Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction can impact the brain and body in many ways. Physical health is impacted by the substances themselves and also by lifestyle choices, which can include a poor diet.

How Nutrition Suffers During Addiction

Nutrients are provided to the body in the form of foods that are eaten. When someone is battling addiction, food choices are often unhealthy. They don’t provide the body with what it needs to function properly. Drugs and alcohol can also deplete the body with nutrients. This can interfere with organ function and immune system abilities, and it can lead to malnutrition and poor physical and mental health as a result. More than 20 million U.S. adults dealt with addiction at the time of the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Addiction is a chronic disease with far-reaching ramifications, including poor nutrition and overall health.

Nutrition programs during recovery can help to reset the brain and body, helping a person to heal and improving overall health and quality of life.

The Role of Nutrition in Recovery

Nutrition and diet can play a big role in a person’s health and well-being. Drug and alcohol abuse can interfere with this in many ways.

Common drugs influence the body in different ways.

  • Stimulants: Stimulants, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription ADHD medications, can suppress the appetite. This can lead to weight loss and malnutrition from lack of eating.
  • Marijuana: Marijuana can have the opposite effect, increasing the appetite and encouraging the intake of empty calories in the form of foods that are high in fat and sugar.
  • Opioids: Prescription painkillers and heroin interact with the gastrointestinal system, often leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. This can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes and not enough nutrients being processed through the body.
  • Alcohol: The U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) reports that alcohol is one of the No. 1 causes of deficiency related to nutrition in the United States, as it impacts two of the largest organs involved in metabolism — the liver and the pancreas. Excessive alcohol use can damage these two major organs, resulting in nutritional imbalances and deficiencies of B vitamins, which can cause anemia and significant neurological problems.

During recovery, nutritional imbalances and malnutrition can be addressed with a nutritional program that caters to the individual’s specific needs.

Types of Nutrition Programs

In general, nutrition programs during addiction treatment programs will be considered either primary or secondary.

  • Primary: A primary nutrition program is often a medical nutritional therapy (MNT) program that provides the body with the proper nutrients it needs to heal and recover from malnutrition and significant vitamin and mineral imbalances caused by drug and/or alcohol use. Specific foods and supplements can be provided to enhance healing and correct any deficiencies that were related to long-term substance abuse.
    Medications may be needed to help with underlying mental health or medical conditions. Medical professionals can help with this during treatment and recovery.

Secondary: A secondary nutrition program helps to reduce stress and cravings while improving overall health through a well-balanced diet. These nutrition programs offer nutrition counseling and meal planning to help a person make healthy choices.

Foods and meals that are nutrient-dense can help to improve moods while providing the brain and body what they need to heal.

One of the things impacted by substance use is the chemical balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemical messengers help to regulate thinking and emotions, and their levels are disrupted by drug addiction.

Foods that are high in vitamins like folic acid, amino acids, omega 3s, dietary health fats, and carbohydrates provide fuel for the brain and body, helping to balance things out. Trained nutritional counselors and dieticians can create balanced meal plans and a structured diet to aid in recovery.

Positive Benefits

Nutrition programs in recovery can take many forms. They may be group education classes on proper nutrition and diet planning, more medically-based, available through individual counseling, or part of a structured inpatient or residential treatment program.

Doctor holding a plate of food and vegetables

The journal Today’s Dietician explains that nutrition education and nutrition counseling programs improve sobriety rates and enhance recovery.

A nutrition program can lead to healthy lifestyle changes, which can have these positive results:

  • Stress reduction
  • Enhanced body image
  • Reduced cravings
  • Replenished physical health that was caused by malnutrition and damage from drugs and alcohol
  • Stabilized moods and improved mental health
  • Better sleep
  • Tools for proper self-care and a higher quality of life

A nutrition program in recovery can provide tools to improve physical well-being. It can also help to regulate cravings and manage stress to better cope and minimize relapse in recovery.

Specialized Nutrition Programs in Recovery

Nutrition education and counseling set a person up to be able to know which foods to eat and which to avoid during healing to improve physical and mental functioning. This can be done in a group or individual setting during an addiction treatment program, and it is often in both settings.

Individual nutritional counseling can deal with the specific needs of an individual. Specialty needs, such as allergies, intolerances, or preferences, can be addressed.

Group education allows people to support each other, offering tips and strategies for healthy choices.

Depending on the level of malnutrition caused by drug and alcohol abuse, the nutrition program may need to be more medically-based. In this type of program, medical, mental health, and nutrition or dietary professionals will all work together to make a plan for improving health through medical and nutritional means.

Getting the Best Results

Nutritional programs that are part of a highly structured inpatient addiction treatment program often include strict meal times and diets with specific calorie intakes and selections. These meal plans can be adjusted to suit specific dietary conditions and requirements.

During the initial evaluation for an addiction treatment program, discuss any meal or dietary conditions, preferences, and restrictions so that the diet plans can be sensitive and conducive to healing and specific needs.

A comprehensive addiction treatment program often includes therapeutic, supportive, and medical care as well as guidelines for overall lifestyle improvement. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that when nutrition education and counseling are part of a substance abuse treatment program, outcomes are improved and recovery is enhanced.

Nutrition programs can help to address medical and mental health conditions that have been exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse. Proper nutrition can aid in restoring physical and mental well-being for an improved quality of life in recovery.

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