Incorporating Nutrition to Holistically Improve Mental Health and Personal Well-Being
The substance abuse recovery process is different for everyone. Each person who experiences dependency will have their own unique path forward, but a few things hold true for everyone in recovery. Nutrition is one of the most often overlooked parts of life for many people who are experiencing drug dependency. Over time, people experiencing drug dependency neglect basic self-care, including the basics of a well-balanced diet. Long-term drug use can lead to dangerous nutrient deficiencies.
The purpose of substance abuse treatment is not necessarily to cure a dependency; as anyone who has experienced addiction knows, the goal is to manage cravings and rebuild their bodies and minds to handle life’s challenges without fear and without substances. Exploring the role of nutrition in recovery is beneficial in the journey to healing.
How Nutrition Affects the Human Body
Though people recovering from substance abuse experience nutrient-deficiency, it isn’t solely an issue of dependency. Many Americans are nutrient-deficient and do not even realize it; the average person may be neglecting a few vital nutrients and minerals in their daily diet, but they are usually able to see the problem in their daily life and rectify it with new foods or a supplement. To many people struggling with drug dependency, proper diet becomes an afterthought, eventually leading to low nutrient levels and overall degradation of personal health. Sometimes, substance use will mask the effects of a poor diet, so people may not even realize their diet is hurting their bodies.
When most people learn that they have a nutrient deficiency, they can simply take a dietary supplement or tweak their average weekly menu to compensate for the deficiency. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that as many as 462 million people worldwide qualify as malnourished, though the degrees of severity range widely. People struggling with drug dependency can benefit from a holistic recovery experience that includes nutritional therapy or dietary counseling to repair the damage that occurred during drug dependency.
Nutrition Deficits from Drug Dependency
Many people who struggle with substance abuse develop nutrient deficits and other negative consequences from failing to maintain a proper diet. This occurs for several reasons:
- Many addictive substances suppress appetite, and an individual under the influence may not have an appetite and will simply forget to eat.
- Even when they do eat, people with substance abuse disorders often neglect maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.
- People struggling financially due to substance abuse may not be able to afford nutritious food. Unfortunately, it’s much less expensive to eat processed foods than it is to eat nutrient-dense foods.
- Severe drug dependency can damage internal organs, making it difficult or even impossible for the body to process certain foods or absorb necessary nutrients.
- Drug dependency weakens the immune system, which can lead to infections and various illnesses that will also interfere with appetite, digestion, and nutrient absorption.
- Some substances, such as alcohol, can cause chronic gastrointestinal problems such as pathogenic bacterial overgrowth, leaky gut syndrome, fungal infections in the intestinal tract, and acid reflux disease.
- Many people with a substance abuse disorder only eat out of necessity, and therefore only eat whatever is available or easily accessible without regard to nutrition.
Drug dependency damages the body and impedes proper nutrition. Any individual seeking substance abuse treatment should consider a recovery center that offers holistic treatment and nutritional support through every phase of recovery, from detox to rehab to ongoing care. For many people, a balanced diet and proper nutrients can make the recovery process easier.
Common Nutrition-Related Issues During Detox
Rehab is an opportunity for patients to relearn self-care. The rehab process begins with detoxification, which allows the last traces of drugs to leave a patient’s body so recovery can begin. This is a difficult process, and appropriate detox procedures should be considered for both medical needs and nutritional needs. Medically assisted detox procedures offer a much higher chance of successful recovery than attempts at quitting cold turkey.
Successful substance abuse treatment requires an approach based in integrative medicine or treating the whole patient rather than only treating conditions. For example, many people struggling with substance abuse disorders also experience mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or personality disorders.
Patients can’t fully recover from substance abuse disorders without addressing their mental health disorders and vice versa. Holistic recovery must aim to treat the entire person, and nutritional support is a crucial building block of the process.
The length of detox typically depends on the substance abused. Some substances, such as opioids and alcohol, can cause severe or even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms with sudden cessation. During detox, substance abuse treatment professionals and medical staff will assess a patient’s condition and administer medications to help him or her handle the detox process. Here are a few facts to help explain the process:
- Withdrawal symptoms can have a profound physical effect on the human body, sometimes leading to dangerously high fevers, muscle twitches, joint pain, hallucinations, and seizures.
- Many individuals with severe substance abuse disorders fail to recognize the symptoms of dangerous medical issues or simply ignore the problem until it escalates out of control.
- Some illicit substances can cause acute medical events such as severe seizures, periods of unconsciousness, and organ failure. Without medical assistance, the detox process can be life-threatening.
- Some individuals enter treatment while sick from bacterial infections, sexually transmitted diseases, common illnesses such as influenza and pneumonia, and showing symptoms of malnutrition and dehydration.
- Poor nutrition has an undeniable effect on mental health. Overcoming dietary problems is the first step toward helping a patient handle the coming trials during rehab. Holistic treatment including nutrition support can help improve symptoms of co-occurring mental health disorders.
Medically assisted treatment with nutritional support helps patients withstand the negative symptoms of withdrawal and helps them start the recovery process with a more balanced body.
Nutritional Support in Recovery
Nutritional support should be included in a substance treatment regimen. Proper nutritional support requires a thorough understanding of a patient’s dietary needs, medical status, and the severity of the drug dependency. The type of drugs abused and the length of time the abuse has lasted also inform treatment options. Ultimately, the purpose of nutritional support in recovery is to repair the physical damage from drug dependency, effectively healing the body from the inside out.
Substance abuse treatment professionals help their patients in several vital ways when they offer nutritional support:
- A healthy diet with vitamins and minerals can help repair damaged body tissues and organs.
- Better food and hydration will invariably lead to better gut health, which has a significant impact on mental health and the rest of the body.
- Nutritional support can help rebuild a patient’s immune system, helping him or her fight off lingering infections and diseases and protect against illness in the future.
- Proper nutrition will increase energy levels and elevate mood, both of which are beneficial to the recovery process.
- Nutritional therapy as part of a continuum of functional medicine helps strengthen the bond between a treatment provider and patient, ultimately strengthening the overall recovery experience. When used with other holistic treatments such as massage, acupuncture, yoga, and exercise therapy, the results can be significant.
Healing from the Inside Out
Substance abuse recovery is a difficult process and a healthy body goes a long way toward a positive and successful rehab experience. The goal of substance abuse treatment is to teach patients how to live sober and manage the aspects of their lives that may have contributed to their substance abuse problems, but it is not realistic to expect patients to recover if they continue to struggle with nutrient deficiency and other symptoms of malnutrition.
Nutritional support is vital to addiction treatment. Healing the body from within, encouraging exercise and proper rest, and supporting nutritional therapy with other holistic treatments can effectively heal the body from the inside out. A nutrient-rich diet will enhance gut health and encourage production of the “feel-good” hormones that are essential to recovery.
Nutritional Support and Mental Health
Drug dependency may involve various significant physical symptoms, but it is ultimately an affliction of the mind. Drug dependency warps the sense of self and perceptions of reality. Dependency can eventually become all-encompassing and singularly occupy a person’s thoughts, regardless of the severity of the consequences. Nutrient deficits contribute to this downward spiral. People experiencing symptoms of malnutrition are more likely to contract infectious diseases, develop long-term medical issues from poor dietary habits, and suffer the ill effects of untreated co-occurring disorders with greater intensity.
Mental health treatment forms a part of any recovery experience. Regardless of whether or not a patient suffers from a diagnosed co-occurring mental health disorder, drug dependency levies an extremely heavy toll on the human mind and body. While mental health treatment generally requires long-term care, substance abuse treatment centers that offer nutritional support expedite the healing process by empowering the body.
Finding the Right Recovery Options for You
If you or a loved one is struggling with drug dependency, it is vital to understand the physical toll the issue has taken, and that nutritional support is important during recovery. The longer someone experiences substance abuse, the more likely the individual is to experience symptoms of malnutrition, worsened mental health disorder symptoms, and internal medical complications that may require extensive treatment.
Nutrition may be one of the most overlooked aspects of substance abuse treatment. Find an addiction treatment center or intensive outpatient treatment program that offers nutrition support and dietary counseling as part of its recovery options.
About the Author:
Liz Martin is the Chief Operations Officer at Continuum Recovery Center. Liz received a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Central Washington University in 1999 with emphasis in Human Resource Management and Organizational Theory. She has 20+ years’ experience in marketing, service and administration. Her mission is to help others and create healing environments for those struggling with addiction to change their life.