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The Role of Nutrition in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction

Sarah Fielden

Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2 (9), p. 9-10

Alcohol and drug abuse take a major toll on the human body. Recovering from alcohol or drug abuse is a gradual process, and nutrition is one of many issues that require attention. Alcoholism is especially hard to recover from as the detoxification stage is complicated (requiring careful monitoring, medications and support) and alcohol itself is difficult to avoid in the course of everyday socializing. Food is vital in helping the body rebuild itself and maintain health.

When you abuse alcohol and drugs, you:

  • Comsume less food (except with marijuana use)

  • Choose foods that are less nutritious and/or may skip meals

  • Increase the speed at which your body uses up energy

  • Increase the loss of nutrients through vomiting and diarrhea

  • Damage your gut so that it can’t absorb the nutrients in food properly

Food influences the way the brain functions. When your body isn’t producing enough brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) or the chemicals are out of balance, you can feel irritable and anxious. You can suffer from food cravings, anxiety and an inability to sleep. Resulting stress can also affect memory and/or make people paranoid, tired, dissatisfied or depressed.

What and how to eat during recovery

During recovery, you should eat a diet that will balance the levels of serotonin (a hormone that helps with relaxation) in the brain. This involves eating foods high in carbohydrates, especially the complex carbohydrates 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.

Deficiencies in B-complex vitamins such as thiamine, folate or folic acid, and B12 are common with alcoholism, and inadequate stores of other B vitamins and vitamin C frequently occur. Chronic alcohol consumption also increases the loss of minerals like zinc, magnesium and calcium from the body. Iron is an exception to this and is rarely deficient because alcohol damages the stomach lining, thereby increasing iron absorption.

In the first year after you stop using alcohol or drugs, your nutrition needs are higher than normal. You need to make sure you’re feeding your body good food on a daily basis. Even if you eat a healthy, varied diet while using drugs and alcohol, fewer nutrients are available to satisfy nutritional needs since a lot of those nutrients are being used to detoxify your body.

Malnutrition during alcohol use shows up in several ways. In the short term, you may become very tired and have a weaker immune system—which means that you’re more susceptible to infections. Other symptoms include dental problems, digestive problems (e.g., diarrhea, constipation and gas), skin conditions, and changes in the way foods taste. During long-term alcohol use, there are risks for brain damage, nerve damage, liver disease, heart and pancreas problems, and certain types of cancer. These problems need to be identified and treated during the recovery process—ideally by a team of health care professionals.

In the early stages of detoxification and recovery, you need to introduce meals slowly, since your body might not be used to digesting food. It’s a good idea to start off with small and frequent meals. Some people may start to gain weight. If you want weight management advice, see a nutritionist. If, however, gaining appropriate amounts of weight bothers you or your eating behaviour seems out of control, you may need professional help for body image and/or disordered eating problems.

Food shouldn’t replace drugs as a coping mechanism. Sugar and caffeine are common substitutes used during recovery because they produce highs and lows. These low-nutrient foods can prevent you from consuming enough healthy food and they affect your mood and cravings. However, these foods are preferable to starting alcohol or drug use again.

A diet for recovery should include:

  • Complex carbohydrates (50% to 55% of the calories you consume), which means plenty of grains, fruits and vegetable

  • Dairy products or other foods rich in calcium (calcium-fortified beverages, tofu, kale), two to three cups per day

  • Moderate protein (15% to 20% of calories): two to four ounces twice a day of meat or fish (or another high-protein food such as tofu)

  • Fat choices (30% of calories), preferably good oils such as canola, olive, flaxseed and those found in fish

Supportive structures and services must be part of the recovery ‘diet

Behavioural interventions are of limited use without supportive social groups and structures that improve access to safe and nutritional foods, alleviate poverty and treat additional mental health issues. Health care providers and different community-based agencies, including alcohol and drug treatment-specific organizations, have free services in mental health, nutrition and food provision, as well as other social services. These are great tools in the recovery process, and they can provide holistic care and support if you are recovering from addiction.

Nutrition tips for recovery....and for life

  • Tryhealthy choices for fast foods (salads, grilled chicken burgers, smoothies) if you don’t like to cook

  • Eat a variety of foods from all the food groups (fruits/vegetables, grains, dairy and meat or alternatives)

  • Eat food high in fibre, such as bran and oat cereals and muffins, legumes, fruits and vegetables

  • Eat breakfast and try not to skip other meals

  • Slowly cut back to drinking less than two cups of caffeinated coffee, tea or pop a day

  • Limit sugar and sweets

  • Drink plenty of water

  • Take multivitamins (talk to your health care provider about the options)

  • Enjoy some form of activity every day

  • Learn new ways to deal with stress and anxiety

  • Seek support (counsellors can help with this)

  • Talk to a dietitian for advice on nutrients, how to manage symptoms such as constipation and diarrhea, and for low-cost eating tip

 
About the Author

Sarah is an interdisciplinary PhD student with the Institute of Health Promotion Research at UBC, a member of Vancouver Dietitians in AIDS Care, and a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research graduate trainee

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