Healthy Eating

Addiction and the Gut: Can Diet Help With Recovery?

Published on June 3, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Addiction fatigues the human body, debilitating—among other systems—the digestive system. An addicted individual’s gut health frequently experiences stress in unique ways, particularly for first responders, who’s work hours might alter their regular meal routine. Alcohol use presents significant obstacles for the digestive recovery of users who have successfully detoxed. Furthermore, individuals in recovery may be prone to intense mood swings, which can be prompted by hunger or nutrient deficiency sending panic signals to the brain.

Staying mindful of the type of food, as well as the time of day you are eating helps provide a baseline for your body in order to manage cravings and function at full potential. This goes for all people, whether they’re in recovery or aren’t. However, those in recovery are likely to experience greater nutritional needs, most notably within the first year of recovery. The recovery process commonly leaves individuals seeking a replacement for their substance of choice, leading to a significant uptick in caffeine, sugar, and tobacco consumption. These substitutes, although might be improvements from alcohol and/or substance use, fail to provide the balance of nutrients necessary in a healthy diet, while also satisfying our hunger cravings. The goal is to introduce a conscious diet routine in hopes to nurture long-term recovery and health.

How Addiction Changes Gut Health

Alcohol and/or substance alters the appetite and eating habits of addicted individuals, both psychologically and biologically. For starters, the metabolism increases with drug and/or alcohol use, requiring more frequent meals to sustain energy throughout the day. Conversely, using alcohol and/or substances—with the exception of marijuana—usually interferes with hunger signals sent from the gut to the brain, stopping normal food cravings. This might especially be the case for first responders who work atypical hours or on-call shifts and may skip meals. They may also elect to eat fast food, or other unhealthy meals as a result of convenience or time restrictions imposed by job requirements.

Additionally, alcohol has been proven to inflict long term damage on the stomach, intestinal, and other digestive organ cells. This damage, in turn, prevents your body from receiving the nutrients it uses to provide energy to the rest of the body. Even if healthy food is consumed in the correct portions at the ideal times, damaged gut cells act as a collapsed bridge because the food has been cut off from being converting into energy. The results of an unhealthy diet include anxiety, difficulty sleeping, exhaustion, and even paranoia. The cycle of relapsing can also cause distress signals from the digestive system, which then triggers the responses of diarrhea and/or vomiting. Even after detoxing from frequent alcohol and/or substance ingestion, the social pressures to eat unhealthy food and break from sobriety take tremendous amounts of willpower.

Healthy Diet Suggestions During Recovery

Recovering from addiction transforms the body and its functions. The body has to work double-time to use nutrients for detoxing and also for regular bodily functions. Frequent alcohol users exhibit deficiencies in vitamin B—B12, thiamine, and folic acids. Healthy sources of B-complex vitamins include salmon (also a great lean protein, high in healthy omega-3 fats), spinach, and nutritional yeast.

The recovery process relies heavily upon serotonin levels. A neurotransmitter found mostly in the gastrointestinal tract and produced from tryptophan, serotonin levels can be increases by adding complex carbohydrates, dairy, and protein into your diet. Complex carbohydrates include less processed starches, like root vegetables, legumes, and grains. These energy-dense foods pack long-lasting nutrients for the body to convert into energy while maintaining stable serotonin levels.

Man cannot survive on carbs alone, and the same goes for recovering individuals, who need plenty of calcium, protein, and mineral supplements. Addiction tends to drain the body’s reserves of zinc, magnesium, and calcium, so finding supplements for these minerals and nutrients will help your immunity and overall recovery.

Make Plans to Prioritize a Healthy Diet

Reading and talking about the importance of a healthy diet might feel inspiring, but implementing the practice of eating and living a healthy diet is a different matter altogether. For those in recovery, including first responders, meals get squeezed into whichever ten minutes seem the most conducive to wolfing down sustenance. If possible, try bringing healthy snacks like nuts, dried fruit, low-sugar granola bars along with you to work.

If you feel rushed and do need to order fast food, commit to ordering a healthy alternative to say, a cheeseburger and fries. Skipping meals can be detrimental to gut and mental health, so empower your future self by making healthy meals easily accessible, even for meals at difficult times of day when you may feel tired. These changes may feel difficult. The road to recovery can be tiring, especially when comforts like candy and coffee are the saving grace, yet even those can hinder our progress. Just remember that the actions you take today are investments in tomorrow. Your health is worth the investment.

When recovering from addiction, the goal is to relearn how to live a full and rewarding life without turning to drug or alcohol use. Traditionally, this involves exploring the reasons for the addiction through individual or group addiction counseling with highly trained therapists. While these methods are often effective, the chance of relapse can be further reduced by incorporating holistic treatments into rehabilitation. Although holistic therapies for addiction have become increasingly popular with top rehab facilities such as True Recovery, not every facility offers them as an option. If you or your loved ones are ready to begin living alcohol and substance-free lives, please call our admissions staff 24/7 at (888)-743-0490.