Nutrition & Meal Planning
Caring for the Whole Self during Addiction Recovery in Pennsylvania
Nutrition and meal planning are easily overlooked in the role of addiction recovery. The majority of people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction focus primarily on medication, therapy, and other treatments. What they may not recognize is that good nutrition and proper meal planning is vital to the recovery process.
While a person is caught in the grip of drug or alcohol addiction, it’s easy to become careless about food intake. The person’s focus may be more strongly directed towards obtaining, using, or recovering from substance use. As a result, food intake may become a secondary focus. The person may only eat basic meals to stave off hunger or choose easy take-out foods that have low nutritional value.
The Connection between Diet & Addiction
Studies indicate that as many as 88% of people struggling with chronic substance abuse disorders have poor appetite and diet quality overall. Studies have also discovered that some people struggling with substance abuse may eat fewer meals or simply omit eating meals for an entire day.
A person who has been abusing drugs or alcohol over a period can become malnourished or develop physical health problems due to a lack of adequate nutrients in the diet.
There is also the issue that many mind-altering substances change the way the body absorbs nutrients derived from food. Even if the person is eating a relatively healthy diet, drugs and alcohol can reduce the body’s effectiveness in absorbing nutrients.
Drugs and alcohol reduce the body’s ability to properly absorb vitamins and minerals. This not only increases the risk of developing nutritional deficiencies but also increases the risk of developing other health problems. As the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals is reduced, the body and the brain are essentially being robbed of the nutrients they need to function optimally.
How Do Drugs Really Affect Your Body?
Different types of drugs can impact the body’s nutrition levels in a variety of ways. In some cases, drug-induced nutrient depletion can create additional health problems on top of the side effects of taking certain drugs.
Alcohol is known to be one of the major causes of nutritional deficiency across the United States. Drinking alcohol can reduce the body’s ability to absorb B vitamins properly, including vitamins B1, B6, and B12 (folic acid). Vitamin B deficiencies can cause anemia and lead to serious problems within the nervous system.
Alcohol abuse can also cause severe damage to the liver and the pancreas, two major organs involved in nutrition and the metabolic process. Damaging the liver or the pancreas can amplify some nutritional deficiencies and lead to an imbalance of electrolytes, fluids, and calories.
Other physical health complications that can arise as a result of poor nutrition due to alcohol abuse include diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), cirrhosis (permanent liver damage), and severe malnutrition.
Most people associate opiate drugs with illicit street drugs, such as heroin. However, opiate drugs also include prescription painkiller medications, such as OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone+paracetamol), Percocet (oxycodone+paracetamol), morphine, and codeine.
Opiates are known to affect the gastrointestinal system, commonly causing constipation. When intake of opiate drugs stops, it’s common for people to experience symptoms that include diarrhea and vomiting. Vomiting and diarrhea not only leech the body of nutrients, they can also cause an imbalance of electrolytes and lead to dehydration.
Sedative/hypnotic drugs are central nervous system depressants that are often used to treat conditions such as anxiety or depression. Common sedative drugs might include benzodiazepine drugs such as Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), or Ativan (lorazepam).
Long-term use of benzodiazepine drugs can cause a number of serious nutritional deficiencies, including magnesium, coenzyme Q10 (co-Q 10), vitamin D, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and vitamins B1, B2 (riboflavin), B6, and B12 (folate).
Stimulant drugs are sometimes used to treat ADHD, such as amphetamines (Adderall or Ritalin), but there are also illicit stimulant drugs—such as cocaine, methamphetamines, or crack cocaine—that cause similar effects on the body and brain.
Abusing stimulant drugs can reduce appetite, which can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Consistently abusing stimulants can often cause people to stay awake for days at a time, resulting in severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
It’s common for people who use marijuana to experience an increase in appetite, or “get the munchies.” While under the effects of marijuana, it’s easy to make poor dietary decisions, choosing snack foods with low nutritional value, such as pizza, burgers, corn chips, or other high-calorie, low nutrient foods.
Coupled with reduced physical activity, snacking while under the effects of marijuana often causes users to gain weight. The result can be an increased risk of diabetes and malnutrition.
Common Nutrient Deficiencies in Recovering Addicts
Research indicates that up to 88% of people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction need guidance and advice when it comes to good nutritional choices. It’s also recognized that poor nutrition can worsen symptoms of some mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Some common nutrient deficiencies in individuals struggling with drug and/or alcohol abuse or addiction include:
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine: Research indicates that people recovering from addiction to stimulant drugs such as cocaine may have deficiencies in acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR). Symptoms of ALCAR deficiency can include brain abnormalities, abdominal pain, low blood sugar, and heart muscle weakness.
- Vitamin D: It’s common for many people in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction to also have a vitamin D deficiency. Studies have found a link between vitamin D deficiency and alcohol-use disorders. Low vitamin D levels have been linked with schizophrenia, psychotic symptoms, depression, suicidal tendencies, and an increased risk of alcohol-use disorder.
- B-group vitamins: Drugs and alcohol interfere with the body’s ability to properly absorb B-group vitamins, so it’s common for many recovering people to suffer from various vitamin B deficiencies. Symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency can include anemia, cognitive difficulties, memory loss, mood changes, confusion, irritability, insomnia, and fatigue.
- Calcium: Drugs and alcohol reduce the body’s ability to absorb calcium properly, leading to an increased risk of calcium deficiency in recovering people. Symptoms of calcium deficiency can include irritation, muscle pain, abdominal cramps, depression, weak or brittle bones and nails, confusion, and memory loss.
- Omega 3: Many people in recovery from addiction show symptoms of a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have found that a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can play a part in some psychiatric disorders, including aggressive behaviors, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, and depression.
How Does Nutritional Planning Work for Addiction Recovery?
Nutrition therapy and nutrition education are an important part of any good addiction recovery program. The objective of nutrition therapy is to help heal and nourish the body that may have been damaged by long-term substance abuse. Good nutrition is also known to help stabilize mood, relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression, and reduce symptoms of stress. When the body is adequately nourished, it can also help to reduce cravings for drugs or alcohol. Perhaps one of the most overlooked benefits of nutritional planning in recovery is that eating well encourages self-care, which promotes a healthy lifestyle overall.
Some of the foods, nutrients, and strategies that may be used in a nutrition plan for addiction recovery include:
- Regular meal times: Setting and sticking to regular mealtimes plays a strong role in learning about self-care. Not only is having a regular routine for meals a positive step towards creating a healthy new lifestyle during recovery, but it’s an opportunity to replenish the body’s nutrients.
- Real food and nutrients: A good nutritional plan should provide clear guidelines about the types of foods to include in each meal to ensure the recovering person is getting the nutrients required to maintain good health. In order to help address any nutritional deficiencies a person might be experiencing, good quality vitamin and mineral supplements may also be recommended. Keep in mind that supplements alone won’t address or balance nutrient deficiencies completely. Real, nutritious food is still the preferred option.
- Omega 3: Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in fish, walnuts, and other nuts and are essential for optimal health. Omega 3 can help regulate moods, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, relieve stress, and improve brain health. There is also some research to support that omega-3 fatty acids could help to reduce cravings during recovery. As many people don’t like to eat fish or seafood, omega-3 fish oil supplements could be an alternative for some people.
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR): Foods high in ALCAR include beef, chicken, fish, milk, and cheese. A good nutritional plan should feature meals that include good quality protein and ALCAR-rich foods.
- Calcium: Anti-anxiety medications, including Valium, Xanax, or Klonopin can decrease the body’s ability to absorb calcium. Include more dairy foods in the diet, such as milk, cheese, or yogurt to promote bone strength.
- Magnesium: People recovering from opiate addiction often experience withdrawal symptoms that include abdominal cramping, muscle pain, or bone aches. Eating foods rich in magnesium can help reduce cramps and aches.
- Hydration: Skip the sodas or sports drinks and switch to water. It’s important to stay well-hydrated to give a recovering body the opportunity to heal and replenish.
Does Nutrition Planning Mean Sticking to a Strict Diet?
Many nutritional planners focus on putting together a strict diet of healthy, nutritious foods. However, people in recovery from addiction often view a strict new dietary regimen as restrictive. There is also a risk that the recovering person might also view the new nutritional plan as being a complete change of who they are and what foods they enjoy eating.
When a person in recovery is forced to change too much about their lifestyle, the risk of relapsing back into a self-destructive pattern of substance abuse actually increases. Studies show that the stress of trying to maintain a strict diet that is unfamiliar to a recovering person can actually increase vulnerability to returning to a pattern of abusing drugs or alcohol.
So, what is it then?
When it comes right down to it, a nutritional plan not only needs to address the recovering person’s nutritional deficiencies. It also needs to keep in mind that setting regular meal times and sticking to them can play an equally important role in recovery—regardless of what the person is eating during those meals.
Remembering to eat regularly plays an active role in self-care, which promotes a healthier lifestyle overall.
Nutritional Planning after Leaving Rehab
Nutrition as part of an addiction recovery program is not always an easy concept to grasp for many people. Likewise, many people in early stages of recovery are not always ready to change everything about their behaviors, so trying to force a drastic change of diet into their lives is often met with skepticism and scorn.
When a recovering person leaves Silvermist rehab and returns to independent living, they may not be familiar with the types of foods recommended to them by their nutritional therapist. In fact, the types of foods many people eat before entering rehab tend to include snacks or fast foods, both of which have little nutritional value.
Learning to eat real food with good nutritional value is often a completely different way of viewing mealtimes for many people. Replacing processed foods and learning to experiment with simple, tasty recipes that use healthy ingredients can also be challenging for some.
Before leaving any addiction rehab treatment program, people in recovery are given a variety of different tools and taught new skills designed to help them remain clean and sober over the long term. Along with a strong relapse prevention strategy, maintaining a good nutrition plan can play a part in a self-care routine that helps improve self-esteem and reduce the risk of relapse.
Nutrition should never seem like a punishment. Instead, a good nutritional therapy program should be considered a helpful component in any good recovery program.
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