A healthy diet is a critical component of recovery. The food you put in your body has a direct impact on your physical and mental health, and making changes to your diet can dramatically improve your chances of long-term, successful recovery.
In early recovery, eating certain foods can go a long way toward improving your mood, sleep, cognitive function, cell function, immunity, stress levels and cravings. Conversely, a poor diet puts you at a higher risk of relapse, according to the National Institutes of Health.1 During the early weeks and months of recovery, consuming plenty of superfoods—foods that pack a potent nutritional punch—will help promote overall good health.
During the early weeks and months of recovery, consuming plenty of superfoods will help promote overall good health.
How Addiction Affects Your Nutrition
Chronic substance abuse and addiction have far-reaching nutritional effects. Drugs and alcohol directly impact the functioning of the body. People with addiction are often in general poor health due to both the impact of drugs and alcohol on the body and an unhealthy lifestyle that includes poor eating habits, a lack of exercise and changes in sleep patterns.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies that result from chronic drug abuse or addiction affect your physical and mental health by causing damage to vital organs, decreasing immunity and negatively affecting the nervous system. Due to these deficiencies and general poor nutrition, people recovering from an addiction may be at risk for long-term health problems like metabolic syndrome, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and eating disorders.
The Impact of Alcohol on Nutrition
Many people with an alcohol use disorder suffer from malnutrition. This may be due to a poor diet or to changes in the body’s ability to use nutrients due to the effects of alcohol. Vitamin A, vitamin C and thiamine deficiencies are common among those who consume more than 30 percent of their daily caloric intake in alcohol, and many don’t get the macronutrients—fat, protein, and carbohydrates—they need to maintain optimum health.
Alcohol interferes with the metabolism of proteins, which can lead to low albumin levels, fluid in the abdomen, reduced clotting of the blood and excessive ammonia levels due to decreased urine production. All of these problems can cause or exacerbate problems with brain function.
Alcohol-induced liver disease can inhibit the ability of the liver to take up and convert beta carotene to vitamin A, leading to deficiencies in that vitamin. A lack of thiamine, or vitamin B1, can result from decreased absorption due to the diuretic effects of alcohol.
To counteract these deficiencies, consume plenty of foods high in vitamin A and thiamine. Good sources of vitamin A include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Dark leafy greens
- Winter squashes
Good sources of thiamine include:
- Lean pork
- Sunflower seeds
- Macadamia nuts
- Green peas
- Cooked asparagus
Women who drink heavily are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Women should consume plenty of foods high in calcium, including:
- Low-fat dairy products
- Dark leafy greens like watercress and kale
- Fortified tofu
The Impact of Illicit Drugs on Nutrition
Narcotic painkillers like oxycodone, codeine and morphine and the street drug heroin lead to slower digestion, which can cause constipation and other gastrointestinal problems. Glucose intolerance is common among people with a heroin addiction, but this problem is usually resolved with abstinence. Frequent nutritious meals and plenty of complex carbohydrates like oatmeal and long-grain brown rice can help restore normal blood sugar in early recovery.
Frequent nutritious meals and plenty of complex carbohydrates can help restore normal blood sugar in early recovery.
Cocaine, meth, Adderall and other stimulants generally cause a lack of appetite and subsequent weight loss. Malnutrition may result from stimulant abuse or addiction, and weight gain may be an essential part of early recovery. Regular meals and snacks that include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, protein and healthy fats can promote healthy weight gain.
The most commonly used drug in the U.S., marijuana increases the appetite and may cause weight gain due to the consumption of sugary and fatty foods. A restricted diet isn’t recommended for people in early recovery, but an overall healthy diet and plenty of exercise can lead to weight loss without severely restricting calories.
Eating Disorders and Weight Management in Recovery
Around half of all people who abuse drugs and alcohol have a co-occurring eating disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders are the most common disorders.2 Additionally, 72 percent of women under the age of 30 who have alcoholism also have an eating disorder. Cocaine and other stimulants are associated with a higher prevalence of eating disorders as well, according to an article published in Today’s Dietician.3
In recovery, many people turn to food to replace drugs or alcohol, and they may gain weight as a result of frequent binge eating. Conversely, people in recovery who have anorexia or bulimia may suffer from malnutrition, which can affect the outcome of treatment.
Eating a nutritious diet and maintaining a healthy weight are essential for enjoying good overall health and successfully beating an addiction. A healthy diet is so important for those in recovery that most high-quality treatment programs provide nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian to identify deficiencies and restore good physical and mental health with the help of the right foods.
Eating a nutritious diet and maintaining a healthy weight are essential for enjoying good overall health and successfully beating an addiction.
Superfoods for Mood in Early Recovery
Understanding how the food you eat affects your mood can help you make healthier choices to maintain a higher sense of well-being in early recovery.
Up to 67 percent of people seeking treatment for a substance use disorder have a lifetime history of depression, according to an article published in the journal Science & Practice Perspectives.4 The Anxiety and Depression Association of America points out that people with anxiety are three times more likely than those without anxiety to develop a substance use disorder.5
Whether depression, anxiety or another mood disorder was present before the substance use disorder, occurred as a result of it or only set in after detox, a nutritious diet can help stabilize your mood during early recovery.
Carbohydrates and Tryptophan
Carbohydrates are a major player in the production of serotonin, which is a feel-good neurotransmitter that helps produce a stable, happy mood. The insulin that’s released after consuming carbohydrates is used for energy in the cells, where it triggers the entry of tryptophan, an essential amino acid, into the brain. Folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 then synthesize the tryptophan into serotonin. Consuming plenty of these nutrients can make a big difference in your mood in early recovery.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates are far healthier than the refined carbs that make up much of the processed foods we eat today.
Excellent sources of complex carbohydrates include:
- Oat bran
- Wheat germ
- Long-grain brown rice
- Potatoes, with the skin
Foods high in tryptophan include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
You can get healthy doses of folic acid by eating:
- Collard greens
- Pinto beans
- Brussels sprouts
Foods high in vitamin B6 include:
- Pistachio nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Turkey breast
- Lean pork
Good sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Cooked clams
- Smoked salmon
- Red meat
- Low-fat milk
- Swiss cheese
Amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. While tryptophan is synthesized into serotonin, the neurotransmitter dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. Maintaining adequate dopamine levels is crucial for maintaining a happy, stable mood. Foods high in tyrosine can help your brain increase dopamine levels and include:
- Parmesan cheese
- Roasted soybeans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Wild rice
Dietary fat promotes inflammation, which has been shown to result in more depressive symptoms, according to a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.6 Limiting unhealthy dietary fat positively impacts your mood. Avoid fried foods, fatty meats and overly processed sweets.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids fight inflammation. They also assist in the uptake of neurotransmitters, improving the function of dopamine and serotonin receptors to promote higher levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Brussels sprouts
Foods high in omega-6 fatty acids include:
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower seeds
Superfoods for Withdrawal
The detox process often brings with it unpleasant symptoms like depression, anxiety, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, nausea and vomiting and other ailments that can make eating difficult. Still, proper nutrition during the withdrawal phase can help reduce the severity of these symptoms, restore the balance of electrolytes and ward off dehydration.
Eating complex carbohydrates and foods high in fiber supports the liver in promoting optimum detoxification.7 Foods with the highest fiber content include:
- Oat and wheat bran
- Black, navy, and pinto beans
- Raspberries, loganberries and elderberries
- Cooked bulgur
- Black eyed peas, green peas and split peas
- Pine nuts
- Acorn squash
Drink plenty of filtered water and white and green tea to stay hydrated while detoxing. According to the National Cancer Institute, green teas have been shown to activate detoxification enzymes, and the plant chemicals found in green and white teas, known as polyphenols, are potent antioxidants.8
Superfoods for Stress Relief
Stress is a well-known major contributor to relapse. Much time in treatment is devoted to reducing stress to improve your chances of long-term successful recovery. Your diet impacts your stress levels. In addition to regular exercise, deep breathing and meditation, good nutrition can go a long way toward reducing your stress.
In addition to regular exercise, deep breathing and meditation, good nutrition can go a long way toward reducing your stress.
Vitamin C is a potent stress reliever and works by lowering the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reducing blood pressure during periods of high anxiety. The best foods for vitamin C include:
- Yellow peppers
UCLA’s Center for East-West Medicine recommends a daily dose of dark chocolate to help relieve stress at the molecular level and improve mood and cognitive function.9 Additionally, oatmeal and other complex carbohydrates help boost serotonin levels, which can also help reduce stress. Herbal teas are good choices for relieving stress as well. Mint tea promotes calmness, and barley tea, which contains tryptophan, promotes relaxation.
An article published in the journal Biological Psychology cites L-Theanine, an amino acid, as a potent stress reliever.10 L-Theanine increases alpha brain wave activity to promote relaxation without resulting in drowsiness. Tea is the only dietary source of L-Theanine, and green tea contains the highest levels.
Superfoods to Reduce Cravings
Cravings can be triggered by anxiety, irritability, depression and low energy levels. An unbalanced diet, low blood sugar, dehydration and excessive caffeine can result in all of these symptoms and increase your risk of a slip-up. Malnutrition is another trigger for cravings, and correcting any nutritional deficiencies is essential for helping to stave off cravings or reduce their intensity.
Foods that improve digestion and promote stable blood sugar levels throughout the day should be at the top of the list of foods to consume in early recovery to address cravings. These foods include:
- Whole-grain bread, which metabolizes slowly and helps reduce sugar cravings associated with quitting alcohol and other substances.
- Raw spinach, which provides the body with L-glutamine, an amino acid that helps to reduce anxiety and curb cravings.
- Peanut butter, which is a good source of dietary fiber, protein and vitamin B and promotes the production of dopamine.
- Salmon, which is loaded with vitamin D, protein and omega-3 fatty acids to reduce cravings and improve cognitive function.
Superfoods to Repair Cell Damage
Drugs and alcohol damage the body’s cells and cause the generation of free radicals, which are atoms or groups of atoms that have unpaired electrons. Free radicals cause cells to function poorly, and they can even kill cells. Damaged cells can lead to catastrophic health problems like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Antioxidants are the first defense against free radicals, and they can help repair cell damage resulting from chronic substance abuse. The best antioxidants for combating free radicals and promoting healthy cells include:
- Dark purple grapes
- Raspberries and strawberries
- Spinach and other dark leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash and carrots
- Green tea
- Lentils, black-eyed peas and kidney beans
Superfoods for Quality Sleep
A recent study by researchers at Pennsylvania University found that a diet low in alpha carotene, selenium, lauric acid, potassium and calcium can result in sleep problems like difficulty falling and staying asleep.11 Addressing these deficiencies is essential for improving your sleep for overall better health.
Foods high in alpha carotene include:
- Butternut squash
- Tomato juice and tomatoes
- Red bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
Selenium-rich foods include:
- Brazil nuts
- Whole-wheat bread
- Sunflower seeds
- Beef and lamb
- Crimini mushrooms
Excellent sources of lauric acid include:
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil
- Butter from grass-fed animals
Foods high in potassium include:
- White beans
- Dark leafy greens
- Baked sweet potatoes
- Dried apricots
- Baked acorn squash
- Low-fat yogurt
Complex carbohydrates that contain large amounts of tryptophan can also help promote quality sleep by improving serotonin function, relaxing the body and helping you produce melatonin, which is the hormone that regulates sleep. Make a point to have a banana, a bowl of oatmeal or brown rice before bed to help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
Healthy Diet Tips for Recovery
Eating a healthy diet doesn’t come naturally to many people. Making a concerted effort to consume healthy foods is essential for getting the numerous nutritional benefits superfoods have to offer. Small but mighty lifestyle changes promote healthy eating both directly and indirectly. These lifestyle tips can help you develop better overall nutrition.
- Stay adequately hydrated. Dehydration leads to irritability, difficultly concentrating and trouble sleeping, all of which can impact your sense of well-being and contribute to a slip-up.
- If you don’t know how to cook, consider taking a class or start trying out healthy recipes that sound good to you. Knowing how to cook your own healthy food is an important skill in recovery.
- Eat healthy, regularly scheduled meals and snacks. Skipping meals negatively impacts your health, particularly during early recovery, and reaching for sugary or fatty snacks impacts your health and increases your risk of gaining weight or developing a binge eating disorder.
- Avoid foods that are overly processed or have a lot of added sugar. Instead, eat mostly whole foods that you prepare yourself.
- Reduce your caffeine intake and stop smoking.
- Exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week.
- Learn as much as you can about good nutrition. A registered dietitian can help you develop a healthy eating plan that won’t leave you feeling deprived.
- Talk to your doctor or dietitian about taking vitamin and mineral supplements to address deficiencies and enhance your overall health.
Regularly making healthy food choices will lead to better long-term eating habits and better nutrition. Improved physical and mental health and a higher sense of well-being are essential for successful long-term recovery, and these can be achieved in part by consuming a healthy diet.
- Diet and Substance Use Recovery. (2014, February 24). Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002149.htm
- Grilo, C. M., Sinha, R., & O’Malley, S. S. (2002, November). Eating Disorders and Alcohol Use Disorders. Retrieved from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-2/151-160.htm
- Salz, A. (2014, December). Substance Abuse and Nutrition. Today’s Dietitian, 16(12), 44. Retrieved from http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/120914p44.shtml
- Quello, S. B., Brady, K. T., & Sonne, S. C. (2005, December). Mood Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: A Complex Comorbidity. Science and Practice Perspectives, 3(1), 13-21. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851027/
- Substance Use Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/substance-abuse
- Harrison, N. A., Brydon, L., Walker, C., Gray, M. A., Steptoe, A., & Critchley, H. D. (2009, September 1). Inflammation Causes Mood Changes Through Alterations in Subgenual Cingulate Activity and Mesolimbic Connectivity. Biological Psychiatry, 66(5), 407-414. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2885494/
- Reardon, B. (2015, August 24). Are There Foods That Will Help with Withdrawal Symptoms of an Opiate Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.caring.com/questions/foods-that-help-with-opiate-withdrawl
- Tea and Cancer Prevention. (2010, November 17). Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/tea-fact-sheet
- Wongvibulsin, S. (2014). Eat Right, Drink Well, Stress Less: Stress-Reducing Foods, Herbal Supplements, and Teas. Retrieved from http://exploreim.ucla.edu/wellness/eat-right-drink-well-stress-less-stress-reducing-foods-herbal-supplements-and-teas/
- Kimura, K., Ozeki, M., Juneja, L. R., & Ohira, H. (2007, January). L-Theanine Reduces Psychological and Physiological Stress Responses. Biological Psychology, 74(1), 39-45. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16930802
- Grandner, M. A., Jackson, N., Gerstner, J. R., & Knutson, K. L. (2014). Sleep Symptoms Associated with Intake of Specific Dietary Nutrients. Journal of Sleep Research, 23, 22-34. Retrieved from http://www.michaelgrandner.com/files/papers/grandnerjackson2013-dietsxs.pdf