“The brain that is well nourished, as opposed to starving and micro nutrient deficient has a better chance of a long term recovery.” - Margherita GROTSKY- GIORGI PhD
Substance use harms the body in two ways:
The substance itself affects the body.
It causes negative lifestyle changes, such as irregular eating and poor diet.
Proper nutrition and hydration are key to the substance abuse healing process because they help restore physical and mental health and improve the chance of recovery.
Macro- and micronutrient deficiencies can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and low energy, all of which can lead someone to start using drugs or alcohol or trigger a relapse. This is where can find a vicious cycle.
In saying this, by the time an addict has sought help, many are already quite malnourished. Not only from a poor diet but also because substance abuse inhibits the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Generally, the type of malnutrition can depend on the substance being used. All substances put a huge stress on the liver, kidneys and nervous system but it is the behaviours that accompany the drugs used that cause most of the damage ie; sleep deprivation, skipping meals and making poor choices with promiscuity etc; make the body susceptible to disease.
Opiate addicts tend to have deficiencies in calcium, vitamin B6, vitamin D and iron. They also tend to have a lot of gastrointestinal disorders as these drugs trigger a slowdown in the normal function of both the stomach and small intestine, which act as your body’s main routes of nutrient absorption.
In turn, this slowdown contributes to undernutrition by degrading the body’s ability to extract the nutrients from food and pass them into the bloodstream. In addition to these nutritional problems, people addicted to opiates such as OxyContin, heroin, codeine, morphine, or tramadol commonly develop ongoing cases of constipation.
Those who take stimulants on the regular tend to have very low levels of B group vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium and especially omega 3 essential fatty acids. Again, they are appetite suppressants so just the behaviour of not eating or drinking enough water brings a whole host of issues. A deficiency in magnesium can produce anxiety, weakness, tension, insomnia and restless legs.
Alcoholics tend to suffer the most with malnutrition. Alcohol causes the body to excrete larger quantities of nutrients. Prolonged use of alcohol can significantly damage intestinal lining. When the mucosa becomes damaged, the ability to absorb vitamins and minerals — in addition to macronutrients — becomes impaired
The most common deficiencies are of the B vitamins (B1, B6, and folic acid). A lack of these nutrients causes anaemia and nervous system (neurologic) problems. For example, a disease called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome,("wet brain") occurs when heavy alcohol use causes a lack of vitamin B1.
Alcohol use also damages two major organs involved in metabolism and nutrition: the liver and the pancreas. The liver removes toxins from harmful substances. The pancreas regulates blood sugar and the absorption of fat.
Damage to these two organs results in an imbalance of fluids, calories, protein, and electrolytes.
Other complications include:
High blood pressure
Permanent liver damage (or cirrhosis)
Shortened life expectancy.
Younger women can be at a higher risk of early onset osteoporosis due to calcium loss.
Nutrition can help heal an addict in the following ways:
• Heal and nourish the body damaged by alcohol or substance abuse;
• Stabilize mood and reduce stress;
• Reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol;
• Address medical conditions that are co-occurring or have resulted from substance abuse; and
• Encourage self-care and a healthful lifestyle.
That being said, the same treatment can be applied to those suffering from mental health symptoms.
Supplementation is paramount in aiding recovery but addicts need nutrients from real food, long term.
Although “comfort” foods can be integral in any withdrawal period, as it hits the same “pleasure seeking” centres in our brains that were previously “rewarded” with a drug, we cannot achieve long term health from eating highly processed or sugary foods.
For the initial fortnight that abstinence takes place, it can be very helpful to ease the pain of withdrawal and distract our neurology with a placebo...but thats about it.
So in saying that, here are a list of foods that are rich in the nutrients we need to help us be in better health after substance abuse:
For the nervous system and organs related
For wound recovery and repair of systems damaged
Dark leafy greens
Pumpkin seeds or pepitas
For gastrointestinal health and recovery
and/or good quality probiotic
Other nutrients that have been found to play key factors in recovery and mental health are
Sources are sunlight, butter and cod liver oil. It is hard to absorb a therapeutic dose so supplementation is recommended.
Vitamin B group:
A high quality supplement initially and then
Legumes and beans
Seeds and nuts
Dark leafy greens
Essential Fatty Acids:
For nourishing the brain and feeding the nervous system
Sometimes it is hard to fathom encompassing all of these elements when you are just trying to get over your withdrawals and in early stages of recovery.
Your appetite is all over the place and you can feel really lethargic and overwhelmed.
Luckily, I’m going to make it super easy for you!
Here are a few ideas that can deliver these nutrients to your body in an easy way thats quick and easy :)
Smoothies are amazing. You literally get whatever you need or want, pop it in a blender or nutribullet and bobs your uncle! They are also a great vehicle to disguise any supplements or macro nutrients that might otherwise taste a bit less than delicious (yes I’m talking about kale). You can add any oil supplements, greens powder, and any other supplements that are powdered or in liquid form.
I do recommend a nutribullet because its got some serious blade action that gets the job done in 25 seconds. Blenders can be fine but sometimes the product is a little chunky
Some of my favourite recipes are
Apple pie protein smoothie:
½ a pink lady apple
Sprinkle of cinnamon
2 tablespoons organic vanilla yoghurt
Milk of your choice (100mls)
1 tablespoon vanilla protein powder of your choice
A handful of frozen mango or banana
Blend and serve
This smoothie is high in protein, calcium and fibre. Great for feeding muscles and gut flora.
2 tablespoons walnuts
1 or 2 tablespoons real cacao
2 or 3 dates (no pip)
Milk of your choice (100mls)
1 scoop Protein powder of your choice (whey, pea or oat)
1 frozen banana (cut up into slices and freeze for easy handling)
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon greens powder of choice
Blend and consume straight away
This smoothie is high in essential fatty acids, magnesium, protein and calcium. Its wonderful for the nervous system.
You can easily make up any fruits, veg or anything you feel like.
If food or drinking is still too hard for you, you can buy icy pole makers and make yourself some frozen treats to ease yourself in to it.
Another great way of delivering nutrients is with soup. You can make a big batch and freeze what you don’t use.
A few points to consider are using foods like coconut oil, turmeric and bone broth if you want to really soup up your meal.
They are really wonderful and nourishing to the immune system and also are known anti inflammatories…..so basically really awesome for aches and pains-think about how chicken soup has been used for generations in sickness.
Here is one of my all time favourites, pretty cheap to make. Organic is better but conventional is better than Maccas :)
Although chicken with bones boiled from raw is best for ultimate nutrition, I’m going to show you a recipe where you can use a chook from the supermarket, because, baby steps.
1 ready bought roast chicken (free range if possible)
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (try to find actual, good quality broth, you can even find powdered bone broth at the supermarket these days!)
2 medium carrots, sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup white rice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Some good salt to taste (pink salt has more minerals)
Roughly pull apart a store bought chicken, (they can be in pieces) in a large pot. Cover with the broth and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Skim any foam or fat from the broth with a ladle as necessary.
Remove the bones and carcass with tongs or a slotted spoon; set aside to cool. Add the carrots, celery, onion, turmeric and bay leaf to the broth, bring back to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are about half cooked (they will still have resistance when tested with a knife but be somewhat pliable when bent), about 10 minutes. Stir in the rice (to keep it from sticking to the bottom), and cook until the grains are just al dente, 10 to 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, when the carcass and bones are cool enough to handle, pick off the meat, and shred it into bite-size pieces.
When the rice is done, add the meat to the broth and simmer until warmed through, about 1 minute. Stir in the parsley, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste. Serve hot.
In conclusion, if you eat really well you will have a quicker and longer lasting recovery.
Written by: Deniz Okutgen, Healer and Therapist at The Centre for Healing.
Specialising in Addiction Rehabilitation and Mental Health Programs in Melbourne.