Proper nutrition is often overlooked in discussions about substance abuse recovery. The focus tends to be on detoxification, therapy, support groups, etc. While all of those things are crucial to recovery, true health cannot be achieved without nutritional balance.
Chronic substance use depletes valuable nutrients that optimize our body’s ability to function properly. It also causes biochemical imbalances that — particularly when combined with genetic factors — can contribute to cravings, anxiety, depression, and other conditions that hinder recovery.
What is Nutritional Therapy?
Nutritional therapy aims to bring the brain and body back into biochemical balance by implementing dietary changes tailored to the individual’s needs. In substance abuse recovery, the short-term goal of nutritional therapy is to help addicts regain their health and absorb the physical effects of shifting into sobriety. The long-term goal of nutritional therapy is to help addicts gain an overall understanding of health and teach them practical self-care, thereby empowering them to feel in control of their well-being and set them up for success in sobriety.
Here are some ways in which nutritional therapy aids substance abuse recovery.
Nutritional Therapy Helps Correct Nutritional Deficiencies
Most obviously, nutritional therapy addresses specific deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients in the body. Heavy substance use can not only interfere with our ability to feed ourselves in a healthy way, but it can also prevent the absorption of certain nutrients and damage the physical functions of our bodies.
For instance, alcoholics are often deficient in the mineral zinc. This is partly due to alcoholics getting a bulk of their daily calories from alcohol instead of through food sources containing zinc, such as whole grains and nuts.
However, heavy alcohol consumption also decreases the gut’s ability to absorb zinc, and even flushes zinc out with our urine. This is sometimes referred to as “leaky gut.” Leaky gut is when the barrier between the body’s intestinal contents and the rest of the body becomes weakened, allowing the passage of toxins to the liver, increasing the likelihood of alcohol-related liver diseases.
Zinc deficiency has been linked to greater rates of depression, irritability, apathy, and confusion — all of which can complicate recovery and increase the risk of relapse.
Another common nutritional deficiency with heavy substance is folate and vitamin B-6. Folate and vitamin B-6 deficiencies slow down the production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.
Low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin can cause obsessive thoughts, impulsivity, compulsive behaviors, and susceptibility to triggers. Low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine can cause slowed reaction, lack of energy, and dull the pleasure center. These combined effects can contribute to cravings and weaken our resistance to them.
Nutritional Therapy Helps Balance Dopamine Levels
Speaking of dopamine, it is theorized that addicts self-medicate with substances for the sudden dopamine release they provide. Dopamine is a naturally occurring, feel-good chemical that induces joy and euphoria. Substances cause our brains to flood with dopamine, giving us a highly concentrated feeling of this euphoria.
Overtime, however, the artificial manipulation of our dopamine levels actually reduces the receptors for dopamine in the brain, resulting in low function of dopamine. In fact, research indicates that some people have fewer dopamine receptors in the brain to start with due to genetic factors, making them more prone to addiction by dulling their brain’s response to substances.
The low function of dopamine is made worse by continued poor eating habits (common in addiction) that supply little of the necessary protein-building blocks, known as amino acids, that the body uses to create more dopamine. A personalized, high-protein diet supplied by nutritional therapy can increase dopamine receptors and provide enough amino acids to help balance the body’s dopamine levels.
Nutritional Therapy Helps Control Cravings
Hypoglycemia is common among addicts. According to William Billica, MD, at InnerBalance Health Center, 98 percent of the alcoholics and 75 to 80 percent of the patients he tests show blood sugar levels below 60 milligrams per deciliter (mL/dC). The normal range is between 70 and 99 mL/dC.
When your blood sugar crashes, the brain sends signals tellings you to boost your energy, and quick. This is when cravings happen, usually for something sweet. The craving for something sweet can easily be mistaken as an alcohol craving.
Nutritional therapy focuses on stabilizing blood sugar levels by minimizing processed foods and foods with lots of added sugar, focusing on foods that have a low Glycemic Index (GI), and balancing carbohydrate intake with protein and fat.
How Nutritional Therapy Fits Into Your Overall Treatment
During treatment, the medical team takes a comprehensive assessment of your general health, making note of the physical effects of your substance abuse such as significant weight gain/loss, co-occurring mental illnesses (such as eating disorders), and any medications you are taking or have taken in the past. This provides a better idea of your nutritional needs.
Proper nutrition can help reduce the pain and discomfort of detox and help you navigate any appetite fluctuations you may experience. Over time, learning how to plan and prepare meals for yourself motivates you to eat for health and self-care, and not for emotional reasons or as a substitute addiction.
Better Health for a Better Life
At Fort Recovery, our Director of Culinary Services, Chef Michael Miller, creates meals designed to optimize your health and sobriety. The meals are designed to decrease inflammation, detoxify the body, and reduce cravings by limiting carbohydrates, sugar, and sodium.
For help, call 1 (817) 631-9251.