It’s nothing new that nutrition plays a big part in overall health. The human body, no matter how much we abuse it, is constantly at work, trying to repair itself. In simplest terms, the food we consume either works to assist this repair process or hinder it.
Alcoholism is a complex disease that wreaks havoc on our bodies. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has released numerous studies which show that prolonged alcohol use physically alters the structure of the brain. (1)
This affects judgment, self-control, mood, motivation, memory and learning function. These documented brain changes often lead to biochemical imbalances in which the pleasure centers, which control feelings of well-being, fail to operate properly.
As a result, the brain sends out urgent messages of craving. Unless imbalances are addressed, these cravings become the basis for chronic relapse.
A Body Starved for Nutrition
The addicted body is also starved for nutrition. Alcoholism causes the body to excrete larger quantities of nutrients than the average person, plus the addict generally doesn’t eat well. This is a combination that can manifest in a variety of symptoms and conditions, from anemia to the early onset of osteoporosis and more.
Proper nutrition stacks the odds in favor of a more stable recovery and can greatly raise the chances of life-long sobriety. We all want to feel a sense of balance. Nutrition plays a big part in this.
Proper Nutrition for Recovery from Alcoholism
First, let’s take a look at our current diet. Based on the fact that reward seeking behavior drives the addicted brain toward sugar, salt, carbohydrates, processed foods and caffeine, the average addict’s diet isn’t usually very promising.
Plus, the ‘normal’ American diet is largely unhealthy, so learning about nutrition can be first time information for many in recovery.
Here are some simple things to avoid or cut down on:
Cutting down on sweets or anything with added sugar helps stabilize blood sugar levels, which are connected to anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Refined sugar can also have adverse effects on the reward pathways in the brain.
Refined Carbohydrates (snack cakes, pastries, white bread)
Also connected to mood fluctuations, loading up on sugar and refined carbs can make it difficult to make healthy choices. These foods also have very little nutritional value and sabotage the recovery process.
Anything with artificial ingredients puts an unnecessary load on the liver. Since liver repair is critical in early recovery, these foods can hinder recovery.
Caffeine is a stimulant and can trigger anxiety, irritability and other mood fluctuations. Energy drinks are especially dangerous, having a combination of stimulants as well as sugar, they can put recovering alcoholics in a dangerous state and make it difficult to resist cravings.
Once we become aware of the types of food that hinder recovery, we can focus on the positive.
Here are some nutrition-rich foods that aid recovery:
The amino acids found in proteins are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. Since dopamine is the key neurotransmitter involved with addiction and is associated with feelings of well being, it is important to restore depleted dopamine levels through a higher protein intake.
Proteins also helps the body repair tissue and restore organs affected by chronic abuse including the liver, pancreas, kidneys, heart, and brain. Protein is also necessary for blood sugar stabilization.
Whole foods are foods that have not been altered from their natural state. They can also be called ‘one ingredient’ foods. They naturally provide the balance of nutrients needed to digest them and are rich in nutrients.
Example: There is a major difference between eating a fresh peach or opening a can of syrup sweetened peaches. Fresh fruits and vegetables assist in gastrointestinal system healing, are packed with nutrients and help achieve mental balance.
Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, therefore provide a longer and more stable sources of energy with fewer cravings. Examples include whole grain breads, pastas and brown rice, oats, nuts, seeds and beans, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, carrots, apples, and cucumbers.
Medical Studies on the Nutrition and Recovery Connection
Education on the connection between proper nutrition and addiction recovery is key. When individuals are more aware of the “why” behind what they are doing, I believe they are more likely to align themselves with a program that will be most useful to long term success.
A few medical studies include:
Dr. James Milam
Dr. James Milam, author of Under the Influence, draws a strong connection between alcoholism and hypoglycemia. As a hypoglycemic experiences a sudden drop in blood sugar, the brain goes into self-protection mode and the person craves the sugar in alcohol to quickly raise blood sugar levels.
Alcohol is one of the fastest ways to raise blood sugar because it goes straight to the blood, bypassing digestion. This is why it is essential for those in recovery to follow a nutrition plan that avoids spikes and drops in blood sugar. (2)
Roger J. Williams
Roger J. Williams, a biochemist dedicated to alcohol research, showed that animals given the choice between alcohol and water chose alcohol more frequently when they were nutritionally deficient than when they were well fed.
The study was so extensive that Williams was able to shift alcohol consumption up and down in the test group based solely on the deliberate removal and addition of vitamins to their diet. (3)
More recently, Dr. Gant, medical director at Tully Hill Hospital, has reported an over 80% success rate in addiction recovery to patients whose bodies are nutritionally replenished through food and supplements.(4)
There’s no denying, the right food is a crucial medicine in the treatment of alcoholism, as well as drug addiction. I have found that the sooner a newly-sober person feels great, the sooner he will be able to embrace a life free from the bondage of substance abuse and live the full, purposeful life he was meant to.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
What have you found to be the rewards of proper nutrition in your alcohol recovery? What are some of your favorite healthy foods?
- Alcoholism and the Brain: An Overview, NIAAA Publication
- Under the Influence (1981) James Milam,
- Biochemical Individuality, Roger J. Williams
- End Your Addiction Now (2010), Dr. Gant
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addiction. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 8th, 2015
Published on AddictionHope.com