The idea that what we eat can influence our minds is far older than our modern understanding of nutrition. Today, the ancients are being proven to be somewhat correct, as there is now an ever-growing mountain of evidence that certain foods can influence our mental as well as our physical health. Further research will likely have implications that will change how addiction treatment professionals address substance use disorder (SUD).
While drug and alcohol rehab programs in Boston have long emphasized the need for nutritious meals, this was quite often more of a way to mitigate the physical health effects of malnutrition, something that is extremely common among people with SUD. These individuals often have problems with nutrition, related to suppressed appetites, or the binge-eating that often follows coming down from drugs.
As one might expect, the overconsumption of foods that are overly rich in fat, sugar, and simple carbohydrates has been linked to negative mental health conditions, while the regular consumption of nutritious whole foods like fruits, whole grains, and vegetables have been shown to improve overall mood. The science is still out whether depressed and anxious people are more likely to indulge in junk food or if healthy choices help our minds combat negative emotions.
However, some types of foods containing certain nutrients can aid recovery by facilitating neural growth, a reduction in stress, and other effects beneficial for recovering from an SUD. If nothing else, eating more nutritious food can serve to boost cognitive function, making it less likely that recovering individuals will give in to temptation and relapse.
Below are some ideas for getting better nutrition during recovery.
1.) Load up on fruits and veggies
Kale, grapes, acai berries, artichokes, and strawberries are just some of the many antioxidant-rich foods people in recovery should get more of. These foods are particularly helpful in the early stages of recovery.
Antioxidants are a crucial chemical compound that your body uses to regenerate cells. Having the right levels of antioxidants is also beneficial for keeping the immune system in good shape. Most long-term drug and alcohol users have bodies that have been damaged in some way by unhealthy eating habits, and these foods will not only help one from getting sick but also help the body detox and expel toxins.
Many of the foods rich in antioxidants are also a good way to indulge one’s sweet tooth, something many people in recovery suddenly develop. One thing to take note of is to not overindulge in sweet fruits and berries, as the high sugar content can cause other problems, such as mood swings and excess weight gain.
2.) Check out foods right in L-glutamine
An exciting set of recent studies has found that the amino acid l-glutamine may help suppress drug and alcohol cravings. Protein-rich foods like eggs, beef, fish chicken, and beans tend to have this vital amino acid. It could also be found in green leafy veggies like kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and parsley. Certain fruits like papaya are also particularly rich in this essential nutrient.
3.) Relax with GABA-rich snacks
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that is found in plants as well as in our brains. This neurotransmitter is responsible for feelings of calm and relaxation. People with SUD and other mental health issues like anxiety and sleeplessness tend to have lower than normal levels of GABA in their system and boosting it with GABA-rich foods can help normalize or offset some of the worst effects of this.
Foods and beverages with significant levels of GABA or qualities that boost the brain’s GABA production include coffee, green tea, legumes, beans, nuts, yogurt, broccoli, mushrooms, and certain types of seafood.
4.) Consider cutting down on your coffee consumption
While it might seem a step too far to give up this relatively benign drug, the high caffeine content in coffee can intensify anxiety symptoms, which are often held responsible for relapses.
If you’re already hooked on caffeine, you may want to taper off your consumption and keep it to that one cup in the morning. Switching from regular coffee to a similarly GABA and antioxidant-rich beverage like green tea can help keep you from getting caffeine-withdrawal headaches while helping you avoid worsening any existing anxiety issues. You can also try stopping caffeine consumption past 3 PM to help you avoid sleep problems that may worsen your mental state and leave you vulnerable to a relapse.
5.) Don’t forget regular exercise
Nutrition and exercise are often described as two sides of the same coin. This isn’t just true for building muscle or for weight loss, but SUD recovery as well. Regular exercise helps burn off excess calories, helps your brain build fresh connections, and improves your mental and physical well-being. This better mental state, in turn, helps with making other healthy decisions, such as those related to nutrition and recovery.
6.) Eat leaner meats
Meat, beans, and legumes are rich in tyrosine, an amino acid that boosts dopamine production in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being. Dopamine production and absorption are often disrupted by long-term substance misuse, and people in the early stages of SUD recovery often have critically low levels of this vital neurotransmitter. Eating more tyrosine-rich foods can help offset these low levels, making recovery less difficult.
Be sure to prioritize legumes and to avoid fatty meats in large quantities, as the high fat content can lead to depressive symptoms as well as other negative health effects.
Make nutrition a part of your recovery
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