Submitted by Mel Billings

Alcoholism and drug addiction plays havoc with both mental and physical health, and while the mental health aspect is the one that’s often highlighted in recovery programs, exploring physical health can be beneficial for recovering addicts. In fact, many studies show that adding a nutritional element to addiction recovery programs can not only help people recover from the physical effects of addiction, it can improve mental well-being too.

Why is Nutritional Support so Important?
For recovering addicts and alcoholics, nutritional support can make a big difference in physical and mental health during the ongoing recovery period. One of the most important reasons for this is simply that addiction to alcohol and drugs can, over time, lead to serious nutritional deficiencies that can result in organ damage and other health problems.

  • Organs such as the liver and kidneys are overworked with the metabolic requirements of processing drugs and alcohol, and are further stressed by inadequate nutrient intake.
  • The digestive system is often prone to gastric upsets and digestion problems.
  • Central nervous system dysfunction leads to impairment of coordination, memory, and cognitive ability.
  • If the diet is also low in protein muscle wasting can occur. This affects the heart and can lead to cardiovascular problems.
  • An increased risk of organ inflammation and infection.

Nutritional deficiencies occur for two reasons. First, that for many alcoholics and addicts the diet is inadequate in terms of nutritional content, even if the caloric content is adequate. And second, alcohol and drugs interfere with nutrient absorption and digestion, which means the body doesn’t get the full benefit of nutrients that are ingested.

Addiction has long term consequences on physical health, which don’t necessarily go away after withdrawal starts. It takes time and consistently good for the body to return to normal. Many alcoholics and addicts in recovery are affected by problems such as poor blood sugar control and sensitivity to foods such as grains and dairy products, in addition to the problems caused by inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals. This means that good nutrition is an essential aspect of recovery, to restore not only physical health, but normal brain chemistry and mental health too.

Another important issue is that recovering addicts often gain weight, because eating and food become a substitute coping mechanism. For many people this leads to self-consciousness and discomfort with their appearance. This can in turn contribute to problems with anxiety and depression, which are already common experiences for addicts in recovery. Ultimately this can turn into a vicious cycle, because when they become depressed, recovering addicts have a harder time controlling their eating habits. While weight gain is not intrinsically a problem in most cases, the negative feelings and potential emotional disturbances are, because they contribute to the risk that a relapse might occur.

Studies Highlight the Potential Benefit of Nutritional Programs for Recovering Addicts
A number of studies carried out in the last decade point to the idea that nutritional interventions can help recovering addicts avoid these problems, and improve both their physical and their mental health in the process.

One such study looked at the effects of an educational intervention called The Recovery Health Eating and Active Learning in Treatment Program, or REHALTH. This program involved working with men in residential treatment for substance abuse, and promoted healthy eating habits and food choices, and also included cooking and nutrition classes. Overall, the study participants gained less weight during their residential stay, and reduced their intake of sugar and fat too, particularly when they also had adequate support from staff at their facility.

For many addicts, there’s a significant barrier to the ability to continue this kind of nutritional focus once they leave a residential facility, in that they don’t have the life skills needed to adequately shop for and cook nutritious meals. However, studies also show that nutrition and cooking classes aren’t only beneficial during in-patient treatment programs. Recovering addicts who receive this kind of education are better equipped to make healthy food choices once they return to life outside the facility. They have more confidence when it comes to food, cooking, and eating, and acquiring a new set of skills that help them in everyday life can be a big self-confidence boost too.