While it may seem obvious that good nutrition leads to wellness, many don’t really know what that means. We are bombarded with media messages of what’s healthy, and on a daily basis, it seems those messages change. What was once healthful is now forbidden; what was off-limits is now a “superfood.” As if those mixed messages aren’t confusing enough, for those who have engaged in years of damaging behaviors to the body and mind, repairing our bodies through food and supplementation can seem particularly challenging.
Nutrition is an overarching term, referring to not only the foods we eat and what we drink, but also to proper vitamin and mineral supplementation. Nutrition also involves understanding how the foods we eat and how we eat them affect our bodies, moods and behaviors, in addition to understanding metabolism and overall wellness.
At the Destination Hope Wellness Center, we believe it is important to gain a deeper understanding of what our body needs on a daily basis to support and heal itself. Our bodies need minerals and nutrients to perform various functions and regenerate damaged tissue and cells that may have been compromised in our years as addicts. Just understanding the basics of nutrition gives us a leg up, furthering the notion that our bodies are to be respected and nurtured. If any of these aspects are compromised, we may be more tempted to reach for unhealthy choices – alcohol, drugs, other vices – to alleviate and fill those voids.
A byproduct of better nutrition in the form of weight management, leads to increase self-confidence and self-worth, allowing the client to make better choices, while avoiding past crutches to mask feelings of self-doubt or insecurity.
Nutrition goes far beyond food pyramid or what to put on the dinner plate. It truly is an understanding of what our body needs on a daily basis to not only function at optimal level, but to sustain and repair itself from environmental factors, aging and from years of abuse from behavioral health issues.
When it comes to treatment, there is compelling research showing that nutrition is a factor worth considering.
Identifying Nutritional Risks
As with treatment for alcohol, nutrition therapy is based on individual needs. If left untreated, nutritional imbalances can lead to additional health issues that can make excessive alcohol consumption even more dangerous, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Such imbalances may also encourage further drinking. For instance, cravings can sometimes be triggered by low blood sugar.
When a person is primarily focused on the next available opportunity to use, meals are often intermittent or high in calories from fats and sugars. This can lead to significant weight loss or weight gain, both factors that can affect how alcohol affects the body.
An important part of nutrition therapy is education. In addition to teaching the basics of making healthy diet choices, recovering patients are taught how watching their diet may improve their odds of enjoying a successful recovery following treatment.
The Role of Sugar in Recovery
We are seeing an increasing number of clients come through our doors with Diabetes. This is in part due to the skyrocketing rates of obesity in the United States, but recovering alcoholics and addicts are also at a higher risk of developing Diabetes because of their relationship with sugar.
Most people know about the huge amount of sugar alcohol contains, not to mention its effects on the pancreas. However, the connection between opiate addiction and sugar is well documented, but much less known to the public. The ingestion of sugar releases a small flood of feel good chemicals in the brain similar to the endorphin release experienced during opiate use.
When coming off of a high and not able to get more of their drug of choice, opiate addicts often consume significant amounts of sugar as a way to tide them over until they can use again.
Sugar cravings don’t disappear once a person stops abusing drugs or alcohol. Eating or drinking large amounts of simple sugars will lead to spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels which can cause severe mood swings. This is, in part, because eating simple sugars negatively affects the endocrine system, which helps control mood.
Low blood sugar can cause symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, sweats, dizziness, and nausea. Our nutrition program teaches clients how to satisfy those sugar cravings in a healthier manner, for example by eating fruits and complex carbs that don’t leave you reeling and emotionally brutalized from the highs and lows. After all, recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism is hard enough without erratic blood sugar levels.
Normalizing Brain Chemistry
Low levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine can encourage a return to previous bad habits to feel better during mood changes. Dietary adjustments can help counter some of these effects. For example, the amino acid tryptophan, found in many foods, boosts the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical messenger linked to mood stabilization that can also help restore normal sleep patterns.
Once sober, chemical imbalances in the brain are usually self-corrected within a few weeks, although some research suggests it may take longer. Including nutrition therapy as part of the recovery plan may further stabilize these imbalances.
Maintaining a healthy diet can ease anxiety, boost energy levels and reduce the risk of experiencing a relapse. The key to seeing results with nutrition therapy is to find balance. This is achieved with a mix of foods that are high in fiber, carbohydrates and healthy fats, as well as supplements to compensate for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. A balanced diet is one that includes:
- Lean proteins (skinless chicken, fish, lean cuts of beef, beans, nuts and seeds)
- Low-fat dairy products
- Nutrient-dense foods (green veggies, whole grains, fruits)
Often combined with an appropriate exercise routine and personalized counseling to encourage wise decision-making, nutrition therapy isn’t meant to be a substitute for, but rather work in conjunction with the twelve-step program or other treatments. Addiction is a complex disease that affects structures in the brain and body, explaining why making positive nutritional changes may help re-establish a healthy balance.