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How Important is Nutrition in Addiction Recovery?

How Important is Nutrition in Addiction Recovery?

Addiction recovery is not a single step but an ongoing process. Addiction can have a profound effect on your physical and mental health, as well as other aspects of your life such as relationships and careers. Actual detoxification – the process of metabolising or processing the harmful substances from your system – can be quite quick. Opioids such as heroin are extremely harmful and difficult to break free from, for example, but the drug itself tends to have left the system within a few hours after the ‘hit’. Addiction recovery does not just deal with getting clean, although that is a big part of the process. It also needs to equip you with the tools you need to stay clean and sober, adopt a healthier lifestyle and start to undo the damage that you have done to your body and mind over time. 

This is where the importance of nutrition in recovery comes into play. 

 

Why is nutrition important for recovery? 

Eating and drinking the right things, in the right quantities and balance, is hugely important to our health as human beings, whatever other factors there might be. Whether you ask, ‘Is nutrition important for patients’ recovery in hospital?’, look at the main nutritional recovery strategies in football or examine nutrition in post-exercise recovery, you’ll find that a good balanced diet is essential in all aspects of health and recovery.  

Recovery from addiction is no less difficult and taxing on the body than recovery from many other kinds of serious illness – and in some respects it can be more difficult. In terms of physical health, getting nutrition right can help you to fight off any infections or health conditions that may have developed during the period of your addiction. Many addicts live a chaotic lifestyle or fail to properly look after themselves. Drink and drugs can become a priority over buying food, or can lead to poor nutritional choices. As you start to recover, a balanced diet can help to repair the damage that may already have done, as well as boosting your physical and mental health – making you less likely to relapse into old habits. 

Nutrition and exercise in recovery is perhaps not the first thing most people think of but it can play a vital role in restoring you to a healthier lifestyle free of drink or drugs. 

 

The role of nutrition and exercise in addiction recovery 

A thorough long-term recovery programme will take a holistic view of your recovery. This will generally involve a range of therapies such as group therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aimed at tackling the root causes of your addiction and the way you think about drink or drugs. The role of nutrition and exercise in addiction recovery may be secondary but it can have an important effect in lots of subtle ways. If you feel healthier in body and mind, it can be easier to stick to the changes you have made and resist the cravings and urges to relapse that follow most recovering addicts for a long time – sometimes the rest of their lives. Exercise also tends to go hand in hand with diet and nutrition in helping to establish this new and healthier lifestyle. 

 

What should I eat to recover from addiction? 

There is no one size fits all list of the foods you should eat to ensure you get the right nutrition in recovery. It’s also worth noting that there is no one ‘super food’ that will serve as a magic bullet and make recovery painless. Recovery from a long-term addiction is always difficult and you will need to work hard, as well as really wanting to make the changes you will have to make.  

It is generally more important to eat healthily and sick to a sensible, balanced diet than concentrate on specific foods. All that said, there may be some specific issues that affect you due to your addiction and previous lifestyle that you may need to address in your recovery diet 

Alcohol and drugs can affect you nutritionally in a number of ways, such as: 

  • Consuming less food than you need – some drugs suppress appetite 
  • Skipping meals 
  • Making poor food choices 
  • Binge-eating on some substances like alcohol and marijuana 
  • Increasing or decreasing the speed at which your body uses energy 
  • Loss of nutrients through sickness or diarrhoea 
  • Gastrointestinal damage affecting the way you process and digest food 

If you have been through or are currently going through a treatment programme, you might have the assistance of a dietician or nutritionist who can help to draw up a healthy eating plan to aid in your recovery. 

If not, here are a few pointers, but bear in mind that what is suitable for one person’s individual situation might not always apply to another… 

Eating foods that are high in carbohydrates can help to balance your levels of serotonin, keeping you more relaxed. Complex carbohydrates can be especially good for this and these include legumes (beans and peas), root vegetables (carrots and potatoes) and starchy foods such as pasta and bread. 

Following a prolonged addiction you may find your body to be deficient in B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. Prolonged alcohol use can also increase the loss of minerals such as zinc, magnesium and calcium. Supplements may help but a nutritionist should also be able to recommend a diet that is rich in any elements you might be lacking. 

In the early stages of detox and recovery it is often a good idea to start slowly as your system might not be used to processing meals and there may be damage to your digestive system. You should consult a doctor if this is the case but eating smaller meals more frequently could be a good idea anyway. 

It is important not to let food replace alcohol or drugs or you could end up replacing one addiction with another – even if it is for a generally less damaging one. This could be one thing to talk about with your recovery team if you have one. 

John Gillen

A recovering addict himself, John is now one of the UK's leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Through our blog, he keeps our website visitors in the loop with the latest news and industry trends in relation to addiction treatment.