Proper nutrition is always good for your body and brain, however, when recovering from substance use disorder it is essential to eat properly for several important reasons. In addition to the myriad of physical problems caused by improper nutrition when using drugs/alcohol, brain function can be impaired as the brain is deprived of essential nutrients needed for the production of essential neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). The physical and mental side effects of improper nutrition while using substances underscore the need for healthy eating habits in early recovery.
How Substance Use Affects the Body
Substance use disorder is known to lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies that impair physical and mental health, damage organs and the nervous system, and decrease immunity. The use of drugs and/or alcohol can produce several harmful side effects, including:
- Reduced Appetite: The use of substances typically produces a reduction in appetite and skipping meals.
- Poor Eating Habits: Under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol (or recovering from their effects) people tend to prioritize substances over eating properly, and have cravings for foods that are high in fat, sodium, and carbohydrates over fruits, vegetables, and healthier foods.
- Malnourishment: Malnourishment can result from failing to eat consistently over time or from the body’s inability to absorb nutrients necessary for healthy bodily functions.
- Overeating: Some substances (particularly marijuana) cause overeating, which can lead to obesity and a number of health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.
- Immune system damage: Substances such as alcohol and opiates can suppress the immune system and make someone more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
- Gastrointestinal disorders: Alcohol, in particular, contributes to chronic digestive and gastrointestinal disorders including irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut syndrome, bacterial overgrowth, fungal infections, and acid reflux.
How Proper Nutrition Helps with Recovery
Proper nutrition helps both the brain and the body heal from substance use disorder and increases a person’s chances of getting and staying sober. In early recovery, there are several immediate benefits to proper nutrition including:
Damage Repair for the Body and Mind – The introduction of healthy eating habits during early recovery supports the body and brain’s repair process. Proteins and healthy fats can repair and rebuild damaged organs, muscles, and bones. Fiber can help return the digestive system to a working state.
Stabilize Mood and Reduce Stress – Early recovery is a time of change, and this change can stress the body and brain. The toxic effects of drugs and alcohol can cause mood and mental disorders that are essential to address in
recovery. Healthy carbohydrates can regulate blood sugar, providing better levels of energy and elevated mood. Proteins and omega-3 fatty acids can repair the brain and stimulate brain functions.
Curb Drug/Alcohol Cravings – Healthy eating habits and routines help deal with harmful cravings. In early recovery it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate hunger cravings from substance cravings, and so eating nutrient-rich food on a regular schedule prevents hunger cravings and ameliorates this risk.
Self-Care and Lifestyle Change – Sustainable recovery goes hand-in-hand with long-term wellness. Establishing a healthy eating routine not only improves physical health but also mental health and an overall feeling of wellbeing. This is a strong motivator to continue healthy habits established in early recovery.
What and How to Eat in Early Recovery
The first year after ceasing the use of alcohol or drugs nutritional needs are higher than normal. Even when a person eats a healthy, varied diet while using substances, fewer nutrients are available to satisfy nutritional needs since a lot of those nutrients are being used to detoxify the body from the effects of drugs/alcohol.
A diet rich in complex carbohydrates helps balance serotonin levels (a hormone that helps with feelings of wellbeing) in the brain. Complex carbohydrates are found in starchy foods like legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and peas), root vegetables (e.g., potatoes and carrots), pastas and breads. Eating these foods in combination with protein in your meals will keep you at your best.
Dairy products or other foods rich in calcium (calcium-fortified beverages, tofu, kale), are also essential, as are healthy fats, preferably ‘good’ oils such as canola, olive, flaxseed and those found in fish,
Foods rich in amino acids such as beets, carrots, beans, brussels sprouts, celery, papaya and protein-rich foods like beef, chicken, fish, dairy products and eggs help reduce sugar cravings, which are common in early recovery. Sugar consumption is linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and inflammation, which can potentially hamper recovery.
Foods packed in antioxidants, such as blueberries, strawberries, leeks, artichokes, onions, and pecans, help rebuild the immune system and speed up the body’s cleansing process.
Healthy Nutrition Habits You Can Start Today
The prospect of learning about proper nutrition and establishing healthy habits can feel daunting in early recovery. Be gentle with yourself, be patient, and do the best you can. There are some simple healthy habits you can start right away that establish a great foundation for a lifetime of health and wellness.
- Don’t skip meals. Eat a healthy breakfast and try not to skip meals! Sometimes it’s difficult to make time for three square meals a day, and keeping healthy options and snacks readily available is an easy way to avoid cravings and maintain proper nutrition. Eating smaller, healthy portions throughout the day is preferable to skipping meals which can produce cravings and over-eating.
- Cut back on caffeine. Caffeine cravings are common in early recovery. If the prospect of eliminating caffeinated beverages is too daunting, simply be mindful of the amount of caffeine consumed. Aim for no more than two (12 oz. or less) cups of coffee, caffeinated tea, or soda per day.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water! Avoid diuretic beverages and foods (these cause the body to lose water) like coffee, tea, carbonated beverages, acidic fruits, tomato-based products, and spicy foods.
- Vitamins. Vitamins A, D, B1, B5, B6, C, E, calcium, magnesium and niacin are commonly depleted due to the use of alcohol/drugs, and it is common for the body to need these essential nutrients in early recovery. NOTE: always consult a physician or qualified professional before introducing vitamins!
- Skip the fast food. While it’s best to avoid fast food altogether, if you are at a fast food restaurant choose a healthier option, like a salad, grilled chicken burger, or smoothie.
- Move your body. Beginning an exercise routine doesn’t need to be extreme; even 20 minutes of movement per day can have a dramatic impact on physical health and mood and helps maintain a healthy appetite.
How Herren Wellness Can Help
We understand that recovery – from anything – is a difficult time full of a range of emotions. We work with guests to create a whole-health action management plan, allowing them to discover and explore many opportunities in recovery.
We help foster healthy habits and routines, including nutrition, fitness, sleep hygiene, creative exercises, and group activities that allow guests to reconnect with the things they love or discover new interests.
We help guests build the skills that are essential to a sustainable recovery, including mindfulness practices, self-care and self-esteem skills, maintaining healthy relationships, and digging into the root causes of what led them to become dependent. We guide guests on how to build upon the skills they already possess and help them discover their ‘why’, or what motivates them to maintain a life of wellness and recovery.
We also work with guests to create a meaningful and sustainable aftercare plan that includes healthy habits and routines that are meaningful to them. When you come to Herren Wellness, you become part of a vibrant and thriving community that doesn’t end when your stay ends. You become part of the Herren Wellness family.