Addicted people tend to neglect self-care. They may be severely malnourished, lacking in important vitamins and minerals that provide energy and keep the body functioning at its best. Digestive issues, weakened immune systems, gut dysbiosis and non-bacterial inflammation are common. An article in the NewScientist (March 2015) states that "what goes on in our gut may have profound effects on what goes on in our mind".
Nutrition plays an important role in early recovery by strengthening the immune system, rebuilding a proper chemical balance and restoring energy and mental alertness. Proper nutrition can also minimize cravings, promote a better attitude and improve overall wellbeing. Most importantly though, the human gut has been increasingly recognized as "our second brain" by producing neurotransmitters and neuropeptides which have an important influence on mental health and behaviour. Restoring the healthy bacteria in the intestinal system and getting rid of the damaging ones is an important goal in recovery. However, be gentle with yourself and make gradual changes if you are working through early recovery. Replacing negative behaviors with positive ones takes time. This is why nutritional counselling is so important in addiction treatment for alcohol, drugs or other substances. Education about gut health and nutrition will be provided in a good treatment center and dietary recommendations will be reflected in the offered food choices.
First and foremost though, there are steps one can take right away. Every small change in diet will be a turn for the better:
- Regulate your intake of sugar and avoid sugary soda, candy, pastries and rich desserts. People in recovery often become addicted to sugar, and cravings for sugar feel much like cravings for alcohol. Too much sugar can also lead to erratic blood sugar spikes and crashes.
- Sugar – so scientific recommendations – should be cut from any diet if possible, it creates the perfect growing conditions for bacteria as well as contributing to metabolic issues such as high blood pressure and the risk of stroke. Some scientist even relate sugar intake to the growth of some cancer cells.
- Replace sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other simple carbs with complex carbohydrates that are absorbed into the body slowly, such as vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains.
- Eat plenty of fresh fruits and fresh (or lightly cooked) vegetables, which are high in antioxidants that rebuild a compromised immune system.
- Use lots of fresh herbs such as parsley or rosemary, they contain a very high anti-oxidative capacity. “Super foods” like blueberries, Goji and Acai berries are said to achieve the same.
- Eliminate highly processed foods. Try to increase your intake of whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.
- Don’t skip meals and always eat a breakfast that includes proteins and carbohydrates. Proteins are powerful building blocks that nurture the recovering brain and healthy carbohydrates provide energy and help avoid “energy-dips” and the urge to snack or consume sugary “uplifters”.
- Eat light, healthy, protein-rich snacks between meals to regulate blood sugar and maintain your energy level. For example, snack on a boiled egg, a handful of nuts, pumpkin seeds, trail mix or Greek yogurt.
- Some scientists and nutritionists recommend to go completely vegan and to avoid any animal based food (Vitamin B 12 substitution recommended in this case).
- Avoid fried foods, ice cream, margarine, commercially baked pastries and other artery-clogging hydrogenated and saturated fats. Incorporate healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, flax seeds, avocados, walnuts and cold water fish such as trout or salmon.
- Take nutritional supplements, ideally based on targeted laboratory tests in order to replenish the body to the ideal cell composition.
- Review prescription medication of any kind with your physician in order to determine the effect on gut-health and nutrient-uptake (for instance acid-blockers like Omeprazol can block the uptake of Vitamin B 12 and lower the barrier for “bad” bacteria entering the intestinal system).