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It is widely agreed that nutrition is one of a number of lifestyle changes that can improve health and secure long term recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction.

For those suffering with drug addiction or alcoholism, food of any type is not a priority, and addicts are often malnourished.

Many drug and alcohol users have diseases resulting directly or indirectly from their substance abuse. These include hepatitis, alcoholic liver disease, heart disease, gastritis, diabetes and HIV. All these diseases make the need for a good diet even more important.

An insufficient quantity of nutritious food, together with the effects of alcohol or drugs and a chronic disease, (especially one which alters the bodies ability to absorb and utilise nutrients) can result in conditions such as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, osteoporosis or muscle wastage.

Good nutrition has been demonstrated to decrease mood and behaviour problems including anger, depression and anxiety. For those in recovery, any of these factors may increase the risk of relapse.

Research within the last five years found that in cocaine users, rates of relapse were much lower among those who had higher omega-6 and omega-3 levels in their blood. The study went on to show that levels of these fatty acids were better predictors of relapse than the past levels of cocaine use.

What do we need for a healthy diet to assist recovery from addictive illness?

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish. They have been indicated to be significant in the treatment of a number of mood and behaviour disorders including clinical depression, anxiety and aggressive behaviour.

Folic acid, vitamin B6 and B12 are also significant in the prevention of negative mood states. Folic acid is found in spinach, spring greens and broccoli. (It is more beneficial to prepare these vegetables by steaming, as boiling leaches out the folic acid into the water.) Vitamin B6 is found in meat, fish, eggs, milk, wholegrains, nuts and beans. Vitamin B12 is made by micro-organisms and is found in animal products.

A major player in controlling mood disorders is blood sugar levels. Poor blood sugar control and sugar cravings are common amongst drug and alcohol users. Stabilizing blood sugar relies on a slow carbohydrate release diet. Such foods include wholegrain breads, pasta and cereals, brown rice, beans and pulses.

Individuals in recovery often replace drink and drugs with high caffeine and high sugar drinks. Caffeine interrupts sleep patterns as well as increasing feelings of anxiety and irritability. A healthy diet should avoid caffeinated coffee and tea. Drinks such as cola and energy drinks are high in caffeine and sugar, these should also be avoided.

Nutritional supplements should be taken with particular care. Alcohol and drug abuse damages the lining of the digestive system and this affects the absorption of vitamins, minerals and supplements. Increased absorption of some supplements can result in chemical imbalance of copper and zinc in the body, can be toxic to the nerve cells or can further damage the liver. Giving supplements can do more harm than good.

The following lifestyle changes can help improve health and long term treatment outcomes for those who suffer with an addictive illness:

  • Nutrition. Optimum nutrition can be gained from three main meals a day and two or three small snacks a day. This will allow the body to meet its normal protein and energy requirements. Fresh fruit and vegetables, good sources of protein such as fish, meat and eggs, slow release carbohydrates, limited caffeine and leaving out highly refined fatty, sugary foods will provide the necessary balance.
  • Exercise. It is known that exercise increases positive mood as well as being significant in immunity, heart health and maintaining bone and muscle mass. The key is that you aim to do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on five or more days of the week. The signs that you’re doing moderate intensity activity include an increase in your breathing rate, an increase in your heart rate (so you are aware of your pulse) and feeling warm.
  • Sunlight. Exposure to sunlight is necessary to provide vitamin D (significant in bone health) and to boost serotonin levels (serotonin also helps improve mood.) A lifestyle that includes spending time in the fresh air and sunlight every day if possible, should be sought.

Positive outcomes in treatment and sustained recovery can be influenced by dietary change, the significance of nutrition can not be overstated.

“Let food be your medicine, let medicine be your food” – Hippocrates