The Role Of Nutrition In Addiction Recovery

Most people in addiction recovery struggle with suppressed appetite, leaky gut, poor dietary choices, and forgetting to eat. These health issues can cause malnutrition among those addicted to substances like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, cannabis, and alcohol.  

Poor nutrition and the direct effects of the drugs lead to health decline. In treatment and recovery facilities like, nutrition is used in a multi-pronged approach to help with healing and manage cravings.

Longterm Effects Of Drug Use 

Drugs have insidious effects on the body caused by nutrients and oxygen deprivation. Hence, no organ is exempt. In the nervous system, neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers released at the end of nerve cells are particularly susceptible. 

Neurotransmitters target nerve cells, glands, or muscles to boost or stop signals. However, this modulation goes awry during chronic drug use, affecting heart rate, breathing, moods, pleasure, sleep, and fear. 

This overstimulation of the heart, adrenals, liver, pancreas, and brain with long-term use causes residual damage even if the addict is no longer actively using. Over time, the addict develops chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, liver damage, malabsorption, and mental conditions. 

Here’s a look at some drugs and their effects: 

  • Opioids 

The initial effects are decreased heart rate, breathing, and constipation. Long-term use can potentially lead to depression, cardiovascular disease, and death. In addition, reduced appetite is a common side effect of addiction because of the frequent skipping of meals.  

  • Amphetamines And Other Stimulants 

Abuse of stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine can lead to confusion, depression, anxiety, poor reflexes, and cardiovascular damage. On the other hand, addiction causes a loss of appetite, which may lead to a decrease in muscle mass and weight. 

  • Cannabis 

Long-term use causes increased heart rate, paranoid thinking, decreased mental acuity, lung problems, and cravings. 

Various Therapies Used In Addiction Recovery 

Addiction is no longer considered an offshoot of emotional weakness but a complex physical and psychological condition influenced by various factors. Each addict in recovery is different. Some can stop cold turkey, while others need to be seen on an outpatient basis. 

However, most need medically supervised detoxification, withdrawal, and residential rehabilitation. Hence, counseling and self-awareness group programs can help addicts overcome their difficulties. 

For example, the 12-Step recovery programs have contributed to removing the stigma associated with addiction and acknowledging that the struggle is real. Holistic substance abuse treatment options involve mental, behavioral, medical, and other professionals using different levels of care.  

Nutrition: The Body and Brain In Recovery  

The role of nutrition during recovery isn’t as simple as ensuring that the recovering addict eats well and on time. According to Hippocrates, food is medicine, and medicine is food. This idea is behind the use of multi-pronged programs anchored on nutritional support.

Research shows that making lifestyle changes like switching to diets like the Mediterranean diet helps in addiction recovery. Diets rich in nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, magnesium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein contain nutrients that help the body detoxify and correct imbalances.  

The therapeutic benefits are enhanced by eliminating processed food, reducing sugar, and including whole food rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Slow release of sugar helps keep blood sugar from spiking and keeps insulin levels stable. 

On the other hand, a calorie-dense, but nutrient-poor diet, may not support the synthesis of neurotransmitters because it lacks adequate building blocks like amino acids and essential fatty acids. 

The following are health conditions caused by substance misuse and the role of nutrition in treating these conditions:

  • Hypoglycemia 

Usually, food is broken down into nutrients and is absorbed and distributed throughout the body after digestion. Glucose, or blood sugar, a product of carbohydrate digestion, provides energy. However, it causes a spike when processed foods like bread and pastries are consumed. 

Meanwhile, high sugar stimulates the pancreas to release insulin into the bloodstream so glucose can enter the cells for utilization. Under usual circumstances, blood sugar is restored to normal levels. 

However, insulin is released disproportionately high among addicts who prefer sweets, resulting in too much sugar being removed from the bloodstream. This sudden drop in blood sugar, called hypoglycemia, results in shakiness, mental fog, fatigue, mood swings, and a host of symptoms commonly seen in recovering addicts. 

The drop in sugar automatically signals the adrenals, the glands responsible for the fight or flight response, to release adrenaline. The adrenaline pumps up the heart and constricts the blood vessels. Unfortunately, it also signals the liver to release sugar reserves, setting off another response of overcompensation from the pancreas that had suffered toxic effects from drug use. 

During recovery, addicts are educated on choosing complex carbohydrates like vegetables that release sugar slowly into the bloodstream without causing dreaded spikes. Consumption of simple carbohydrates like pasta is discouraged, and eating at regular intervals is advised. If hypoglycemia is experienced often, a medical consultation and glucose tolerance test are recommended. 

  • Adrenal Fatigue 

The recovery foods and eating style suggested for hypoglycemia also work for those suffering from adrenal fatigue. In the case of recovering addicts, sugary foods are one potential source of stress. Additionally, caffeine and junk food are best avoided. Meanwhile, aside from whole grains, recommended foods are nuts and seeds, flax, olive oil, and krill or fish oil. 

  • Leaky Gut 

Leaky gut syndrome can occur due to long-term drug use because the intestinal lining accumulates toxic substances that irritate it. Other causes of a leaky gut are allergies, medications, and a long-term nutrient-poor diet.  

Recovery foods recommended for hypoglycemia or adrenal fatigue work for the leaky gut. Fresh fruits and vegetables are advised. Also, vegetables are best eaten raw or steamed. Gluten-free food such as rice or quinoa, legumes, fish, and salt-free seeds are recommended in place of simple and refined carbohydrates or processed food with trans fats. 

  • Nutrient Deficiency 

The most common causes of nutrient deficiency are skipping meals, low consumption of vegetables, low consumption of protein, and high consumption of processed or refined food. Furthermore, high sugar content, inability to digest food, and associated leaky gut and allergies can all lead to nutrient deficiencies.

Ideally, the recovery diet addresses macro and micro daily requirements. This includes carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals that are in sufficient quantities and won’t require supplementation. 

Vitamins and minerals support the enzymatic reactions necessary for the body to function normally. They also correct metabolic imbalances that lead to cravings and relapse when left untreated. Moreover, some vitamins act as antioxidants, and some are needed in specific metabolism pathways.

The quantity of vitamins needed is modified by malabsorption and organ damage which can hamper vitamin production in the body. For instance, the metabolism and storage of the four fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, are affected by liver damage that could have been caused by alcoholism or drug use.  

On the other hand, water-soluble vitamins aren’t stored and are excreted through the urine. Nevertheless, they’re also needed during recovery. These are vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, folic acid, and cyanocobalamin. 

Like vitamins, minerals support the immune system and are needed to maintain normal body functions, especially the heart, bone, and gastrointestinal tract. Major minerals include sodium, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and magnesium. Minor ones include zinc, iron, copper, manganese, selenium, iodine, chromium, fluoride, and molybdenum. 

The Healthy Recovery Plate 

The recovering addict faces many challenges with sticking to a healthy plate, whether living alone, with a family, or among friends. Other members within their circle may be indulging in foods on an addict’s no-no list, like junk food and doughnuts. When alone, reversion to old dietary habits is possible, mainly if no support system exists. 

The good news is that even if they’re not into it, they can acquire the taste for healthy food. Best of all, some in-house treatment facilities incorporate sound nutrition principles in creating meal plans for their patients. Depending on their preferred diets, a visit to a nutritionist or doctor may be needed.  

Eating well shouldn’t be rocket science. During recovery, a suggested dietary make-over tip includes choosing whole food over processed food and fast food. Also, it’ll help to incorporate fresh vegetables and fruits because they contain vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. 

Make sure you have enough tyrosine-containing whole food. This amino acid, found in dopamine, is depleted while using and during early recovery. Its deficiency can lead to depression, low energy, and cravings. 

Because tyrosine in food is converted to dopamine during digestion, eating tyrosine-rich food is a non-pharmaceutical way to beat the blues and avert a relapse. Some tyrosine-containing food to mix and match are sunflower seeds, tofu, bananas, lean lamb or beef, cheese, and whole grains. 

In addition, incorporate whole food rich in glutamine to help control sugar cravings. High quantities of sugar in the bloodstream can trigger insulin resistance and hypoglycemia. It’s easy for addicts to switch to sugar as another form of addiction. 

Some glutamine-containing food to incorporate includes green leafy vegetables, Brussels sprouts, celery, parsley, beets, papaya, dairy products, and animal meat such as fish, chicken, and beef. Be mindful of cholesterol levels if you have issues like high triglycerides and hypertension.

Also, you can try adding whole food rich in tryptophan to your diet. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid used in synthesizing serotonin, a neurotransmitter that acts as a mood stabilizer. When the serotonin level is low, depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulty may ensue. 

On the other hand, the human body can’t produce tryptophan, so the diet must include nuts and seeds, salmon, soybeans, oats, pineapple, eggs, cheese, or turkey. Exercising and stress reduction may help elevate tryptophan levels naturally. 

Meanwhile, get enough food rich in Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a neurotransmitter that acts like nature’s tranquilizer. Blocking some signals to the brain helps stabilize mood, promote sleep, and reduce anxiety. 

One benefit of getting nutrients from food instead of supplements is that you don’t consume quantities that could produce side effects. GABA is found in tea, soybeans and products, brown rice, mushrooms, sprouted grains, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, adzuki beans, kimchi, sake, and fermented fish. 

Rehab food professionally prepared for in-house residents is balanced, diverse, and customized if there are health conditions. Though not everyone can enjoy that convenience, following these tips makes meal planning easier: 

  • Help keep blood sugar stable by having three regular meals and two snacks. 
  • Snack on nuts and seeds. 
  • Eliminate junk food. 
  • Avoid coffee and sugary beverages. 
  • Eat whole fruit; the juice is high in sugar and lacks fiber. 
  • Get lots of flavor without sugar by incorporating yogurt, berries, and other fresh fruits.  
  • Eat your antioxidants—the more highly colored, like green, purple, orange, and red—the better. 
  • Avoid refined carbohydrates. Quinoa has an exciting taste and texture. 
  • Avoid carbohydrates. Fill your plate with salad greens, salmon, cheese, lean beef or lamb cuts, and chicken or turkey. These are nutrient-dense foods that aren’t as calorie-rich as starchy processed foods. 

Those in recovery should have meal plans that provide adequate macro and micronutrients to support tissue repair. It’s also best to avoid triggering cravings and consume food that addresses malabsorption or leaky gut.

It’s also necessary to look for a meal that supports the synthesis of neurotransmitters that act as natural mood enhancers, stabilizers, and tranquilizers. Additionally, incorporating antioxidants to prevent inflammation can protect you from common illnesses. 

Keeping your blood sugar level steady is a top priority for your meal plan. Hypoglycemia from deranged insulin activity causes anxiety and depression and may lead to coma. Also, consider any chronic disease or organ damage that may have resulted from the unregulated use of prohibited drugs or prescription medicine abuse when choosing a meal plan.   


Addiction has profound effects on the body. These include decreased appetite, impaired absorption of nutrients, organ damage, weakened immune system, and a host of behavioral, psychological, and physical symptoms. Recovery programs may be on an outpatient or inpatient basis. 

Treatment is based on the drug used, level of dependence, tolerance, and extent of symptoms. Recovering addicts who haven’t paid attention to their diet in the past or have health issues may find it challenging to manage their recovery nutrition plan by themselves. Some facilities offer nutritional support that controls cravings and corrects imbalances for continued sobriety.

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