Using Food as Medicine: Addiction and Nutrition

You may ask yourself, “Is getting over addiction with nutrition possible?” 

We know developing a healthy diet and eating habits is important for individuals in general. However, it is especially critical for people recovering from addiction caused by drugs or alcohol though. Even short-term addiction will affect the body negatively by over-exertion to extract harmful chemicals and protect itself from the harm they cause.  Achieving balanced nutritional health, and restoring the damage by addiction, is important to getting your life back to normal

How Substance Abuse Disrupts Nutrition

The misuse of alcohol and drugs takes a severe toll on the human body. Healing is a slow process and detoxification is incredibly taxing to the body; as a result, nutrition is a crucial area of addiction recovery.

Every drug has its own set of health impacts, and the side effects are different for everybody. Despite the drug of choice, all drug abuse will impact a person’s ability to receive and maintain the nutrients required for a healthy lifestyle. One or more of these general symptoms are likely to be encountered by those who misuse substances:

Loss of appetite

Many drugs reduce the appetite or cause the person to forget to eat entirely.

Poor food choices

People under the influence are more likely to choose foods with low nutritional value that are high in sugar, fat, and processed carbs. Healthy Meals are rarely a priority for a person with substance use disorder.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Poor nutrition may cause hypoglycemia, low blood sugar, electrolyte imbalances, hormonal imbalances, brain damage, and a host of other regulatory issues. 

Gastrointestinal disorders

Usually, people who drink alcohol do not pay attention to their diet. Even those who were previously healthy let their good eating habits take a back seat to their addiction habits. Alcohol and other medications lead to chronic gastrointestinal (GI) tract problems that prevent nutrients from being absorbed efficiently in food.

GI damage from substance use causes severe deficiencies in these essential nutrients:

  • Folic Acid
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B1

Prolonged malnutrition from a poor diet can result in many health problems. This includes a weakened immune system, making you more susceptible to germs and infections. It can also result in more acute symptoms such as dental issues, stomach problems, and skin infections. Substance use and malnutrition can also severely damage other systems in the body, including irreversible brain damage, nerve damage, liver disease, heart and pancreas disorders, and even some forms of cancer. It is important to report any of these symptoms to your healthcare provider to see if corrections can be made to your diet.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a full list of health consequences of drug misuse published you can use as a resource to learn more. 

When you abuse alcohol and drugs, you..

  • Consume less food. 
  • Choose less nutritious foods.
  • Skip meals.
  • Increase the speed at which your body uses up energy.
  • Increase the loss of nutrients through vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Damage your gut so that it can’t absorb the nutrients in food properly.


The food we eat influences our brain functionality; the nutrients in food help produce and balance chemicals in the brain that control your mood, memory, and physical activity. In addition to treatment, a proper diet will help with anxiety, irritability, nervousness, stress, memory retention, food cravings, and sleep cycle. 

What and how to eat during recovery

Nutritional therapy during rehabilitation will create a plan for you to follow a diet that balances the brain’s serotonin levels (a hormone that helps you relax). This includes consuming carbohydrate-rich foods, especially complex carbohydrates found in starchy foods, root vegetables, certain kinds of pasta, and bread. Though pasta and bread alone sound great, you should consume complex carbohydrates with protein and plenty of fruits and vegetables to absorb the nutrients.


Starting with small changes or small meals makes the transition easier on the body and your emotional health. Weight loss and gain are expected during this transition but can be a source of added stress and anxiety. Any thoughts of negative body imagery should be shared with your care team to help you find the appropriate coping mechanisms.

As a coping strategy, the diet shouldn’t replace drugs. Sugar and caffeine, as they generate highs and lows, are popular substitutes used during recovery. These foods that are low in nutrients will prevent you from eating enough nutritious food and affect your mood and cravings. These foods, however, are preferable to begin anew with alcohol or substance use.

Finally, with the right choices, challenging as they might be, you will be on your way to a brighter future and a good life for yourself and for the people who love you.

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