Why Substance Abuse Affects Nutrition

healthy breakfast on table

The statistics regarding America’s lack of nutrition are rather astounding. Consider the following:

  • Dietary guidelines for 2015-2020 released by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion indicate that 117 million Americans—approximately half of all adults in the nation—have at least one preventable chronic condition related to inadequate diet and lack of exercise.
  • The average American consumes nearly four times the recommended daily intake of sugar—a whopping 22 teaspoons of added sugar, not accounting for amounts found in foods such as condiments, cereal, and yogurt. Extra sugar does more than harm your teeth: it contributes to high blood pressure and cholesterol; causes fatigue; and may even contribute to worsening depression.
  • Recent study findings from the National Institutes of Health reveal that Americans have a higher risk of dying from cardiometabolic diseases—type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease—if their diets are heavy with unprocessed red meat, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium. What’s more, it’s not enough to avoid or eliminate these foods; people must also increase daily intake of more healthy options such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, seafood omega-3 fats, and whole grains. The researchers’ analysis indicates almost half of deaths due to cardiometabolic diseases had a direct correlation to these dietary factors.

If you’re in recovery from substance abuse, you’re also rebuilding the structure of your nutrition. It’s important to start the process in treatment and slowly adapt to better habits.

The Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Nutrition

While you may have a friend or a loved one who can eat sloppy burgers and a mess of fries seemingly without consequence, that fact is all of us operate more efficiently with whole food fueling our bodies and minds.

Scientists and physicians are taking a closer look at what they call “nutritional psychiatry” and are evaluating how what we eat affects our thinking and functioning. Whole foods rich with antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins provide nourishment to the brain. “Live” foods also protect the brain from oxidative stress caused by the waste produced when you use oxygen. Oxidation damages cells and heightens inflammation.

Another important aspect of nutritional psychiatry is understanding gut health. Surprisingly, one of the most powerful neurotransmitters activated in your brain first starts in your gastrointestinal tract—serotonin. Serotonin helps inhibit pain, control appetite and sleep, and regulate moods. In an article for Harvard Health Publishing, physician Eva Selhub details just how many neurons are in your digestive system, and what happens when poor eating habits make it harder for “good” bacteria to absorb fundamental nutrients, ward off toxins from “bad” bacteria, and keep the neural pathways between the gut and brain clear.

For someone suffering from substance abuse, these signals are crossed. Maintaining a proper diet is difficult when:

  • Alcohol and drugs contribute to an increasing depletion of essential vitamins and minerals, which compromises multiple mind and body functions.
  • Mental health issues may complicate substance use and interfere with healthy habits.
  • Repeated use of illicit substances doesn’t usually permit frequent grocery shopping and preparing nutritious meals.
  • Addictive substances may increase or decrease appetite, causing extreme fluctuations with calorie consumption, metabolism, and nutrient processing.

Quite often, people entering treatment for substance abuse are malnourished. This may be apparent in a variety of ways, such as slow-healing wounds; kidney and liver complications; immune system disorders; and anxiety and insomnia. Additionally, for people dealing with alcoholism—a high caloric carbohydrate due to the sugar content—they often crave other unhealthy carbs, sugar, and salt.

This compounds nutritional deficiencies.

In addition to the health conditions many Americans face due to a poor diet, malnourished people also frequently experience:

  • A compromised immune system, leading to further infection or illness
  • Acid reflux, abdominal pain, and bowel tissue decay
  • Hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases
  • Higher stress and agitation
  • Prenatal issues

Medical detoxification and a comprehensive whole foods eating plan help people move forward with nutritional wellness.

Overcoming Dietary Issues Related to Substance Abuse

Nutrition experts stress that proper hydration and a slow correction of micro- and macronutrient deficiencies help individuals in recovery reduce malnutrition and junk food withdrawal.

That’s right—some people suffer withdrawal symptoms when they initially eliminate foods that are high in processing, fat, simple carbohydrates, salt, and sugar. For example, similar to certain addictive drugs, junk food often spikes dopamine, located in the pleasure center of the brain. To quit cold turkey triggers a number of problems, including headaches, irritability, anxiety, mood swings, insomnia, dehydration, constipation, and other health issues.

Today’s Dietician recommends patients go through a form of medical nutrition therapy in stages, which may include:

  • Healing the body after medical detoxification with calorically-balanced meals, increased hydration, managed sleep, and stress-relieving techniques
  • Improving aspects of nourishment with the introduction of nutrient-dense foods
  • Assessing mood imbalances and behaviors to create stability through diet modifications such as regulating insulin, increasing amino acids, and adding omega 3-6-9 compounds
  • Helping clients understand the differences between hunger cues, substance cravings, and uncovered emotions
  • Recognizing the potential for co-occurring disorders such as binge eating and taking dietary and psychological prevention measures

Nutritional Care at Cottonwood Tucson

The professionals at Cottonwood use nutrition as a primary component of addiction detox, along with individualized medication protocol, counseling, and holistic practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, equine therapy, and meditation.

Our behavioral health dieticians develop nutritional plans for residents that promote clear thinking with stable, confident, and happy moods. They also collaborate with Cottonwood chefs and culinary staff to create menus supportive of the neurobiological needs of all patients.

By Tracey L. Kelley

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