What should I eat if I am going to quit drinking alcohol or taking drugs?
If you are on your way to rehab for a drug or alcohol problem, you may imagine that you are going to be in a health-spa-like setting. You picture yourself working out in the gym with a trainer and eating specially prepared meals, optimized for your recovery health.
Unfortunately, even in the finest of rehabs, this is often not the case. While they may employ a top chef, and they may provide a full-service gym, drug and alcohol rehab is rarely anything like staying at a health spa.
The focus during rehab is your addiction to drugs. If you are mainly a heavy drinker, they will be quick to point out that alcohol is a drug that just happens to be legal.
Your stay in rehab will consist of therapy sessions, group therapy meetings, and various activities that introduce you to the concepts and practices of recovery. Often, 12-step facilitation is at the core of the rehab curriculum. 12-step facilitation is an introduction to the Alcoholics Anonymous program and similar 12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous.
But isn’t nutrition an important part of addiction recovery?
I once spoke with a patient who had the experience of being sent to a health spa after a particularly difficult drug relapse. His family made the unusual decision to avoid residential rehab. They wanted to see if the health spa could help to get him drug-free and back to normal functioning.
Instead of group meetings with other “addicts,” he attended health lectures with the medical director of the spa program. The focus was on healthy eating and safe and healthy exercising.
While the program was not focused at all on treating addiction, the program director did confide that he also had dealt with a drug addiction issue in his past. He felt that facing the challenge with good nutrition and exercise was the way to go.
Was going to a health spa for a medical condition the right decision? Would you ever think to treat any other health condition with a program of organic, vegan meals and daily morning group walks on the beach? Where is the evidence to support going to a health spa over residential rehab?
Before dismissing this anecdote as a bad decision on the part of this patient’s family, consider a comparison between a health spa and rehab. There is little evidence to support drug rehab as being the best solution to treating many forms of addiction.
Often, rehab facilities masquerade as healthcare institutions, meeting specific requirements to be able to bill medical insurance plans. Walking through the hallways of some rehabs, you may feel as if you are in a medical facility, but the care provided is far from what we would consider medical treatment with regards to any other medical condition other than substance use disorders.
Additionally, many rehab programs focus very little, if at all on nutrition. Somehow, along the way, they forgot to consider that we are literally what we eat. Addiction leads to unhealthy living and it takes a toll on brain chemistry. Nutrition, as it turns out, should be an essential component of any recovery program.
The patient with whom I spoke about his adventure in detoxing from drugs in a health spa told me one silly story from his stay at the spa. One day, he had a visit with the program director, who was a chiropractor by training.
The director listened to his complaints of symptoms of withdrawal and detox. He thought carefully about what to do and then wrote out a prescription on his prescription pad.
The prescription was for a glass of watermelon juice. The patient took the prescription to the spa kitchen and filled it by getting a nice tall glass of cold, freshly pressed watermelon juice.
He then proceeded to go sit by the pool in the afternoon sun, while slowly sipping his glass of juice. As silly as it sounds, getting a prescription for watermelon juice, he felt refreshed and it did seem somewhat therapeutic.
Was his peaceful, enjoyable detox any worse than checking into a $30,000+ residential rehab program? The success rates for rehab without additional long-term medical treatment are fairly low. At least the health spa was fully focused on healthy eating and nutrition as well as daily exercise.
Medical treatment of addiction is important.
If you or a loved one has an addiction problem, it is important to start out by seeing a doctor for evaluation. If your family doctor is not equipped to deal with addiction-related problems, then ask for a referral to an addiction doctor.
In the case of the patient who went to a health spa instead of rehab, I should note that he did see his doctor first for a full medical evaluation. The decision to go to the health spa was based on a need for taking him out of his usual environment and placing him in a facility where he would be under strict observation. His family still arranged for him to attend recovery meetings during that time.
I am certainly not recommending that anyone start looking into health spas or other alternative programs to replace medical addiction treatment. Still, healthy eating should be a core component of the addiction treatment program.
If you do see a doctor for medication-assisted treatment of a substance use disorder, ask about nutritional supplements and what foods are best to eat. Your doctor will likely provide important nutritional information and may refer you to a nutritionist and dietician.
I have heard stories of rehabs that provided endless supplies of snack foods to their residents. All the popcorn and pretzels you can eat. The meals were also flavorful, high-carb foods without enough focus on natural foods such as fruits and vegetables.
And, I have heard stories about a disinterest in nutritional supplements from rehab owners and administrators. Providing the best results for recovery should involve a focus on brain health and replenishing important brain chemicals such as neurotransmitters and needed cofactors. Providing essential supplements early on may give rehab clients a better chance for long-term success as well as improving functioning much faster.
What specific foods should I eat to help me recover from addiction?
To start, think about eating more natural foods. Foods that come in wrappers and packages are typically not healthy and do not support your recovery in any meaningful way.
Fruits are a good place to start. Bananas are rich in potassium, an essential nutrient, and they provide excellent bowel support. Not to mention, bananas taste good and are an excellent breakfast or snack food.
Of course, with fruits, there are endless possibilities for variations and combinations. It is important to consume foods rich in antioxidants. While you can get these vitamins in supplements, the best sources are always natural foods.
Fruits that contain these important vitamins include strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon, red grapes, peaches, pears, cherries, cranberries, and more. If possible, try to choose organic fruits. By picking fruits that are in season, you will find that you can get great tasting fruits all year round.
Apples are also healthy with regards to heart health. They may help to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol. Apples are also rich in important fiber that helps to keep your intestines healthy.
A salad a day is a healthy way to eat in recovery.
In addition to fruits, you should consider eating a daily salad with lettuce, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, avocados, and possibly grilled chicken. There are many healthy ways to build a great salad.
As you may be aware, it is not a good idea to drown your salad in fatty dressing. Though this does not mean that you should avoid dressing or use a bad-tasting diet dressing.
To keep things healthy, simply measure out a one or two tablespoon serving of dressing and spread it around your salad. If you are watching your carb intake, you can look for dressings with lower sugar content, such as ranch dressing.
There are many different types of lettuce to choose from, so you can choose what tastes best to you and also you can switch it up to keep things interesting. While I personally prefer romaine, I sometimes substitute it with fresh spinach.
Spinach is a calcium-rich food that also contains magnesium. Both of these minerals are important cofactors, along with specific amino acids for replenishing neurotransmitters needed for normal brain functioning.
Other foods rich in calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese, and others. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, and peanuts contain magnesium. While it is good to select a variety of foods to get these nutrients, you will also want to get some supplements as well.
What supplements are best to take in early recovery?
A multivitamin that contains the recommended daily allowance of vitamins is a good starting point for picking a supplement. Additionally, you may want to look for a cal-mag supplement that contains calcium and magnesium. You can also look for a potassium supplement.
Remember, it is critically important that you discuss supplements with your doctor and ensure that they are safe for your consumption. Some health conditions can be made worse by taking certain supplements.
If your drug of choice was alcohol, your doctor may recommend specific supplements to replace what was being blocked from absorption by the alcohol. Specifically, Thiamine, or vitamin B1, and folic acid are usually prescribed.
Speak to your doctor or nutritionist about other possible supplements that may help with recovering optimal brain functioning. There are amino acids, as mentioned earlier, that may help with this process. For example, l-tyrosine is a precursor to the neurotransmitter, dopamine.
Is iron important to take as a supplement?
Iron is important for the normal functioning of your blood in its ability to carry oxygen to your tissues. Of course, this also relates to brain health, since your brain consumes a large percentage of your body’s energy storage molecules.
Cellular respiration requires oxygen to convert glucose directly to ATP, which is the energy molecule used by all cells in your body. You need iron for your red blood cells to use as a component of hemoglobin to transport oxygen.
Iron can be found in foods such as eggs, red meat, legumes, tofu and even lentils. Spinach also contains a significant amount of iron.
What about fish? Is fish a healthy food for a person in addiction recovery?
Fish is generally very healthy. One important nutrient found in fish are omega-3 fatty acids. Even when you buy supplements containing this nutrient, they are usually made from real fish.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain and heart health. Whether you consume fish or not, you should make sure that you take omega-3 daily. Even if you do eat fish, you should probably still take an omega-3 supplement in the form of liquid or capsules.
Make sure that the supplement you choose is of high quality and tested for mercury. One issue with eating fish and fish products is that fish are known to contain mercury.
Because of the mercury issue, experts recommend against eating fish on a daily basis. However, it is possible to get a high quality omega-3 supplement that contains no mercury or other dangerous chemicals.
What other supplements might be helpful?
L-glutamine is a supplement which may help to reduce cravings for both sugar and alcohol. You can get l-glutamine in foods such as spinach, but it is also available in supplements at your local health food store.
If supplements start to seem overly complicated, there are companies that put together supplement packages specifically designed for addiction recovery. In fact, some prepare special supplements for specific types of addiction.
So, rather than having a large collection of bottles to organize, you can simply open a pouch that contains your morning or evening supplement tablets or capsules to take. These supplements are often designed to make certain that you get needed vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
If you are concerned about taking a bunch of pills or capsules every day because it might remind you of your addiction, it may help to have a trusted friend or family member nearby when you take your daily supplements. It will help you to feel more comfortable that you are doing something positive for your health.
Can I bring my own supplements to rehab?
If you are on your way to rehab and you are concerned that they will not provide you with the nutritional supplements that you need, you will likely find that you cannot bring your own vitamins or other supplements into rehab. The problem is that they cannot be certain that your supplements do not contain drugs.
It is possible to fill capsules with any type of substance. And, there are ways to make counterfeit tablets that appear to be a brand of vitamin but really contain illicit street drugs, such as fentanyl.
If possible, try to arrange to attend a rehab program that has a strong nutritional program. Getting proper nutrition as a part of your diet is important in early recovery.
Even if the rehab staff refuses to allow you to bring in your supplement bottles, maybe they will be willing to compromise. Ask if a family member, such as a parent or sibling, may bring in fresh bottles of vitamins that are still factory sealed. Or, you can request that they supply at least a basic daily multivitamin.
While health spas are not drug rehabs, it would be good for rehab programs to learn from positive nutritional programs and integrate these principles into their own programs. Providing strong nutritional support for clients is important.
There are many great resources to learn about good nutrition and also to discover healthy recipes. One excellent source is Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist who has performed studies demonstrating that healthy eating can reverse heart disease. This reversal was previously thought to be impossible without surgical procedures.
In his books, Dr. Ornish provides solid evidence for selecting particular natural and healthy food options. He also provides many recipes in his books to make palatable meals from the foods that he recommends.
In addition to his original book on reversing heart disease, he has also written books and provides information online for health programs that include more foods. His other programs are for people who do not have heart disease, but still want to maintain optimal health.
What are my best options for good nutrition if I choose to detox at home?
Today, there are options for detoxing from drugs and alcohol at home that do not require a stay in rehab. With effective medication-assisted treatment options available for alcohol addiction, opioid addiction, and even meth or cocaine addiction, it is possible to work with a private doctor and recover in the privacy and comfort of your own home.
While detoxing at home gives you wider food choices compared to being in rehab, it is important to have structure so that you do not find yourself snacking out of control. Your doctor may provide a comprehensive food plan for you to follow, or your doctor may recommend a local food plan program to help you practice healthier eating habits.
Weight Watchers is an excellent program that has been around for a long time. In recent years, the program has been modernized and nutritional research continues to ensure that members who follow the plan learn to eat well-balanced, healthy meals.
One great advantage of Weight Watchers is that it involves weekly meetings in a group. The group meeting is not in any way an addiction recovery meeting, but it is a great place to socialize and meet other people who are working on their eating habits. Meeting coaches provide inspiration to stay on track with healthy eating.
There are similar food plan programs available with different goals depending on the particular needs of the client. If you are interested in an addiction-focused program, you may find Greysheeters Anonymous (GSA) to be an interesting program.
GSA is a 12-step program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but it focuses on healthy and controlled eating. In the program, you can work with a sponsor and go to regular meetings, available in person or online.
If you are interested in working the 12-step program, but you choose not to attend AA or NA meetings, you will be able to enjoy the benefits of the 12-step process in a different setting. Especially, if you have already had issues with food binges and controlling your eating, you will find GSA to be a welcome part of your recovery process.
When going through an alcohol or drug recovery program at home, there are many options available to meet the needs of the individual. While some people may say it is best to address one issue at a time in addiction recovery, if you are able to work on eating healthy from the very beginning, you will find that you are able to build a stronger foundation to ensure long-term success.