This is Your Addiction on Food

Linda Wilk, MA, QMHP

It’s no secret that the more we drink or drug, the less we are interested in eating good food.  Oh, we may be foodies, interested in good wine and wine or craft beer pairings when we start out, but let’s face it, that all goes out the window as cravings and dependency grows.  We may still claim these things are important, to keep up the image or save face, but as our appetite for our drug of choice grows, and our drug/alcohol quantity far outruns our quality use. 

So what is happening to our body during this physical war?  Not much has been studied, to be honest.  As I set out to write about what I can easily see when people are admitted to treatment, I discovered how hard it is to study the many faces of malnutrition and neglect of the body.  One study, a narrative report, admitted that:

We chose to conduct a narrative review because there are many different topics in this field with few studies on each and statistical combination is impossible. These data will be compiled to have a comprehensive overview and provide new insights on drug users’ eating patterns for future nutritional interventions in the promotion of good health among this population.1

So observation will serve us best, with this small study as back-up.  We know that craving for drugs and alcohol is often reported by clients to override all desire for food by the time a person hits the point of entering treatment.  People coming into residential treatment may present as underweight, in malnutrition, with various physical ailments indicative of poor nutrition and addiction, such as liver or kidney malfunction, pancreatitis, digestive problems, anemia, skin ailments, chronic headaches, shakiness and so forth.

In trying to detox on their own, these ailments may lead the person to use again, just to relieve symptoms.  In a detox facility, many are administered prescription drugs to alleviate the danger of the detox process.  Still, it’s interesting to read in this study that left to their own devices, most addicts and alcoholics will resort to food intake equal to a fast food diet – high in refined carbs, sweets and sweet drinks – in other words, a quick fix for energy.  This kind of diet will do little to restore the body to good health.  It will instead result in further fatigue and lethargy, a feeling of depression and emptiness, and further gastric anomalies!

What can be done?  Believe it or not, much of the “cure” is in the food we eat.  Protein, and lots of it, combined with healthy complex carbs, is going to provide a lot of the healing to the body, in healing the anemia brought on by months and maybe years of lack of any sort of planned nutrition.  Supplementation is going to help the brain’s pleasure centers begin to replace the huge hole left by the discontinuation of the false flooding by drugs.  But in order to heal the brain centers, nutrition will play a center role.  Iron-deficiency and anemia, lack of essential vitamins and minerals – these are all things that can be replaced as we learn to eat healthy foods again.

At Bridging the Gaps, we have a structured program to help recovering people learn to build these foods back into the diet.  Do they balk?  Of course!  It’s not a natural thing, when one has been near-anorexic, surviving on energy drinks, soda and caffeine.  Gradually, through experience, a person has to find out that the brain fog, the feeling of being unable to function or think, and the feeling one’s bones belong to an 85 year old, are going to get back to functioning like the 30 year old you are, with proper food and lots of water.  It seems counter-intuitive.  Old habits are hard to break!

Recovery is what you make of it.  Sometimes families decide to try this idea on for size too.  In the process of chasing after a drunk or addict, anticipating their next move, many families fall into disrepair too.  There are few family cooked meals, no sit down meals at the table.  Conversation falls off and so does nutrition.  Family treatment can benefit from taking an interest in balanced meals and good nutrition, and that can support the person in residential treatment as well.

In residential treatment at bridging the Gaps, we rely on a book called Staying Clean and Sober: Complementary and Natural Strategies for Healing the Addicted Brain, by Merlene Miller, MA and David Miller, PhD.  A lot more is said there than I could say in this brief column.  I’ve also found The Craving Cure, by Julia Ross to be another helpful tool, regarding supplements that support good health and dietary needs, as well as diet. What is known is that for the first six months, an addict in recovery on their own will crave sweet, sugary foods.  This is the body’s attempt to fill the gap in serotonin and dopamine deficiencies.  After six months, the body on its own will move more to healthier foods.  However, that gap places early recovering people at a much higher risk for relapse.  Do you want to do that to yourself?  Isn’t it worth the effort to work on this tool called good nutrition?   

I know that it was very difficult for me to resist those candy bowls and multiple cups of coffee at the meetings in my early recovery.  At first I gained weight, despite my efforts.  When at my sponsor’s advice, I switched to high-protein; healthy carbs (fruit and whole grains) and less processed foods, I almost instantly lost 25 pounds, and found myself with a lot more energy and less depression.  The energy gave me the motivation to join in with other 12 step members in soft ball and hiking that helped me get in shape. It was a win/win.

Time takes time, however.  Six months of slow change seems like forever when one is getting sober.  Realizing the damage we have done to ourselves and our bodies is hard to swallow and changing habits is even harder.  Reaching for an apple instead of a candy bar may be one small change.  Maybe not every time, even.  Just today!

1Mahboub, et al, Nutritional status and eating habits of people who use drugs and/or are undergoing treatment for recovery: a narrative review, Nutrition Reviews, Vol 79, Issue 6, Jun 21.

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