Nutrition is the best medicine for addiction recovery because nutrient deficiencies resulting from chronic stress and poor self-care are leading contributing factors to the most common challenges people recovering from addiction face, such as cravings, depression, and anxiety.
Healing the body is often overlooked or disregarded in addiction recovery. The problem with this philosophy is that only a healthy brain can produce a healthy mind.
An unhealthy, malnourished brain craves:
- junk food
- unhealthy behaviors
A malnourished brain craves unhealthy things as an attempt at relief from:
- lack of focus
- lack of pleasure and reward
- inability to cope with stress
- and more
These symptoms can be directly related to the nutrient deficiencies that result from:
- prolonged substance use
- chronic stress
- exposure to toxins
- chronic infections
- poor diet
- unresolved trauma
Until we heal the body, all the other work we do in addiction recovery will only take us so far.
Learning to cope with the symptoms mentioned in this post is a recovery strategy that is partial and filled with hardship. I truly believe the reason we are seeing such high relapse rates in every approach to recovery on earth is that none of them include addiction-specific nutrition and physical healing as foundational elements.
When it comes to sustainable long-term well-being, nutrition is the best medicine for addiction recovery.
The body is one-third of the problem and the solution when it comes to addiction recovery.
It’s also the most important piece of the recovery puzzle because a healthy brain is required for a clear mind and spiritual growth. The best medicine for addiction recovery is always going to be the holistic approach.
For many, remaining abstinent from substances has been impossible in the face of undiagnosed and untreated issues related to nutrient deficiencies such as anxiety, depression, cravings, irritability and anger, ADD/ADHD, overwhelming stress, chronic pain, and fatigue.
While others, although able to maintain abstinence, have had to unnecessarily learn to live with these symptoms, ranging from mild to debilitating.
People with addiction issues often get ‘dually diagnosed’ at treatment centers and by doctors that don’t accurately assess for, recognize and treat the signs and symptoms of nutritional deficiencies that precede and result from addiction.
This leaves so many of us accepting unhelpful and incorrect labels for the rest of our lives when the conditions causing the symptoms could effectively be addressed with nutritional interventions instead.
This can create a very frustrating situation for those afflicted because we are taught that our thinking is off or that we have irreversible and very serious mental illnesses and pursue treatment exclusively in the form of therapy, group support, and medication, only to find these modalities only help partially or sometimes not at all.
When we are trying to solve symptoms caused by nutritional deficiencies in the brain through therapies other than nutrition, we simply will not ever be able to fully resolve our symptoms because we are treating the wrong thing, or at least leaving out a vital piece of the equation.
This can cause others and ourselves to become very critical, believing that we aren’t trying hard enough. We come to believe that we are inherently broken when in reality our brain and body are actually just hungry. We miss the message and the solution because we don’t understand what our body is trying to tell us.
The good news is that accessible nutrition is the best medicine for addiction recovery. We can resolve the mood issues, fatigue, chronic pain, and other common complications people experience along the recovery path by learning to give our brain and body what it needs, when it needs it.
We can learn to listen to the language of our symptoms to understand what our body is asking for.
By understanding that nutrition is the best medicine for addiction recovery, we can end some of the unnecessary struggles that come along with addiction and recovery.
The best medicine for addiction recovery is a brain-healthy diet
Your body must be balanced before you can balance your life.
If your food intake is balanced, your brain can become balanced.
When your brain is balanced, your mind can become balanced.
Once your mind is balanced, then your life can become balanced.
In addiction recovery, balancing blood sugar to regain control of your moods, cravings, energy and focus is the first step when using food as medicine.
Glucose (blood sugar) is the fuel your brain uses for energy. An even, steady supply is what we are aiming for. The magic recipe for balancing blood sugar is fat/fiber/protein. This combbo balances blood sugar, which in turn balances your mood, concentration, cravings and energy throughout the day. Try to aim for a mix of these key ingredients at each meal and snack.
Snacks and meals that contain a mix of fat, fiber and protein are more slowly digested than those containing only or mostly carbohydrates (including sugar). This slower digestion leads to a more even absorption of glucose (which all carbohydrates are broken down into). This keeps your blood sugar levels balanced as well as helping you feel full longer.
Feeling full longer will help eliminate those energy highs and lows (ie: crashes) that send you running for your next sugar, alcohol, or drug fix (which then perpetuates the cycle). Keeping the blood sugar stable can dramatically decrease cravings, anger, anxiety, and mood swings.
The exact mix of fat, fiber and protein is different for each person. There is no secret ratio other than to experiment with different combinations and then notice how you feel to see what works best for you!
If you’d like to try the combo, check out this recovery super-snack recipe here.
The 3 Top Foods that Support Recovery
If you’re recovering from addiction, a small amount of animal protein needs to be consumed at each meal to meet your brain’s needs.
Protein contains specific amino acids that build up brain chemicals that are connected to brain health, such as dopamine and serotonin. Neurotransmitters that, when deficient, are linked to addiction and depression. These protein-based building blocks are only found in therapeutic doses in animal protein.
Protein is critical for our ability to thrive and survive, allowing for maximal physiological repair and efficiency. The protein we consume provides the amino acids our bodies need for a variety of critical functions. Protein is important because amino acids are a component in every cell and almost every fluid in our body and they provide the building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, blood and skin.
Vegetarian or vegan diets aren’t recommended for people struggling with or recovering from addiction, depression or other mental health challenges. This is because it’s harder to balance the blood sugar and lacks vital nutrients required for mental health. As a rule of thumb, the best medicine for addiction recovery is always staying well-rounded!
Vegan sources of protein are good for snacks and as part of meals. Animal protein just needs to be brought in at mealtime in small amounts, or as bone broth at the very least for those who struggle with the idea of consuming animal protein in order to give the brain what it needs to gain resilience against addictive tendencies.
Animal sources of protein include (organic and grass-fed whenever possible):
- fish (cold water like salmon or sardines for it’s higher fat content)
- bone broths
Plant sources include (organic and even sprouted whenever possible):
- nuts and nut butters
- soy (whole, organic, non-GMO fermented forms such as tempeh)
- seeds and seed butter
Don’t be afraid of fat! Every cell in our body uses fatty acids for construction and maintenance. Fat is important for the proper functioning of the nervous system and the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K. Consumption of essential fatty acids (i.e. Omega-3 fats) are especially critical. We must get these from food sources because the body can’t make them.
Some other important functions of fatty acids for addiction recovery include:
- supports hormone balance and supports healthy endocrine function (super important for good moods)
- aids in the formation and fluidity of the cell membranes
- helps with blood sugar regulation and regularity
- vital for the process of creating energy in the cell and helps to burn fat
- important for brain function, influences mental clarity, mood, mental cognition, and focus
Fat takes the longest time for our bodies to digest, so including some in your meal or snack will help in keeping your blood sugar balanced and keep your feeling full longer.
Some healthy sources of fat include:
- olives and olive oil
- flaxseeds and flax oil
- nuts, seeds, and their butters
- coconut, coconut oil
- organic, pasture-raised butter/ghee
- grass-fed meats, poultry, eggs, and cold-water fish
Fiber from whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables, and fruits is critical for the proper functioning of your gut.
Your gut is where 95% of our mood-boosting serotonin is made, and 60% of our anti-anxiety GABA is produced.
Adding in colorful, fiber-rich foods is also vital to restore the minerals addiction, stress and poor diet rob from your body.
Some important functions of fiber are:
- makes stool soft and bulky (easier to pass), especially helpful for opiate recovery
- speeds transit time through the colon
- dilutes the effects of any toxic compounds in the intestine by moving them along and out of the system
- helps to remove bad bacteria in the colon, a major problem with heavy drinkers
- feeds the good bacteria in the colon to allow for the production of vital nutrients such as B vitamins (essential for good brain health) and vitamin K (essential for bodily functions such as clotting)
- Always go slowly when making a dietary change, including one that increases fiber, and tune into what works for you and your digestive system.
When to Eat
It’s essential for people recovering from addiction to eat three meals per day plus snacks in order to keep the blood sugar and brain stable, and to give the body the nutrients it needs to heal.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It sets us up for stability and resiliency for the rest of the day no matter what happens.
You also want to eat lunch and dinner as well. They shouldn’t be too large or too small. You should be eating consistently to avoid becoming super hungry.
Snacking every two or three hours on something small that contains protein can keep people who are recovering from experiencing the unpleasant symptoms of low blood sugar, such as anxiety, shakiness, anger, and cravings that can potentially lead to relapse.
Proper nutrition has been foundational to my recovery, and I truly hope you choose to let it help you too.