Relapse. For many, living a sober life is a daily struggle. Even those with years of sobriety often talk about the overwhelming cravings they still battle with.
Could there be a missing piece that many of us don’t consider?
One of the most overlooked components of relapse prevention is nutrition. In recovery, we know to feed our spirit through our connection with God. That’s one of the first things we are made aware of in any 12-step program. We also work on the mental aspects of recovery through therapy, group counseling and a strong support system.
But what about the fuel we are putting in our bodies? Is there a connection between what we eat and how likely we are to battle with drug and alcohol cravings? Evidence-based science says yes.
Addiction Leads to a Deprived Nutritional State
There are a lot of problems that stem from alcohol and drug abuse. One of them is nutrition deficiency. Addiction and proper nutrition don’t generally co-exist, so the deficient state can be a result of poor eating habits, a suppressed appetite, disrupted metabolic and neuroendocrine regulation, impaired nutrient processing or (as in the case of alcoholism) highly unstable blood sugar levels from the constant cycle of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
A deprived nutritional state in itself can present as anger, anxiety, fatigue, irritability and overwhelming cravings which can set a person up for relapse, so it is vital that we are aware of the important role nutrition plays in relapse prevention.
Whenever I discuss relapse prevention, it’s always a holistic approach. We are created as three-part beings —mind, body and spirit. If this is true (and it is) then every aspect of the individual must be addressed when we are looking for a solution to a potential problem.
Our Body Wants to Feel Good
Once the alcohol or drug has been removed, our bodies begin to look for a way to replace the effect the chemical had on our body. If we refuse to provide our system with our old drug of choice, cravings for a replacement will begin. Sugar and calorie-heavy foods, starch, and processed foods all provide our body with a type of instant gratification. Unfortunately, these foods also put us in a state that is ripe for relapse, and not just in early recovery. Read The Connection Between Sugar and Drug Addiction Relapse for more insights into the relapse-ready state foods high on the glycemic index can bring you to.
Nutrition and Relapse Prevention
So how can we turn it around? If we begin to look at food as fuel, what is the fuel our bodies need to put us in the best possible place for relapse prevention?
Reducing intake of sugar, limiting caffeine consumption and steering clear of processed foods is a solid step in the right direction for relapse prevention. Anything that spikes blood sugar (also known as high glycemic load foods) should be avoided. If you want to really simplify things, try to stick to a diet heavy in foods with one ingredient, like fruits, vegetables, and protein.
Amino Acid Replacement
Another critical area of nutrition in relapse prevention is the addition of appropriate amino acids. These serve as the building blocks for our neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters, including GABA, epinephrine and norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, have a close connection to addictive behavior. By supplementing our diets with amino acids, brain chemistry can be changed to help restore deficiencies that spark the cravings that put us at risk for relapse.
Below is a chart to help you understand the role amino acids have in recovery.
It’s also important to note that hunger can be mistaken for an urge to use. Eating nutrient-rich foods on a regular schedule will prevent blood sugar fluctuations and help stack the odds in favor of long term recovery.
Try it For Yourself
If you’re wondering if food really has anything to do with your mood, anxiety, anger, or cravings for drugs or alcohol, we suggest you keep a food journal for two weeks. You’ll be amazed at the insights you’ll have. Simply write down the time you ate, what you ate and how you felt 20 minutes later and 1 hour later. By doing this for two weeks, you’ll be able to recognize a pattern between certain foods and negative feelings and cravings. By the end of your experiment, you’ll start to look at food for exactly what it is, fuel. Used correctly, food can greatly assist with relapse prevention.