When you’re starting on your recovery journey, food is probably the last thing on your mind. Overcoming substance use disorder (SUD) can seem like such a monumental task that takes up all of your focus. Don’t worry; there’s no timeline for recovery. When you’re ready, and you have the headspace, you should consider the impact that nutrition may have on your body’s healing process. Getting the right vitamins can have a significant impact on your mental and physical health while you heal from addiction.
How Substance Abuse Affects the Mind
The human brain is a complex organ. To understand the effect that substance abuse has on the brain, we have to first understand how the brain works. Our brains are made up of different regions. Each region is connected via the nervous system to a different part of the body or function. For example, the occipital lobe, located at the back of the skull, is connected to the nerves at the back of the eye. This region of the brain deals with visual processing, color identification, depth perception, and facial recognition. The brain and the parts of the body are in constant communication via the nervous system. Within the brain are clusters of cells called neurons. Neurons are particularly important for brain function because they control all of the signals that are passing through the brain at all times. For example, if you want to wave to a friend, the neurons in the part of the brain that controls physical movement must fire and send a signal down a chain of other neurons and nerves until it reaches the nerves in your arm. Only then can your muscles react so that you can raise your arm to wave. The signal that is sent from neurons is called neurotransmitters. Different neurotransmitters mean different things. For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine means “whatever is happening right now is good and pleasurable; we should remember it and try to do it more.” Dopamine is sent between neurons in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia when you do things you enjoy, like eating good food, having sex, or laughing at a good joke. Your brain likes dopamine a lot, so when you do something that causes a dopamine release, you’ll want to do it again in the future. This is where substances can become a problem. Alcohol and drugs also cause the release of dopamine in the basal ganglia. Actually, it causes a large release: roughly ten times what is normal for pleasurable experiences. When your brain gets such a big dose of dopamine, it makes sure to remember the thing that caused it. That’s why even after using substances once, you’ll likely crave them again. This is how chemical addictions are formed. Unfortunately, your brain then begins to expect a big dose every time. It’s no longer satisfied with the small amounts provided by normal activities. After using substances frequently for a while, everyday activities start to feel boring and not worth doing. You may find you have little to no motivation to do things like shower, eat, talk to friends and family, or go to work. All your brain wants is a big hit of good chemicals. This is how depression can develop from substance abuse. Other mental health disorders can develop from substance abuse as well: anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In the same way that substances disrupt normal brain function in the basal ganglia, they can do the same thing in other brain regions. This is particularly true for people who have a history of mental health disorders in their family. A disorder may have been hidden within the brain, and substances can trigger its release. Or, if you already struggle with a mental health disorder, using substances can make the symptoms worse.
How Substance Abuse Affects the Body
The body is also affected in a profound way by substance abuse. First of all, substances themselves often affect the body. For example, opioids cause gastrointestinal issues which, if prolonged, can lead to permanent scarring in the bowels. These issues can cause nutrient deficiencies, like potassium and sodium. Alcohol abuse can have a similar effect. The damage done to your kidneys, liver, and stomach through overconsumption of alcohol can lead to the organs’ dysfunction. Your liver and kidneys process toxins in the body, so if they cannot do that job, it can threaten your life. Alcohol abuse also causes B vitamin deficiencies. Not having enough of these vitamins can lead to anemia and neurological issues, such as “wet brain.” This syndrome is caused by alcohol overconsumption and stops the brain from writing new memories. It can occur at any time in a person’s life. Other possible health issues caused by addiction include:
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Shortened life expectancy
- Memory loss
- Severe weight changes
- Thyroid issues
The lifestyle associated with substance abuse can also cause health issues. Sharing needles is a common issue that leads to the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV. Substance abuse is also associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. These issues are difficult to reverse, and some may, in fact, be permanent.
The Role of Nutrition in Your Recovery Journey
Damage done by substance abuse may not be something you can take back, but committing to a lifestyle of good nutrition can put you on a better path during your recovery journey. In some cases, a nutritious diet can undo some of the internal damage. The vitamins and nutrients that addiction leaches from your body should be added back into your diet as much as possible. B vitamins specifically are crucial for repairing neural pathways that may have been damaged. If you’re struggling with depression or memory issues during your recovery journey, B vitamins can help with those issues. Some foods that are a good source of B vitamins include:
- Whole grain breads
- Soy bean products
- All green vegetables
- Chicken and other poultry
Your body and brain are amazingly adept at healing themselves when given the proper support. New cells are constantly being produced to repair physical damage. Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in fish and nuts, can give the body nutritional support to do its work. The most important thing, however, is simply getting enough calories. An average person should consume at least 2000 calories per day; however, this fluctuates depending on your circumstances. Weight, height, gender, and activity level all affect that number. If you are trying to gain weight, your calorie goal may be much higher. If you find yourself at the beginning of your recovery journey and unsure of where to start, talking to a nutritionist may be a good first step. After evaluating your needs, they can help you determine what vitamins and nutrients should be added to your diet. Avery Lane can set you up with a nutritionist on your care team if that feels like the right decision for you.
What Does Nutrition Mean for Your Recovery Journey?
Your recovery journey is as unique as you are. Nutrition isn’t just one thing; it changes depending on what you need from your food. What might be considered healthy for one person may be unhealthy for another. This is an important thing to keep in mind when considering what nutrition means for your recovery journey. A lot of your needs may be based on what type of substance you’re addicted to, how often you used it, and for how long. Someone who has been drinking alcohol for 30 years will have different needs than someone who has been using cocaine for one year. For instance, the first person may want to incorporate more antioxidants into their diet. This is because the anti-inflammatory effects of antioxidants can soothe the stomach lining that has been damaged over so many years of alcohol abuse. The second person, on the other hand, may want to focus on getting B vitamins to repair damaged neural pathways. It can be particularly challenging if you’re dealing with other health concerns while in recovery. For example, trying to lose weight while simultaneously trying to fuel your body with nutrients can be difficult. If you have certain dietary restrictions or allergies, it may limit the healthy foods you can eat. Situations like this require careful consideration. Working with a dietician and/or nutritionist is often the best course of action. They can put together a meal plan that meets all of your goals at the same time. This also can lift some of the burden of planning meals while trying to do all of the other things recovery requires.
The Challenges of Accessing Nutrition
It’s important to note that having access to nutritious food isn’t always easy. For one thing, it can get expensive. If you’re already dealing with the financial strain caused by addiction and treatment, eating healthy may seem impossible. On the other hand, there may not be any stores near you that sell nutritious ingredients. Fast food restaurants are in almost every town in America, but green vegetables can be few and far between. It may be easier to go through a drive-thru, save money, and have a full belly. If this is your only option, take it. Having calories in your system is always better than having none. However, when the opportunity presents itself, choose an option with higher nutrition content. Take advantage of local programs like food pantries and soup kitchens. These programs often do a great job of having fruits and vegetables available for those who want them. Vegetables also don’t have to be fresh to be nutritious; canned products are a good option as well. Some low-income programs like food stamps even incentivize buying fresh, healthy food by making it cheaper than processed foods. Accessing nutritious meal options isn’t easy for everyone, but it should be a priority in your recovery journey. When you have a second chance, treating your body with love and care is crucial.
Easy Recipes for Your Recovery Journey
Still don’t know where to start? Don’t worry. Here are a couple of easy and nutrient-packed meals to get you started on your journey of wellness. Many of the ingredients in these recipes can be swapped out for alternatives to accommodate allergies, dietary restrictions, and personal preferences.
Salmon and Lentil Salad
This recipe is easy, nutritious, and delicious. All you need are salmon fillets, quinoa, lentils, and whatever else you like in a Mediterranean style salad. Feta cheese, olives, tomatoes, and shallots are all great options. Bake your salmon in the oven or pan-fry it on the stovetop. Meanwhile, cook your quinoa and lentils in a covered pot with simmering water, similar to the way you cook rice. When the lentils and quinoa are done, toss them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and all of those flavorful toppings. Serve the salmon over a bed of grain salad (hot or cold), and enjoy! This dish is great for your recovery journey because it packs a punch of vitamins and nutrients, along with filling ingredients. Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids, which keep your heart strong, along with DHA, a chemical that supports healthy brain function. It also is an amazing source of protein, which is great for rebuilding muscle mass that you may have lost during your period of active use. Lentils and quinoa are both very filling, so your brain and body will stay satisfied longer.
Blueberry Banana Pancakes
To make this nutritious breakfast option, you can use store-bought pancake mix! But, we’re going to add some extra ingredients to make it more nutrient-dense. Instead of the regular wet ingredients, add a smashed banana, Greek yogurt, and some egg white. If you need to loosen the batter up, add your favorite milk. Throw in a handful (or a few) of blueberries and cook until golden brown. This recipe is perfect for when you have some brown bananas on your counter; the riper the banana, the more the natural sugar balances the tartness of the Greek yogurt. Blueberry banana pancakes are the perfect breakfast recipe for your recovery journey because of all the wonderful nutrients the fruit gives your body. Bananas and blueberries are both great sources of antioxidants, which improve brain health and reduce inflammation in all parts of the body. Potassium, which helps your cells retain their hydration, is also abundant in bananas. On top of that, these pancakes give you a good amount of protein from the egg whites and yogurt, so you’ll feel full and energized until lunchtime.
Honey Mustard Vinaigrette
Eating green, leafy vegetables may be essential for getting vitamins and nutrients, but it definitely isn’t fun. To make a salad good, it has to have a great dressing. This vinaigrette is made with Dijon mustard, honey, white wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper; that’s it! Whisk them together or shake them in a sealed jar, and you have a delicious dressing to add to any leafy salad. A great lunch option while in recovery is a mixed green salad with grilled chicken and whatever other veggies you enjoy. Top with this tangy but sweet vinaigrette and you might actually enjoy getting your veggies. Olive oil is a great source of healthy fats, which are essential for brain function. Honey, a great alternative to cane sugar, is loaded with antioxidants and gastrointestinal supplements. More than anything, putting a dressing you enjoy on a salad can help you get all of the nutrients and vitamins from the leafy greens. Make sure to add protein to every meal, though, to aid in cell regeneration and muscle regrowth. Grilled chicken, fish, crispy tofu, and roasted chickpeas are all great options. At Avery Lane, we want to give you everything you need to start down a path to long-term wellness. In the wake of addiction, filling your diet with vitamins and nutrients is important for that journey. If you are starting your recovery process or want to take that step, this is a great place to start. We can set you up with a nutrition plan based on your needs and equip you with the skills to follow through. A life of wellness may seem out of reach now, but it is not unattainable. All you need is a little guidance and support. Let us provide you with that and more. Give us a call at (800) 270-2406.