serotonin, which can improve mood and sleep quality.
Whole-grain foods to eat during recovery include:
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat
Healthy, unsaturated fats help the body absorb vitamins, reduce inflammation and balance hormones. Fat also slows the digestion of sugar, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable. High-fat foods are calorie-dense, so if someone struggles to eat regular meals during the detox process, a small handful of nuts can provide a good nutrient boost. In addition to omega-3 fats, other sources of healthy fat to eat during recovery are:
- Olive oil and olives
- Nuts like almonds, cashews and pistachios
- Seeds like pumpkin and sunflower
Fiber keeps blood sugar levels stable and promotes a healthy gut and digestive system, which is one of the most important physical aspects of recovery. The gut is directly connected to the brain via the gut–brain axis, so a healthy gut can help stabilize mood and reduce anxiety and irritability, especially since serotonin is produced in the gut. Both soluble and insoluble fiber promote a healthy gut. Soluble fiber encourages the growth of helpful gut bacteria and can be found in foods such as:
- Legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas)
- Whole grains (oats, whole wheat, brown rice, barley, etc.)
- Carrots, Brussels sprouts, avocado
- Apples, citrus, pears, figs, blueberries
Insoluble fiber keeps things moving through the digestive tract, which prevents toxins from accumulating in the intestine. Good sources of insoluble fiber include:
- Whole grains
- Leafy green vegetables, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes
- Apples and pears
- Nuts and seeds
Nutrition for Brain Health During Recovery
Substances like alcohol and drugs affect how the brain sends and processes messages. Some drugs work by mimicking the structure of neurotransmitters, which triggers the brain to send signals in an abnormal way. Other drugs stimulate the release of huge amounts of neurotransmitters or interfere with the way they are processed. Substance abuse disrupts the normal production of neurotransmitters, resulting in an imbalance that causes the intense symptoms of withdrawal and a variety of mental health symptoms.
Eating a nutritious diet rich in certain minerals and amino acids can help the body make and process neurotransmitters, restoring balance in the brain.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that produces a feeling of calm. GABA is involved in reducing stress and anxiety and can help promote restful sleep. When GABA is imbalanced, a person may feel afraid, anxious and stressed.
Fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha and kimchi contain GABA. It’s also found in all types of tea. Other foods can help boost the body’s production of GABA, including:
- Brown rice
- Leafy greens like spinach, cabbage and Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
Serotonin is often referred to as the “happiness” chemical. It is largely responsible for mood, but it also plays a role in digestion, sleep, memory and learning. When serotonin is imbalanced, a person may feel depressed, anxious and have sleep or digestive issues.
Serotonin is produced in the gut, so gut health is essential for boosting serotonin production. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, so including certain protein-rich foods can also help boost serotonin production. Foods high in tryptophan include:
- Chicken and turkey
- Nuts and seeds
Sunlight and exercise have also been shown to boost serotonin levels.
Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical responsible for the feeling of pleasure. It also plays a role in mood, learning, sleep, pain and organ function. If dopamine is imbalanced, a person may feel depressed, unmotivated and tired.
Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine, so eating certain protein foods may help boost production. Foods high in tyrosine include:
- Chicken and turkey
- Dairy foods
- Pumpkin and sesame seeds
Research has shown that meditation can also increase dopamine levels in the brain.
Additional Nutritional Guidelines & Tips for Addiction Recovery
While many foods help ease the symptoms of withdrawal and improve the recovery process, certain foods can impair the healing process. Some foods to limit or avoid include:
- Excess sugar: It’s common to crave sweet foods in recovery because sugar mimics the effects of alcohol and drugs on the brain. Small amounts of sugar from fruit are okay, but excess sugar can cause cravings, lethargy, anxiety and chemical imbalances. Sugar may also become a replacement addiction for people in recovery. Sugary foods often contribute extra calories without replenishing nutrients. Fresh and dried fruits containing nutrients and fiber are the healthiest way to satisfy a sweet tooth during the recovery process.
- Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant, and consuming too much can overstimulate the central nervous system and cause anxiety, headaches and irritability. Caffeine is also dehydrating and can disrupt digestion and sleep, which are detrimental to a successful recovery. It’s best to limit it to no more than two cups of coffee to avoid the harmful effects that excess caffeine can have on the recovery process. Decaf coffee or herbal tea are healthy options to limit caffeine intake.
- Processed food: Highly processed foods like packaged snacks, sugary cereals, hot dogs, frozen meals and baked goods provide very little nutrition. They are often filled with inflammatory saturated fats, sugar and chemicals that the liver must work to filter. Eating clean, nutritious foods helps replenish nutrient stores, calms inflammation to promote faster healing and avoids extra work for the liver during the detox process.
Besides eating the right foods, other healthy habits that can help the recovery process include:
- Exercise: Regular exercise improves mood, self-esteem, energy levels and motivation. Exercise also helps your body use nutrients more efficiently and can help improve digestion. Any type of movement counts.
- Small, frequent meals: Eating a small meal or snack every three to four hours helps ease your digestive system into regular eating and keeps blood sugar levels steady. This helps elevate mood, reduce anxiety and ward off cravings.
- Supplements: Taking a vitamin and mineral supplement will help replenish nutrient deficiencies and cover any key nutrients that may be missing from your diet.
If you or a loved one is living with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. In our inpatient rehab program, our facility offers patients well-rounded, nutritious meals and snacks that target the deficiencies caused by addiction for holistic healing.
We serve the state of New Jersey and the Greater New England area and can provide both inpatient and outpatient services to treat addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us today to begin the admissions process.
Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.
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