When an individual begins treatment for a substance use disorder, prioritizing nutrition is not at the top of their list. The importance of nutrition often gets lost in the process of attending counseling sessions, finding local meetings, adjusting to new environments, and doing the exhausting work of forming better habits in every area of life. Plus, when you’re trying to manage uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms – such as mood swings, nausea, and trouble sleeping – eating that bowl of ice cream for dinner starts to sound like a harmless way to cope with all this new stress. Wouldn’t it be nice if ice cream could really solve all our problems?
The Benefits of Prioritizing Nutrition
But those entering addiction treatment might already be lacking some vital nutrients as a result of their substance use – this is why prioritizing nutrition during recovery is so beneficial. Individuals with substance use disorders often struggle with fatigue in early recovery. Their bodies have been stripped of the essential vitamins and minerals necessary for energy production.
Individuals entering treatment are already more likely than the general population to be practicing food habits that are less than healthy. This is especially true when it comes to choosing foods with little nutritional value and skipping meals. When someone is struggling with substance use, other daily concerns – such as eating a substantial dinner – fall by the wayside.
Working in the field of addiction, it is not uncommon for me to hear people say, “I should be able to indulge in all the sweets, fats and junk food I want.” There is a shared belief that “treating themselves” to processed foods is better than using their drug of use. This, however, is proving to be detrimental to recovery. Researchers are discovering that the foods we consume affect our moods, cravings and even long term sobriety.
Lynnel Brewster, RN, LPC, LLMFT, CCTP, Sanford Behavioral Health Clinical Director
The Nutritional Dilemma in Recovery
- The act of ingesting drugs or alcohol wreaks havoc on the body.
- And alcohol interferes with nutrient breakdown resulting in nutritional deficiencies.
- Opiates tend to cause gastrointestinal issues.
- Stimulants suppress appetite, which can lead to an insufficient intake of calories and vital nutrients.
A person in active addiction is less likely to eat healthily. Some drugs can cause you to eat too much and some drugs cause you to eat too little. It is not unusual, at the height of an alcohol use disorder, for as much as 50 percent of the daily caloric intake to come from alcohol.
How Nutrition Helps the Therapeutic Process:
Proper nutrition has the potential to make people in recovery feel better both mentally and physically. Proper nutrition provides:
- Energy to the body
- The needed help to build and repair organ tissue
- The necessary nutrients to strengthen the immune system
For many people in recovery, there can be damage to vital organs during the course of active addiction. Healthy food can provide the nutritional components needed to help restore potentially damaged tissues.
Nutrition also plays an important role in mood regulation. Research suggests that changes in diet can alter brain structure both physiologically and chemically. These changes can influence behavior. The consumption of certain foods has been tied to an increased production of key neurotransmitters like serotonin. Serotonin assists in mood enhancement. And for many in recovery, feeling better can help reduce the risk of relapse. And research suggests that those in recovery with insufficient dietary lifestyles are at higher risk of relapse.
The Pros of Prioritizing Healthy Eating:
- Great, healthy food makes everyone (not just those in recovery) feel better
- And feeling better reduces the risk of relapse
- Nutrients give the body energy and strengthen the immune system
- Whole foods are one of the best ways to restore flagging health
- And control those cravings
- Changes in diet can positively alter the brain
- And good food is a reward and a first step toward learning to take better care of oneself
- For those with co-occurring eating disorders, relearning to eat intuitively and mindfully is key
- The ritual of eating with others reminds us of our (perhaps long forgotten) social wherewithal
- And cooking is a fun activity that can be taken away from treatment and brought into the home
- Cooking can inspire positive family time
- Enjoying shopping, and preparing dinner can also fill the triggering “it’s 5:00 somewhere” time of night
The nutritional guidelines the Sanford House Chef incorporates are important for those in recovery. We eliminate sugar as much as possible and includes whole grains in the diet. There are virtually no processed foods, and whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables are key. And lots of protein, because protein increases the production of amino acids – and natural dopamine. Meals, healthy snacks and proteins are distributed throughout the day.
At Sanford Behavioral Health, we know that after years of dietary neglect due to active addiction, prioritizing nutrition and a healthier dietary lifestyle creates a pathway to better health. And better overall health will promote a pathway to long-term recovery.