There is a common belief in the addiction recovery world that when you are overcoming a drug or alcohol addiction you should allow yourself to indulge in all the sweets, fats, and junk food you want. After all, why restrain yourself from harmless junk food when you have bigger beasts to slay? Evidence suggests, however, these eating habits may be hindering you more than they’re helping you on your path to recovery.
The Nutritional Double Whammy
The nutritional dilemma faced by recovering addicts is two-fold. First, the very act of ingesting drugs or alcohol wreaks havoc on the body. Alcohol, for example, impedes nutrient breakdown and assimilation resulting in nutritional deficiencies. Opiates tend to cause gastrointestinal issues, and, during opiate withdrawal, severe vomiting and diarrhea can lead to nutrient depletion. Stimulants suppress appetite which can lead to an insufficient intake of calories and nutrients.
In addition to the purely physiological implications of drug and alcohol abuse, there is another factor that results in a less than stellar nutritional report card for addicts: lifestyle. A person consumed by addiction is less likely to eat healthfully. Some drugs cause you to eat too much, others too little. At the height of their drinking, alcoholics often derive as much as 50 percent of their daily calorie allowance from alcohol itself. In most cases, the need for the addictive substance is prioritized over the need for, say, a whole-grain turkey sandwich or other high-quality, nutrient-dense food.
Given the nutritional standing of most recovering addicts, it’s surprising that proper nutrition is not emphasized more in recovery programs. Mounting evidence points to one emerging consensus: nutritional therapy can significantly help those recovering from addiction. It seems like common sense (because it is), but proper nutrition has the potential to make those in recovery feel better both mentally and physically. Furthermore, research suggests that the inclusion of nutrition education in substance abuse treatment programs can increase participants’ success in achieving recovery.
How Nutrition Helps the Healing Process
Proper nutrition helps recovering addicts (and everyone else) feel better because nutrients give the body energy, help build and repair organ tissue, and strengthen the immune system. Because recovering addicts have usually damaged vital organs during the course of their drug or alcohol abuse, good nutrition provides them with the nutritional building blocks they need to begin restoring these damaged tissues.
Nutrition also plays an important role in mood. Research suggests that changes in your diet can alter brain structure both chemically and physiologically, and influence your behavior. Furthermore, the consumption of certain foods has been tied to increased production of key neurotransmitters like serotonin, which enhances mood.
This means recovering addicts can use food to feel better physically (as their bodies receive the nutrients they need to repair prior damage and operate on a more optimal level) and mentally (as they eat foods that enhance their mood and overall well-being). In many cases, feeling better will reduce the risk of relapse, as demonstrated conversely by the fact that recovering addicts with poor dietary habits are more likely to relapse. Additionally, in some cases, addicts are so unfamiliar with the feeling of hunger, they misinterpret hunger as a drug craving and fall face-first into relapse. This potentially disastrous mistake can be easily remedied by eating frequent, healthy meals.
When adding nutrition to your addiction-fighting arsenal, it is important to collaborate with a trained nutritionist who can tailor your diet to your specific needs in recovery. No matter where you live, there is surely a trained nutritionist nearby, and there are even some who specialize in addiction recovery.
David A. Wiss, MS, RDN, CPT, founder of the Los Angeles-based nutritional practice Nutrition in Recovery, is one such nutritionist. Wiss is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from California State University, Northridge who has dedicated his nutritional expertise to helping those with addiction use diet to their advantage rather than detriment.
Wiss says he was inspired to specialize in addiction recovery nutrition after working as a personal trainer at addiction treatment centers and witnessing first-hand the poor nutritional habits that were encouraged. “I noticed that most of these facilities provided unlimited amounts of junk food to their clients. I decided to dedicate my career to changing that paradigm,” said Wiss.
In some cases, like that of Colorado-based Master Nutrition Therapist Patricia Farrell, a nutritionist’s own struggle with addiction sets him or her on the path of healing through nutrition. Having overcome addiction herself, Farrell brings a passion to her addiction-focused nutrition practice that comes from a personal understanding of the challenges her clients face. In fact, it was during the time she spent in recovery meetings that she had an epiphany about the importance of nutrition in addiction recovery.
“I used to go to this lunch-time recovery meeting and everybody had their bag of McDonald’s and their coffee, and then there were cookies served afterwards,” said Farrell. “It was obvious to me just looking and listening to these people that they did not feel well and it dawned on me that the first thing you want to do when you are recovering and you don’t feel well is to use. That is why I went into nutrition therapy and my expertise is drug and alcohol recovery.”
The Sugar Saboteur and Food as a Substitute Addiction
In her practice, Farrell strongly emphasizes sugar regulation. It is not uncommon, says Farrell, for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction to become addicted to sugar. Alcoholics are especially prone to sugar addiction and to the energy rollercoaster that accompanies it, but sugar addiction affects other addicts too. Farrell believes that eating in a way that promotes blood sugar spikes and crashes is a recipe for disaster when it comes to maintaining your sobriety.
“When you get that blood sugar crash, your body craves sugar. In an alcoholic’s mind, and it works this way in a drug addict’s mind too, when you crave sugar it immediately translates in your brain to alcohol and you get a really strong craving for alcohol. It may be a craving that you can’t control,” said Farrell.
By regulating their blood sugar, says Farrell, recovering alcoholics can avoid the sugar highs and lows that often send them running for a drink. According to Farrell, in many cases, an addict’s overwhelming urge for his or her next fix is actually a sugar craving in disguise.
The tendency for recovering addicts to develop sugar addiction as they withdraw from alcohol or drugs is an example of a very common phenomenon in addiction recovery: the development of a substitute addiction to food. It is not uncommon for those recovering from addiction to turn to food as a replacement. According to a study published in the international research journal Appetite, men in the early stages of recovery often practice dysfunctional eating habits, including substituting food for their drug of choice. According to Wiss, this is one of the primary issues he addresses in his practice.
“I often get patients who have been to treatment before and have developed severe eating dysfunction while in treatment,” said Wiss. “Some people can gain up to 20 lbs in their first month of treatment from binge eating, emotional eating, and food addiction. By disrupting these patterns through nutrition education and counseling, most of my patients end up staying sober and become interested in a healthy lifestyle, including nutrition and exercise.”
The Role of Amino Acids
Both Wiss and Farrell agree that one of the most promising areas of nutritional therapy for recovering addicts relates to neurotransmitters, amino acids, and how they affect the brain. Research has demonstrated the substantial role neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons and other cells in the body, play in addiction.
The connection between neurotransmitters and addiction results from the ability of drugs and alcohol to impact the brain’s output of certain neurotransmitters. For example, cocaine causes the brain to increase its production of the neurotransmitter dopamine which impacts mood and stimulates the feeling of pleasure. A problem arises, however, when the brain has been artificially stimulated to produce a neurotransmitter so often that it no longer produces this neurotransmitter on its own. Essentially, what this means is those recovering from addiction are dealing with a brain that no longer creates neurotransmitters, like dopamine, which play an integral role in their well-being.
According to Wiss, amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are precursors to neurotransmitters including those most related to addiction like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This connection indicates the potential to treat addiction through the targeted consumption of amino acids, which can be done through the intake of certain foods or supplements.
“Since dopamine is the key neurotransmitter involved with addiction and is associated with ‘reward,’ it is critical to restore depleted dopamine levels through a higher protein intake,” said Wiss. “Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid which is widespread in food that becomes tyrosine, which is converted to dopamine.”
An example of how amino acid supplementation works for addiction can be found in the instance of alcohol withdrawal. Alcoholics going through withdrawal experience an increased turnover of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. The amino acid phenylalanine, however, is a precursor to norepinephrine. If an individual recovering from alcohol addiction eats foods high in phenylalanine, like meat and fish, he will be helping to fulfill the need for this neurotransmitter during withdrawal.
Amino acid therapy has become an increasingly popular treatment for addiction in recent years and often involves amino acid injections administered by a physician. Wiss, however, believes that recovering addicts don’t necessarily need to inject amino acids to get results; making the right dietary changes to get specific amino acids in their food could have the desired effect as well.
In her own personal journey of recovery, Patricia Farrell says she spent seven years trying to heal her neurotransmitters. “It takes a very long time to get to a place where you’re satisfied, and you’re happy, and you feel joy,” said Farrell. “That takes a long time because you’ve misused and reprogrammed your neurotransmitters. And so those lock and key type mechanisms are not working properly—they’re totally misfiring and that does take time to heal.”
Farrell agrees with Wiss that amino acids are critical to the neurotransmitter healing process, and she highly recommends taking a supplement of the amino acid GABA to restore proper brain function. In addition to amino acids, Farrell suggests a few other vitamins and minerals that can benefit your neurotransmitters, including the B vitamins, vitamin D, and foods or supplements that contain Omega 3 like fish oil or flaxseed.
How to Begin: Nutritional Guidelines for Recovering Addicts
When it comes to nutritional guidelines for recovering addicts, Wiss and Farrell offer similar advice. Eliminating added sugar is high on both their lists, as is incorporating whole grains into your diet. The elimination of processed foods in favor of a diet of whole foods is key. Both nutrition specialists also emphasize the importance of protein because of its correlation with the production of amino acids.
Other important dietary factors for recovery include how much you’re eating and when you’re eating it. For example, Wiss not only recommends increasing protein intake but also spacing it out over the course of the day. “Instead of having one or two large protein-based meals in the day, make sure every meal or snack contains a minimum of 10 to 15 grams protein,” said Wiss.
Wiss also suggests more frequent and evenly disbursed meal times, a practice that corresponds with his mantra: never hungry, never full. He recommends eating smaller meals every two to four hours, starting with breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up. Farrell mirrors this sentiment suggesting that recovering addicts always keep a healthy snack on hand, like a bag of nuts, to avoid sugar crashes and help keep blood sugar levels stable. Both nutritionists also acknowledge the importance of good old fashioned sunshine (for vitamin D) and exercise in any recovery plan.
Dietary recommendations do vary somewhat depending on the substance you are withdrawing from. Alcohol and opiates, for example, negatively impact the stomach, so people recovering from these substances should work to restore gut health through increased intake of probiotics. Cocaine, says Wiss, is associated with essential fatty acid deficiency, so those recovering from cocaine addiction would benefit from increased consumption of Omega 3. Because of these nuances in each recovering addict’s dietary needs, it is important to collaborate with a trained nutritionist to determine what nutritional approach will help you most on your road to recovery.
After long-term dietary neglect, what matters most is making a decision to finally give your body the nutrients it needs to be healthy. This does not mean your diet will always be perfect. And, obviously, it is more important to stay on track with your sobriety than to worry about adhering to a strict diet. But in the end, making dietary choices that support your body and brain as they heal will only help you prevail on the path to sobriety.