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The Role of Nutrition in Addiction and Mental Health Recovery

Kayla Gill
 March 8th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Nutrition is a foundational element of well-being. Not only can good food provide a sense of pleasure and joy, but eating a nutritious diet helps your body and mind perform at their very best. If you’re seeking addiction or mental health treatment, establishing supportive eating habits is especially vital. The right nutrition plan can help you rebuild your health and prevent relapse.

Finding the right rehab program includes understanding the role of nutrition in your treatment plan. Helping your mind and body get back to functioning at their optimal levels will set you up for recovery success.

The Relationship Between Addiction and Nutrition

If you’re using drugs or alcohol, it’s common for substances to become a higher priority than your diet. People are more likely to feel depressed, anxious, or lethargic when they don’t get the nutrients they need.1 In turn, a poor diet can make it harder to resist drug cravings2 and contribute further to addiction.

Physical Symptoms of Poor Nutrition

Addiction can make you more likely to choose meals with low nutritional value, or not eat enough in general. As such, many people struggle with malnourishment in early recovery3 and may be underweight. While different substances impact your health and nutrition differently, regular substance use is likely to result in one or more of these symptoms:

Nutrition for Recovery

Addiction takes a huge physical toll on the body. Using alcohol or drugs requires your body to work extra hard to process and eliminate toxic substances and repair the damage they cause. From detox to post-rehab recovery, good nutrition helps to heal your body and mind.

Good Nutrition Can Ease Withdrawal Symptoms

Replacing lost nutrients is an important aspect of detox. The detox process can take a lot of mental and physical energy to complete. You may experience symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.10 When you’re ready to recover, eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods can help you ease withdrawal symptoms and avoid relapse.11

Food Provides Energy During Early Recovery

Recovering from addiction requires energy, resilience, and motivation. If you’re not eating well, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed or drained in the early stages of sobriety. But with a nutritious diet, you’ll have the energy you need to stay motivated in recovery. Eating well helps you think more clearly,12 pay attention for longer periods of time, and enjoy a more balanced emotional state.

Plus, a balanced diet helps your body heal from addiction.13 Good nutrition helps your immune system improve, and your organs and tissues to repair themselves. Eating well is a key part of building healthy habits to support your new lifestyle—a main goal of residential rehab.

Eating Well in Life After Rehab

Nutrition supports every stage of recovery, even well beyond inpatient addiction treatment. Eating a balanced diet contributes to an elevated mood,14 higher energy levels, and better physical health.

It’s even proven that learning about nutrition helps people heal from addiction.15

Addiction and Disordered Eating

There’s a strong link between eating disorders and addiction. Up to 35% of people addicted to drugs or alcohol also struggle with an eating disorder—11 times higher than the rate of the general population.16

For some patients, disordered eating habits develop during the addiction recovery process.17 Weight gain is common in early treatment, when appetite increases and drugs are no longer depleting you. Weight gain can contribute to mental health issues, including eating disorders. But with the right medical care and nutrition plan, you can find lasting physical and emotional health during your recovery journey.

Learn more about eating disorder recovery here

The Link Between Diet and Your Mental Health

Nutrition is often linked to physical health. However, there’s a powerful connection between nutrition and mental health, too. Eating nutritious foods is an essential part of healing mental health issues including depression and anxiety. While nutrition has historically been undervalued in mental health treatment, it’s now gaining popularity and acceptance among experts.

The Gut-Brain Axis

According to nutritional psychiatry, there’s a direct link between your gut health and your brain.18 The “gut-brain axis” describes the physical connection between these 2 organs via the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve starts in your brain stem and connects to your gut via the central nervous system. It not only plays an important role in digestion and nutrient absorption, but also sends nerve signals back and forth between the brain and the gut.

This means that a healthy balance of gut bacteria helps your brain produce the right chemicals to stay healthy and emotionally stable. And in turn, your brain helps your gut maintain the right balance of bacteria. In fact, studies show that healthy gut bacteria can improve your mood.19

Nutrition for Mental Wellness

If you’re struggling with your mental health, eating healthily might feel out of reach. Many people enter treatment for their mental health with poor nutrition.20

To help you heal, comprehensive rehabs programs leverage this gut-brain axis and use nutrition to support your recovery. Tailored meal plans can support healing and restore nutritional balance. This naturally helps you feel better and maintain energy and focus on your work in treatment.

Find Calming Relief

The right nutrition plan can provide structure and peace during early recovery. Inpatient mental health programs provide regular meals at routine intervals. This helps patients find a greater sense of calm,21 as well as maintain blood-sugar levels for stable energy throughout the day.

Nutritious food can also allow those healing from mental health issues to experience much-needed pleasure. Eating tasty foods releases dopamine in the brain,22 boosting your sense of joy. Studies also show a link between certain amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids and improved mental health23 during treatment.

Boost Your Mood

Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are vital for your mental health, mood, and overall wellness. Inpatient treatment programs that focus on nutrition can ensure you’re getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals for brain health:24

  • Probiotics
  • Magnesium
  • Tyrosine
  • Curcumin
  • Theanine
  • Amino acids

Heal Your Relationship with Food

Healthy eating is an important element of healing for people in eating disorder recovery. When you enter treatment, you’ll start to replenish nutrients your body needs by eating regular, nutrient-dense meals.

Treatment programs also give you the opportunity to learn how to stay healthy beyond your time in rehab. In some centers, you’ll work one-on-one with a nutritionist or dietitian to plan meals, shop for groceries, or even learn to cook. Over time, eating nourishing meals in treatment can help you rebuild trust with yourself25 and repair your relationship with food.

Eat Well to Build a Foundation for Recovery

Eating for recovery provides nourishment, energy, and comfort during every stage of your healing journey. And while the link between recovery and diet is universal, everyone’s needs are unique.

Search rehabs to discover the right fit for you. You can sort searches by various dietary needs, find programs with healthy meals, and even find treatment centers with vegetarian and vegan offerings.

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