Good nutrition can benefit people in many ways, from providing an energy boost to strengthening bones and muscles. Recently, some have started to wonder if nutrition can impact addiction recovery. In fact, some rehabs, alcohol detox centers, and similar places now employ nutritionists and dieticians as part of their treatment teams.
More research is needed to see how nutrition can impact addiction recovery, but early findings look promising. Below are some ways in which healthy eating may bolster substance abuse treatment.
Healing from Malnutrition
Drug abuse often leads to malnutrition, which can take a toll on the body. People need nutrients for fuel, but many drugs change how much of that fuel people get.
Consider stimulants, for example. All kinds of stimulants, from legal prescription medicines to illicit drugs like cocaine, can cause appetite reduction.
People who misuse stimulants may forget to eat or simply avoid meals because food doesn’t sound appetizing. They often don’t consume enough calories as a result, which creates the risk of malnourishment.
Other drugs have the opposite effect, boosting the appetite instead of suppressing it. People who use these substances may eat enough calories, but they will often consume non-nutritious foods when they do so. Even when people eat enough food, they can still experience malnourishment if they don’t get enough vitamins and minerals in their diets.
During addiction recovery, a good nutrition plan can help people heal from this malnourishment.
Vitamin Deficiencies and Mental Health
Researchers have found a correlation between poor nutrition and mental health. According to some studies, people with mental illnesses are often low on essential vitamins and minerals.
So far, it’s unclear whether these vitamin deficiencies contribute to mental illness or vice versa. For instance, somebody with depression may feel too numb and exhausted to eat, which can lead to nutritional gaps.
However, it’s possible that vitamin deficiencies and poor mental health contribute to one another, which means that it’s also possible that good nutrition can improve mental health outcomes.
Addiction is itself a mental illness, and co-occurring mental health conditions can make addiction worse. When a person in recovery consumes enough vitamins and minerals, they may experience a mood lift that can help them avoid relapse.
Nutrients and Brain Chemicals
Some research shows that nutrition affects neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that act as messengers. They carry information from one part of the brain to another.
How Do Neurotransmitters Work?
Each neurotransmitter is in charge of sending a different message. For example, when a neurotransmitter called dopamine reaches its destination, the brain receives a message that says “I am happy, alert, and motivated.” Some other neurotransmitters include:
- acetylcholine (muscle movement, attention, and learning)
- GABA (calmness)
- glutamate (alertness)
- oxytocin (bonding with others)
- serotonin (happiness and feelings of wellbeing)
How Drugs Impact Neurotransmitters
Drugs and alcohol interact with all of these chemicals, and that interaction plays a role in addiction. For instance, alcohol consumption boosts dopamine and inhibits glutamate, providing a temporary sense of calm and happiness.
However, as a result, the brain can become less sensitive to dopamine and more sensitive to glutamate over time. When this happens, that person may feel sad and anxious when not drinking alcohol, and they may start to depend on alcohol to feel normal.
How Nutrition Can Make a Difference
Researchers need more information to determine how exactly food impacts brain chemicals. However, the currently available information does show some connections. Carbohydrates, for example, can boost serotonin production. Low protein diets, meanwhile, have been linked to several neurotransmitter deficiencies.
For people who deal with addiction, these connections may make a big difference in recovery. Drug and alcohol abuse throws the brain’s neurotransmitters off balance. During recovery, those imbalances can heal. Good nutrition may facilitate that healing.
How to Use Nutrition in Addiction Recovery
Like recovery itself, changing nutrition habits can seem daunting at first, especially without help.
If you’re currently in recovery and want to make some healthy changes, try focusing on one nutritional aspect at a time. For example, you might increase your vegetable intake or replace a few sugary beverages with water. For most people, gradual changes are more sustainable and more likely to become long-term habits. Talk to a doctor before starting any new diet plan.
If you have an addiction and want to incorporate nutrition into your treatment, look for rehabs and detox centers that offer healthy eating plans. Again, some treatment centers employ dieticians and nutritionists on their staff.
Both recovery and nutrition can improve your health. They may also reinforce one another. In any case, if you incorporate both into your life, you may be surprised at the positive changes you experience.