Nutrition is a commonly overlooked aspect of life for many Americans, and nutritional deficits can be especially damaging to individuals struggling with substance abuse, mental health disorders, or dual diagnoses of drug dependency and co-occurring disorders. During addiction recovery, patients must learn how to overcome cravings and manage the triggers that spur their patterns of dependency-related behaviors as they also receive treatment for the physical effects of substance abuse. One piece of that is proper nutrition, which can make the recovery process easier.
Food influences how we feel, how we respond to stimuli, and how we physically function every day. Gut health is a crucial aspect of physical well-being. Due to the strong established links between gut health and mental health, focusing on repairing and strengthening the gut can be one of the most valuable parts of any drug recovery plan.
The role of gut health in personal well being
Though it may surprise people, there is a link between emotions and the digestive system. For example, when you encounter a stressful situation, your appetite may seem to disappear. People with dependencies and mental health issues likely feel stress more often than others, causing them to neglect to eat. Failure to eat – or failure to eat proper foods – negatively affects gut health. Many substance abuse treatment centers across the country have adopted nutritional therapy into their treatment plans due to the strong scientific evidence of the connection between gut health and mental health.
Drug dependency is a dangerous condition that affects the mind and body. Overcoming addiction is largely a psychological process, but physical health can greatly improve the success rate and chance of achieving lifelong sobriety. Nutrition in recovery is one of the most effective treatment methods available, and the gut-brain connection is one of the major reasons why.
Proven links between gut health and mental health
The digestive system of the human body contains about 100 million nerve endings forming the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The gut communicates directly with the brain through vagus nerves, creating a nerve pathway from the gut lining directly to the brain. The intricate network of hormones, neurotransmitters, nerve endings and electrical impulses in the gut has a dramatic influence on the health of the rest of the body.
The ENS of the human gut influences feelings of appetite, anxiety, and relaxation. Nervous system reactions in the gut also influence mood and emotional processing. Additionally, the gut system of the human body contains a microbiome of healthy microbes, bacteria, and fungus in the gut that breaks down food and allows the body to absorb essential nutrients. The microbiome of the gut system can weigh between two to six pounds, about twice the size of the human brain.
How you feel affects appetite and eating habits
Most people experiencing drug dependency eventually start neglecting self-care. They may engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex and expose themselves to sexually transmitted diseases. They may spend time in unsanitary places and face exposure to infectious diseases, go days without eating any real food or properly hydrating, or contract bacterial infections from poor hygiene. The stress of enduring withdrawal and the detachment that accompanies euphoria can prolong dietary issues, sometimes to dangerous levels.
Stress also causes a sudden influx of cytokines into the gut. These neurotransmitters relay signals to the immune system, triggering a response to protect the body from harm. However, the brain is essentially reacting to stress as if it were an infection, and the immune system response kills some of the healthy particles of the microbiome of the gut. Over time, this can severely diminish the microbe count of the gut and make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients and digest food properly.
Extended periods of stress-related immune system responses in the gut from substance abuse can eventually lead to chronic conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and mental health disorders such as depression.
What you eat influences how you feel
The saying “you are what you eat” is much deeper than most people realize. Of course, if you eat unhealthy foods your personal health will eventually suffer, but the connection between food and emotional health is much more complex. Eating a varied, nutrient-rich diet is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle, and individuals who consume appropriate nutrients generally have better overall physical and emotional health than those who do not.
One of the fundamental aspects of any holistic treatment plan should be to heal the whole patient, not simply address the symptoms of drug dependency. To overcome a substance abuse disorder, the patient must receive a comprehensive system of treatment that incorporates nutritional support. Many patients in rehab struggle through the detox phase due to infectious diseases, malnutrition, and serious nutrient deficiencies that interfere with organ function and hormone levels. During rehab, consistent nutritional support will empower the patient to handle the stress of recovery with a healthier body.
Physical consequences of drug dependency and malnutrition
People struggling with substance abuse disorders suffer in various ways from a nutritional standpoint:
- They may simply neglect to eat. Some drugs suppress appetite, and people with advanced addictions may go days without eating or only eat foods with minimal nutritional value.
- Others may only eat unhealthy foods due to self-neglect and the financial strain from maintaining a substance abuse habit.
- As a substance abuse disorder progresses, the individual will likely experience a decline in self-care. This has a compounding effect that influences mental health, immune system function, and internal bodily functions.
- Extended periods of malnutrition can cause permanent medical issues. Some people may experience organ failure or diminished organ performance, contract incurable infectious diseases, or develop other long-term medical complications from severe nutrient deficiency.
- Extensive damage to the microbiome of the gut will invariably influence mental health. This can be especially dangerous for people with co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or personality disorders such as schizophrenia.
These issues make it harder to recover from a substance abuse disorder, and they also cause long-term medical complications that can last for years or even permanently. A comprehensive treatment plan rooted in integrative medicine provides the best chances of recovery and maintaining long-term sobriety. This approach requires addressing the whole patient rather than only the symptoms of the condition.
Overcoming nutritional deficits in substance abuse treatment
Modern substance abuse treatment generally requires a standard of care that includes treatment for the physical symptoms of drug dependency and withdrawal, and modern treatment professionals know that an integrative approach generally offers the best results. Many substance abuse treatment centers take an approach that involves functional medicine, evidence-based treatment, and holistic therapies to address physical, mental, and emotional health simultaneously.
Treatment begins with the detox phase and medication-assisted treatment procedures to offer the highest chances of success. Long-term substance abuse wreaks havoc on the gut and the rest of the human body. During detox, a patient receives medical treatment to fight the symptoms of withdrawal as the last traces of the drugs leave the patient’s body. This process can be a crucial stepping-stone toward a stronger overall recovery experience with nutritional support.
Patients can receive nutrient-rich meals, vitamin therapy, and medical treatment for infectious illnesses and preexisting conditions, all of which will prepare their bodies for the rehab process. Overcoming substance abuse is a psychological process, but poor physical health’s undeniable effect on mental health means treatment centers must address physical issues as well as the psychological roots of a patient’s drug dependency.
Gut Health in Addiction Recovery
Ultimately, eating a nutritious and balanced diet is the best way to improve gut health and overcome the deficiencies and damage caused by drug dependency. Beyond the detox phase, patients learn how to overcome the stressors and triggers that typically send them into patterns of drug-seeking behaviors. Holistic treatment with nutritional support as a cornerstone can be valuable to anyone going through the substance abuse recovery process.
Learning to eat better and take better care of oneself are some of the most valuable lessons learned in addiction recovery. Improving gut health can have a dramatic effect on overall physical health and psychological state, and all of these benefits, in turn, enhance the recovery process. Additionally, many people who finish rehab carry the lessons learned into sober living in the future.
It’s not uncommon for nutritional therapy in rehab to encourage patients to explore their options for creating a healthy lifestyle beyond rehab, inspire them to try new ways to exercise and encourage them to cultivate new hobbies and use their energy constructively.
Finding the Right Treatment Center
If you or a loved one struggle with any type of drug dependency, it is crucial to acknowledge that the longer the problem continues, the more severe the resulting consequences will be. The self-neglect that often accompanies drug dependency is incredibly destructive, and someone suffering from an advanced substance abuse disorder may not be able to recognize the damage being done until it reaches dangerous levels.
Finding the right treatment center can be challenging. It is imperative to find one that meets a high standard of clinical care and provides a wide range of effective holistic treatments and ongoing support. Find a treatment center that offers nutritional support and a firm understanding of gut health and how it relates to substance abuse.