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How Substance Abuse Affects Nutrition

Substance abuse can have many long-term effects on health and nutrition.

Substances vary in their effects, but many of them disrupt physiological functioning and impair the body's ability to receive proper nourishment.

Below are some of the many ways that drugs and alcohol can interfere with nutrition and diet:

Failing to eat: Users may have a suppressed appetite or forget to eat while under the influence.

Eating poorly: Those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol tend to prioritize their substance abuse over eating properly. As a result, their diets can be poor and lack sustenance.

Malnourishment: Malnourishment can result from failing to eat consistently over time or from the body's inability to absorb nutrients necessary for biological processes.

Overeating: Eating too much can lead to obesity and a number of health conditions associated with excess body fat.

Organ damage: Substance abuse can damage the liver, stomach lining, pancreas, and intestines, all of which contribute to the proper absorption, digestion, and storage of nutrients.

Immune system damage: Substances such as alcohol and opiates can suppress the immune system and make the user more susceptible to infections and illnesses.

Gastrointestinal disorders: Alcohol can contribute to chronic gastrointestinal tract inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut syndrome, pathogenic bacterial overgrowth, fungal intestinal infections, and acid reflux.

Hypoglycemia: Low blood sugar can be caused by a lack of sustenance or proper diet.

Diet and Nutritional Guidelines for Addiction Recovery

Here are a few tips to remember once you complete your addiction treatment program, or if you're going through the recovery process on your own.

They will help you to stay on track with your recovery and decrease your risk of relapse.

• Get more complex carbs: Complex carbohydrates provide you with steady, long-lasting energy without the spike and crash of simple carbs.

• Exercise: Regular exercise can boost your mood, improve body image, increase energy levels, alleviate cravings , and lower the risk of relapse in recovering addicts.

• Take vitamins and supplements: Vitamins A and C, zinc, and B-complex vitamins can help restore any deficiencies. But talk with your physician first. Amino acid supplements can also help repair neurotransmitters in the brain. 

• Reduce caffeine: Caffeine can cause dehydration as well as appetite suppression.

• Drink plenty of water: People who are

recovering from addiction are often dehydrated. Consume water with meals and in-between mealtimes. 

• Monitor your sugar intake: Many addicts may crave sweets because they trigger dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter activated by some forms of drug use.

• Avoid processed foods: They lack nutritional value and typically have unhealthy fats.

• Eat more protein and fiber: Fiber makes you feel full, and protein can help to build muscles weakened by malnutrition.

• Eat regular, small meals: Eating regularly will keep your blood sugar levels high and decrease the craving for unhealthy snacks between meals.

How Nutrition Helps With Recovery

Long-term substance abuse puts remarkable stress on the mind and body.

Proper nutrition can help both the brain and the body heal from chronic substance abuse and increase the user's odds of getting and staying sober.

Some of the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet include:

• Repair of damage to organs and tissues.

• Improved immune defenses.

• Increased energy.

• Improved mood.

• Reduced risk of relapse due to fatigue or depressed mood.

You may be tempted to indulge in junk food while you're recovering from addiction. But this can actually hinder your recovery process and make it more difficult for you to stay clean.

The best option is to eat a nutritious diet that will foster physical and mental health and improve your chances for long-term sobriety.
How Do Most People In Early Recovery Eat?

Obviously there is a wide range of ways people in recovery eat, and there are many factors such as food availability, financial resources, and food philosophy of the treatment program. But to generalize about the average addict in sober living, it might look something like this:

BREAKFAST: No breakfast, or if there is breakfast, it is typically bacon, eggs, hash browns, and/or sugary cereal or pop tarts. Instead, most people in early addiction recovery tend to consume:

• coffee with flavored creamer and sweeteners (often several cups)
• cigarettes (or “vape”)
• energy drink (or several)

LUNCH: The first real meal of the day, sometimes there are snacks before lunch. Lunch will typically be a (white flour) sandwich, burger, wrap, or pizza, all of which lack fruits and vegetables. Often lunch will be from a fast-food restaurant.

SNACKS: People in recovery might snack throughout the day. These types of snacks tend to include:

• candy
• chips
• cereal bars
• soda
• energy drinks
• sweetened coffee

DINNER: Dinner typically consists of protein and starch (i.e., pasta and meatballs, teriyaki chicken and rice) and most patients will skip any vegetables (which may or not be served).

NIGHTTIME: Nighttime (10pm-1am) is when the real eating occurs. Many patients are on night meds (such as Seroquel) that can lead to loss of control and increased food consumption.

Typical nighttime snacks:

• sugary cereal
• ice cream
• white flour products (bread, bagel, tortilla) with melted cheese
• frozen foods (pizza, taquitos, etc.) other highly processed foods that can lead to a full blown binge episode.

It is also common for addicts to eat during the middle of the night, sometimes without their knowledge (night eating syndrome).


So, just what should recovering addicts eat?

• Less sugar — Staying away from sweetened foods (anything with added sugar counts) will help stabilize blood sugar levels, which will help with mood swings, anxiety and depression.

• Fewer refined carbohydrates — Choose whole grains instead.

• More protein — The amino acids in proteins serve as building blocks for neurotransmitters, which are often lacking in addicts.

• More fiber — Fruits and vegetables help begin to heal the gastrointestinal system.

• More healthy fats — Good fats help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Choose olive oil, flaxseed oil and omega-3s (found in fatty fish, nuts and flax seeds).

• Fewer processed foods — Liver repair is critical in early sobriety, so stay away from processed foods with artificial ingredients.

• Less caffeine — Caffeine can exacerbate insomnia and anxiety, which are especially prevalent in early sobriety.

Some may want to consider a Plant Based or a meat and dairy reduced diet:

There are many, many ways to begin eating a plant based diet. Some people cut themselves off from meat-eating completely and move forward without looking back. But, there are others who need to slowly cut back their meat consumption over time. And, the types of plant-based diet run the gamut from a strict raw vegan approach all the way to a flexitarian one.

If starting slow seems more natural for you, consider only eating meat on certain days or at certain times. This will allow you to learn about meal planning and dietary requirements without feeling trapped in a lifestyle you weren’t fully prepared for.


You know what doesn’t have meat in it? Cake. You know what’s vegan? Potato chips. It’s perfectly possible to pursue a plant-based diet and find yourself gaining weight and in worse health. People with a meat void in their life often fill it with refined carbohydrates instead of fruits and vegetables. These are often comfort foods, like pretzels and bagels and pasta and sugary cereal.

 Once you do a bit of research, you will find that there are a lot of great plant-based snacks that provide the nutrition that you need for wellness and taste great. You don’t have to be living on carrot sticks and plain quinoa. There are great options out there.

Exercise can be anything from running to playing ping-pong, washing dishes to ice skating

Many who abuse drugs or alcohol neglect important components of daily health, wreaking havoc on both emotional and physical wellbeing. It is important to repair the psychological and physical damage of chemical dependency as well as the damaged mind-body connection. Exercise in chemical dependency treatment serves many purposes, but there are some primary benefits one can get from exercise during substance abuse treatment and recovery.

Exercise relieves and reduces stress. Exercise has been shown to alleviate both physical and psychological stress. Tension builds in our bodies when we’re at work, during everyday interactions, and even when we’re watching television. This tension can come from having poor posture at work or having a bad interaction with a co-worker. Moving your body alleviates this tension, and allows you to get rid of any negative emotions you have been keeping in. Focused exercise uses both physical and emotional energy, that might otherwise find unhealthy ways of escaping.

Exercise naturally and positively alters your brain chemistry. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins which create a natural high. These are the same endorphins your body released while you abused substances. However, abuse of drugs and alcohol causes an imbalance that interferes with a person’s ability to feel pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction. Dedicated physical activity during treatment and recovery will help you reintroduce natural levels of endorphins in your system. This not only helps you feel better, but reteaches your body that it is capable of regulating your own brain chemistry and mood in healthy, natural ways.

“Exercise is meditation in motion.” The Mayo Clinic has described exercise as “meditation in motion,” meaning by concentrating on the physical we can experience the psychological and emotional benefits of meditation. Through movement, we can refocus our thoughts on our own well-being and forget, at least briefly, all that is going on in our lives. You may leave your work-out with a clearer mind, feeling more rejuvenated and optimistic. Finding this clarity within chaos can make recovery much more manageable.

Exercise improves your outlook.

Those who exercise regularly report increased feelings of self-confidence and optimism and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety. This is in part has to do with the body regulating and calibrating itself during exercise, but it also has to do with feelings of accomplishment, pride, and self-worth as you see your body transform and your goals reached. As you reach certain benchmarks you feel more accomplished, and reinforces the goal of continued sobriety as attainable.

In addition, regular exercise fosters improved sleep, greater energy, and enhanced feelings of wellbeing, all which make life much more manageable and enjoyable and recovery that much more possible and sustainable.

Disclaimer: The advice and information on this page is not meant to replace consulting with your Doctor or Nutritionist