Good nutrition is an important, though often overlooked, component of a healthy recovery from addictions and mood disorders. At Cottonwood, our behavioral health dietitians work with patients in developing nutritional plans that ensure that they will have sufficient amounts of the right nutrients to promote clear thinking and a stable, happy and confident mood. Our nutritionists also collaborate with Cottonwood chefs and culinary staff to create a menu that supports the neurobiological needs of all of our patients. We believe that a good recovery nutrition plan should be individualized and flexible. This is important because each Cottonwood patient has different taste preferences, food traditions, and metabolic biology. To achieve long-term success, our recovery nutrition plans take into consideration, not only the science of nutrition, but also each patient’s individual life style and nutritional preferences.
Though an individualized approach is important, it’s also necessary to bring consistency and balance to eating. At Cottonwood, consistency and balance are the watchwords for nutrition in recovery, an approach that works well for both men and women. In our substance abuse treatment program, we advocate that those recovering from substance addictions and mood disorders eat three or more smaller meals a day; each meal comprised of an optimal mix of carbohydrate, protein and fat. We know that eating in a balanced way helps keep blood sugar stable, and results in a steady supply of energy, improved focus and concentration, a more stable mood and decreased cravings for sugar, refined carbohydrates and other chemicals that can undermine the brain’s ability to produce a stable, happy mood.
In teaching our patients the value of good nutrition, Cottonwood clinicians use the elements of a fire to describe the process by which foods produce energy our bodies. In this analogy, carbohydrates (grains, fruits and veggies) are the flame. Eaten alone, they are burned and gone quickly. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are like lighter fluid or kindling, producing a rapid, but short-lived effect. Patients learn that complex carbohydrates last a little longer, but for optimum action, need the support of protein. Proteins (meat, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, and soy) act like a log – a longer-term supply of fuel for the fire. But protein itself is like a log in a fireplace without a flame to ignite it. Eating often is like stoking the fire, keeping the flame burning steadily and consistently. Patients are taught that a steady flow of energy and focus is attained by eating more frequent, smaller meals and eating a combination of carbohydrate, protein and fat with each meal or snack.
At Cottonwood’s behavioral health and addiction treatment program, our clinicians understand the neuroscience of nutrition. We know that the food we eat can have a huge effect on our mood and ability to concentrate. Eating foods containing carbohydrates, proteins and fats, can provide the brain with the nutritional components necessary for the synthesis of the brain’s chemical messengers that promote emotional well-being.
Carbohydrates, specifically complex carbohydrates, are the body’s main source of the amino acid tryptophan – a necessary precursor in the brain’s synthesis of the chemical messenger serotonin – used to facilitate a happy, stable mood, curb food cravings, increase pain tolerance and aid in sleep, all of these key components of a healthy recovery effort. Turkey, lean meats, and dairy products are also good sources of tryptophan. Foods rich in vitamin B-6, B-12 and folic acid also facilitate the synthesis of serotonin from tryptophan. On the other hand, caffeine, sugar, high fat foods and alcohol can deplete serotonin. Another amino acid, tyrosine, with the help of folic acid, magnesium and Vitamin B-12, is necessary for the brain’s synthesis of both dopamine (the chemical messenger of pleasure and reward) and norepinephrine (the mental alertness brain chemical). Tyrosine is abundant in protein foods. Choline, a fat-like substance found in wheat germ and eggs, is converted into the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This brain chemical is important in memory and cognitive functioning.
At Cottonwood’s holistic treatment program, we pay attention to the power and frequency of cravings for food and/or mood-altering substances can be influenced by how one eats. Patients learn that an inconsistent or imbalanced diet can create disregulation in all of the previously mentioned neurotransmitters. Our clinicians stress that a poor diet can also create blood sugar fluctuations that affect energy and concentration and increase the desire for sugar and caffeine – both of which can fuel anxiety and trigger cravings to use alcohol and drugs. Patients learn that, in some newly recovering alcoholics, abstinence from alcohol can lead to increased desire for sugar. Sometimes this desire is subtle and shows up as a craving for fruit, fruit juice or sugary beverages. Of course fruit is healthy, but it is still sugar and, for optimal mood, it needs to be taken in appropriate quantities. Caffeine, too, can become a crutch to the newly recovering addict/alcoholic. A stimulant, caffeine feels like fuel in the body, but this effect can lead to the skipping of meals and increased desire for more sugar. We teach patients how to limit their caffeine consumption to prevent a craving for more caffeine and the impulse to overeat later in the day. Our patients learn that eating often and including the right amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and fats will help the management of cravings, for both food and mood-altering chemicals.
At Cottonwood’s mental health and substance abuse treatment program, we believe that, when nourishment is consistent and balanced our patients are able to respond, rather than react, to their bodies’ natural need for food. They are cautioned that, if blood sugar swings dramatically, they might be tempted to overeat – desiring sugar, other highly refined carbohydrates and caffeine. Patients learn that this blood sugar roller coaster can result in further unhealthy eating and unwanted weight gain. But, again, by eating three or four smaller, healthy meals per day – each including carbohydrates, proteins and fats – mood is stabilized, cravings for food and harmful mood-altering chemicals can be reduced, and weight is more easily managed.