Why is nutrition important for addiction recovery?

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Drug Addiction & Alcoholism

Drug addiction and alcoholism represent a major health problem in the United States and worldwide. Chemical dependency is associated with primary and secondary malnutrition. Primary malnutrition occurs when substance abuse displaces, reduces, or compromises food intake. Secondary malnutrition occurs when the substance of abuse causes alterations in the absorption, metabolism, utilization, and excretion of nutrients due to compromised oral, gastrointestinal, circulatory, metabolic, and neurological health. Malnutrition negatively impacts all body systems including the immune system, leading to an inadequate response to disease. Physical wellness including nutrition, exercise, and sleep, are frequently overlooked components of addiction recovery.

Nutrition in Recovery

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.”
– American Society of Addiction Medicine

Disordered and dysfunctional eating behaviors often persist long after abstinence has been achieved. Making healthful food choices after sobriety has been achieved can be a very challenging task. Because sobriety creates new emotions, anxiety, and uncertainty; it is easy to seek a predictable and comforting response from certain foods.

Abstinence from alcohol and drugs can result in cravings for other mood-altering substances. This can lead to overeating, relapse, compromised quality of life, and the development of chronic disease including obesity, diabetes, and hypertension; all risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Drug abuse also appears to be a risk factor for the metabolic syndrome, altered physiologic responses to sugar, salt, and fat, as well as the development of eating disorders.

Mental Health & Nutrition

Nutrition is also linked to mental health. Nutrient deficiencies and imbalances may cause behavior resembling dual diagnosis. In some cases, establishing a clinical diagnosis should be postponed until nutritional balance has been restored. Better collaboration among treatment professionals is needed to better serve the multifaceted needs of chemical dependent patients. Substance abuse is often associated with a significant clinical burden. Nutrition interventions during recovery may prevent or minimize the onset of chronic illness and psychiatric comorbidity, thereby improving resource allocation.

The Role of the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

In the past 20 years, there has been little progress in incorporating trained registered dietitians into drug rehabilitation programs, despite the continued explosion of illicit drug abuse. The reasons for this are multifactorial and include: lack of interest, limited funding for new initiatives, non-collaboration between the public and private sector, difficulties conducting research on this population, and the associated stigmas of substance abuse.

There is now increasing evidence to suggest that nutrition can play an important role in addiction recovery. Addicts in recovery often benefit from learning new behaviors with respect to food and nutrition. Small changes in nutrition and health behavior can increase general self-efficacy with respect to abstinence from alcohol and drugs, and often contribute to increased sobriety time and increased quality of life.

Individualized Nutrition Education

One of the goals of Nutrition In Recovery is that every person presenting to a substance abuse treatment center should be screened and assessed by a qualified dietitian. Blood chemistries should be requested for selected high-risk patients. People with a long history of substance abuse require greater levels of care including individualized nutrition education. Complete nutrition interventions including exercise are one of the missing links in addiction treatment.

Nutrition & Substance Abuse Resources:

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