These foods will get your body back in balance and keep you on track with your sobriety
Disclaimer: these are simply healthy tips and not by any means a solution to addiction and recovery. Changes in diets can have an effect on your health. If you are currently taking medications, have allergies, or have serious health conditions like hypertension, diabetes, or cirrhosis consult your physician first.
When we enter into our first year of recovery, our nutritional needs are extremely important. Over just a short period of time, drugs like alcohol, caffeine, amphetamines, opiates, nicotine, benzos, and marijuana strip our body form key nutrients like vitamins and minerals needed for our body to produce needed chemicals. Because our brain has been used to the drugs to produce these chemicals, it sort of forgets how to make them as efficiently as it used to. Having a surplus of vitamins and minerals can help offset this effect a little bit.
Some of the chemicals that are deficient in early recovery are:
- Serotonin: which promotes wellbeing and happiness
- Dopamine: which impacts our emotional responses and feelings of motivation and satisfaction
- GABA: controls stress reactions and relaxation
In addition to helping us feel better emotionally, these vitamins and minerals are also responsible for giving us energy, strengthening our immune system, and even repairing and building organ tissues (like the most important organ of all – the brain). By obtaining these key nutrients, we can begin to feel stronger emotionally, physically, and cognitively.
It is important to note that these tips are not a cure-all but are meant to be superfoods used to help many of the common ailments of early recovery. A good diet involving essential nutrients can help ease many of the common symptoms of withdrawal and early recovery like anxiety, depression, mood swings, irritability, digestive issues, fatigue, muscle pain, and insomnia.
Nutrition and wellness is an important part of any recovery journey. Due to its impact on recovery, we stress it’s importance within the confines of our recovery program. So, without further adieu, here are my top 5 recommendations for individuals in recovery – no matter which stage they are in.
1. Fermented Foods
The stomach has an enormous impact on the way we feel, think, and even behave! The stomach is even often referred to as the second brain because it has 30 neurotransmitters just like the brain. It is even responsible for the creation of serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, and norepinephrine.
Foods like kimchi, tempeh, miso and other fermented foods boost gut health, which is a major focus of addiction and recovery research right now. Our microbiome is a major indicator of gut health. The more diverse and higher our microbiome, the better our stomach is able to digest and create these needed chemicals. Bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and viruses collectively make up the microbiome.
When we abuse substances, it causes our microbiome to go off balance. Drugs interfere with our stomachs ability to secrete feel-good anti-inflammatory chemicals, neurotransmitters, and hormones that are released from the gut. One drug in particular, opiates, destroys the Bifidobacterium and Prevotella bacteria. These particular guys help produce the anti-inflamatory neurotransmitter GABA.
Good Vs. Bad Bacteria
In our gut, there is a combination of good bacteria alongside bad bacteria. When we eat healthy fiber and nutrient rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and fermented foods, we help out the good bacteria which help keep the bad ones at bay. Unfortunately drug use has the opposite effect by letting the harmful bacteria thrive while starving the healthy kind. An overgrowth of these nasties causes constipation, inflammation, depression, anxiety, diarrhea, cravings, and increased risk of serious disease like colorectal cancer.
Fortunately, there’s good news! Once we stop using, our microbiome and stomach begins to repair and balance itself. One study showed this process takes 3 weeks to begin. Eating probiotic foods (like fermented foods) can help begin this process sooner, but create better conditions to recover faster.
Over time, once your microbiome begins to return to a healthy state, you’ll notice improved moods and energy levels along with less pain and decreased inflammation throughout the body. This lessening of inflammation also has a direct effect on your mood and mental health.
Pro Tip: Learn more about the variety of fermented foods and try to add them to your meals
This isn’t a joke. Carbs are great for your health, especially in early recovery. Carbohydrates get a bad rep, but the reality is carbs are our primary source of energy. Without this essential macronutrient, our brains are not going to perform at their optimal levels.
What happens when we don’t obtain enough carbohydrates? For one, our blood sugar goes wack and unstable producing waves of cravings, frustration, and anxiety. If you know anything about recovery you understand the importance of keeping these emotions to a minimum. Oats, brown rice, and potatoes are all great sources of carbohydrates while also providing an excellent source of nutrients.
Less of the Bad….More of the Good
Many people are taught not to eat carbs during their first couple weeks of sobriety. The theory is that protein helps produce the “feel good” neurotransmitters and carbs just get in the way. Too many people focus strictly on meat and protein shakes and end up with waves of depression, irritability, and insomnia.
This is not to say protein is bad, but like everything in life, moderation is key. Protein sources like fish and eggs are great sources of amino acids which the body uses to make mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and GABA. However, carbohydrates are just (if not more) important than your protein intake. Amino acids have a difficult path from the stomach to the brain. This process might sound simple but in fact, protein-rich foods like meat actually block neurotransmitter production by overcrowding these transporters, which stops key amino acids from passing into the brain. Carbohydrates help resolve this issue.
When we eat carbohydrates, it raises our insulin. At moderate levels, insulin plays an important role with clearing out crowded blood-to-brain carriers. Insulin also has another job of helping transport amino acids into the brain, allowing them to be converted into the chemicals we need to feel happy and healthy.
Carbs Before Sleep
Some carbs like rice cakes, whole wheat crackers, or a bowl of oatmeal can actually be beneficial for our sleep if we eat them 30 minutes before we go to sleep. I understand this is against the conventional norm, but these foods can help your body transform the tryptophan in our bodies into melatonin to help us fall and stay asleep.
It is important to note the differences in carbs as well. Complex carbs like oatmeal and whole-wheat breads are good for the body because they take a while for our body to break them down. Refined carbohydrates break down too fast, giving us a burst of energy from a sugar rush, but is followed by a crash that causes undesirable moods, hunger, cravings, and even a potential relapse. Don’t stress too much about refined carbohydrates; these can be absolutely ok with moderation. Excessive food restriction can be a worse trigger to relapse.
Pro Tip: Do not eat refined sugars found in candy and desserts as they can be risky, especially recovering from opiate use. Try to stick to nutrient rich complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, brown rice, whole fruits, and fresh veggies.
3. Smoothies, Soups, and Stews
I’m from Wisconsin, and there’s nothing more soothing than a warm soup on a cold winter night. Pureeing foods is a great option for those in early recovery as it is easy to ingest and also hydrates at the same time!
Due to the liquid form of these meals, our body has to do less work to break them down into nutrients; meaning these foods allow our body to make the most of the nutrients in them.
Oh, did I mention these foods are also very hydrating? Oh I did? Well it’s an important factor because hydration is one of the most crucial aspects in early recovery. Hydration helps transport drug metabolites out of the body during early recovery and can ease the severity of detox symptoms— anxiety, nausea, fatigue and depression are all way worse if we’re even slightly dehydrated.
For those of us who drank alcohol for years, it takes an extra amount of water for us to get back to a normal level of hydration. Unfortunately, water seems to be unappetizing and can sometimes make you nauseous in early recovery. Broths and soups are tasty and therefore a great alternative option to hydrate. If you are in early recovery, your instincts might be to grab the first sugary drink you find, but these will send you on an emotional rollercoaster. You’ll feel much better with smoothies and soups.
Pro Tip: If you are having a hard time staying hydrated, try getting your water intake with smoothies, fruits, and soups. Mio is also a great option to make your water a little more flavorful!
4. Nuts – Nature’s Best Snack
Keeping a little back of trail mix in your desk, or a nutbar in your purse can help you fight hangry mood swings, keep alcohol cravings at bay, and even rescue yourself from sugar and caffeine crashes.
But why nuts? Well, they can help replenish the essential fatty acids that have been depleted by drug use. These fatty acids found in nuts help neurotransmitters fight depression, reduce anger, and prevent relapse.
Nuts are also a great source of calcium! Why that is important will be discussed in the fifth point. One superfood nut in particular is great for your liver and immune health: Brazil nuts. These nuts are full of the powerful antioxidant selenium, which supports detoxification pathways, is needed for our immune cell production and can even help restore liver function.
If you think you don’t like nuts, try to find some you haven’t tried. There is surely some out there that you will like – my personal favorite are pistachios. Otherwise, try to start with other snacks like fruit, rice crackers, muesli bars, and chia puddings.
Pro Tip: If you ever get a craving for sugar, maybe try resorting to nature’s candy, try a nuts mixed with dried fruits. The fruits will satisfy this craving, but the nuts will counteract the rise in blood-sugar levels helping you avoid crashes and mood slumps.
5. Calcium-Rich Foods
A recent study has shown that at a particular detox facility, the individuals with the lowest calcium levels were also the ones who had been the most frequent drinkers. This goes with much of scientific evidence that shows that calcium leaves our bones and leeches to alcohol as it exits our bodies.
However, on the flip side of the coin, individuals who had high levels of calcium in their bodies and therefore in their diet had significantly less severe withdrawal symptoms. The participants in the study were therefore less likely to relapse.
To limit undesirable withdrawals and the subsequent relapse that can follow, it is vital to maintain (preferably elevated) levels of calcium. Three great sources of calcium are kale, tahini, and tofu!
All the foods in this article are rich in B vitamins, another vitamin often depleted through drug use. Obtaining these B vitamins help you sleep deeper, make more energy, resist relapse, and recovery faster. Oh the power of food!
These nutrition pointers help make your recovery process quicker and easier. Don’t fret about making all of these changes all at once. Actually, we advise making these changes slowly over time. You can help support your moods by eating a meal of some calcium-rich foods like tofu, some complex carbs like brown rice, and a side of fermented veggies like kimchi just once a week.
Always try to keep nuts in areas where you can find them in times of snack hungers. Resort to smoothies and soups when you need to get the nutrients but aren’t necessarily feeling like eating. Your diet doesn’t have to be perfect – when in doubt; just eat something!