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3 Ways Nutrition Helps Long-term SUD Recovery

Happy lady holding kichen stuff over copy space background - people home made food preparation concept

You probably already knew that nutrition has some role to play in a holistic addiction treatment strategy. While nutrition is just one of the many things individuals recovering from substance use disorder (SUD) could improve on, it is also an area where one could feel decent results relatively quickly. This makes better nutrition a worthwhile addition to virtually any SUD recovery program.

The inclusion of nutrition in mental health treatment isn’t exactly new or groundbreaking. Virtually all cultures also associated certain foods with different health effects, and this type of thinking persists in the modern age, albeit with more science behind it. As early as the mid-19th century, American sanitariums were already experimenting with using food as a way to cure mental illness, with uneven success.1,4,5,6

With a better understanding of how different nutrients affect the body, however, mental health treatment specialists and other clinicians soon began to take deeper dives into using food as a tool to aid recovery.

Below are a few reasons why rehab programs will typically encourage participants to eat healthier and why you may want to consider doing the same on your own. Get in touch with Boston Drug Treatment Centers to find holistic drug and alcohol treatment programs in New England that accommodate special dietary needs and more.

1.) A Better Diet Helps Improve Your Mood

Diets with too much simple carbohydrates, fat, and sugar are linked to depression and anxiety symptoms in different studies. The presence of depression or anxiety can severely degrade a person’s ability to benefit from other types of treatment. Mental resilience is particularly weakened by malnutrition. Thus, foods that help with emotional regulation may, over time, allow the patient to achieve better, most sustainable gains from their other treatments.1,4,5,6

Certain foods and beverages are also known to help regulate or increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in our brains. GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for relaxation and is the same chemical that most sedative drugs increase in our systems to prevent or blunt the effects of anxiety. Most foods rich in carbohydrates, such as junk food and candy, are notably poor in GABA.1,4,5,6

SUD patients as well as people with anxiety disorders who misuse substances, tend to have low GABA levels in their system. This contributes to irritability, poor emotional regulation, and other anxiety symptoms. It is strongly connected to maladaptive drug-taking as well, particularly alcohol and other depressants.1,4,5,6

Foods rich in GABA include much of the fare often considered to be healthy, such as yogurt, seafood, mushrooms, nuts, and dark chocolate. GABA is also found in coffee, which is why it can make you feel calm even as it wires you up.

2.) Healthy Diets Undo and Repair Damage Caused by Drug Misuse

People with a history of drug and alcohol use will often suffer from various physical health problems as a direct or indirect result of their substance misuse. In addition to causing direct damage to the organs, drugs and alcohol can interrupt sleep and trigger cravings for overly salty, sweet, and starchy foods. This will all eventually take a toll on the body’s ability to heal itself effectively, which can compound cell damage and lead to an appearance of accelerated aging.2,5,6

While diet will not necessarily reverse all the damage done, it can certainly go a long way in preventing further damage from occurring.

Foods rich in protein, like eggs and lean meats, as well as those rich in antioxidants and vitamin C like some fruits, berries, and vegetables, are often included as part of recovery diets in rehab facilities, as these nutrients are necessary for optimal cell growth and regeneration. And while further evidence is needed, these nutrients may also help brain cells build connections and regenerate, processes that aid in long-term recovery.2,5,6

3.) Improves Self-esteem and Confidence

While it’s normal for people to gain back some weight after quitting drugs or alcohol, this can be a serious problem if they do not have the foundation necessary for them to consistently make healthy food choices.6

People who recover from SUD often complain about excessive weight gain, which, if not addressed, could lead to self-esteem issues in addition to physical health problems. At best, these issues can create problems for recovering individuals in their personal and professional lives. At worst, they could lead to a relapse, as individuals may turn to substances once again to deal with them.6

Excessive eating after beating SUD is often indicative of other underlying issues like depression, anxiety, or trauma with overeating being a maladaptive behavior much like drug and alcohol misuse. In addition to seeking psychiatric treatment for these underlying issues, cultivating a healthy diet and lifestyle can be key to preventing them from getting any worse. This means diet can ultimately be part of maintaining the gains one made during recovery.

Find Holistic SUD Treatment in New England

Boston Drug Treatment Centers offers access to personalized, holistic treatments for SUD and related mental health issues. Get in touch with our team at (857) 577-8193 to find options that include diet and other complementary approaches to recovery.


  1. Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific reports7(1), 6287. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
  2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2013). Antioxidants In Depth.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, September). Principles of Effective Treatment.
  4. Farmer, N., Touchton-Leonard, K., & Ross, A. (2018). Psychosocial benefits of cooking interventions: a systematic review. Health Education & Behavior, 45(2), 167-180. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1090198117736352
  5. Wiss, D. A., Schellenberger, M., & Prelip, M. L. (2018). Registered dietitian nutritionists in substance use disorder treatment centers. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 118(12), 2217-2221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.08.113
  6. Christo, G., & Sutton, S. (1994). Anxiety and self‐esteem as a function of abstinence time among recovering addicts attending Narcotics Anonymous. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 33(2), 198-200. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8260.1994.tb01111.x

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