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Addiction support groups offer a safe haven, a place to heal, and a way to meet others who understand your recovery journey – these spaces are a lifeline to sustained sobriety. But there is an unhealthy side that exists in the recovery culture and it needs to change. The problem isn’t with the programs, it’s with the lack of focus on better nutrition during recovery. We see examples of unhealthy choices and habits at meetings where tables are filled with donuts, candy, and other sugary snacks or outside where people are smoking in droves. We see it when individuals gain weight after withdrawal from substances and use junk food to cope with cravings, medication side-effects, or mood swings. We all agree that sobriety needs to come first and this journey is tough as hell, but does your health have to come second? In this article, we will examine how dopamine plays a key role in addiction and cravings, why unhealthy eating habits are common in recovery culture, and ways to tackle these unhealthy habits to live your best life in sobriety.
Dopamine Levels in Addiction
Substance use disorder affects the whole body, but one of the biggest physiological changes from alcohol and drug addiction is found in a person’s dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure, reward, motivation, and learning. According to an article in Harvard Health, “In nature, rewards usually come only with time and effort. Addictive drugs and behaviors provide a shortcut, flooding the brain with dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Our brains do not have an easy way to withstand the onslaught.” Overtime, dopamine has less impact on the brain’s reward center and the substance no longer creates the same pleasurable feeling. Now the person needs more of the drug in order to obtain the same dopamine “high.” After a period of chronic drug use dopamine receptors significantly decrease and when a person stops using drugs or alcohol completely, the body:
- Needs to replenish the natural dopamine levels it has lost
- Is left with deep cravings for the same onslaught of “the feel good” neurotransmitters.
This is where sugar, comfort food, smoking, and caffeine are often used to target the same reward circuit in the brain.
Cravings, Weight Gain, and Depression During Recovery
Sobriety and weight gain co-occur frequently due to several factors including the increasing of appetites. Drugs like meth and amphetamines, can suppress appetites – so when a person stops taking the substance, their appetite increases and they start eating regularly. However, due to the brain’s need to fill dopamine levels, cravings begin, and people turn to comfort foods, caffeine, chocolate and other substances that feed the reward center of the brain. In recovery culture, this behavior of substituting one bad habit for another is often accepted and sometimes even encouraged. Some feel that sobriety is more important and that filling the “cravings” with sugar or comfort food isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. Listen, having comfort food during the initial detox and withdrawal phase of treatment shouldn’t be judged as this journey is tough enough without any additional pressure. However, continuing to substitute substances with unhealthy habits can lead to weight gain, depression, long-term health problems, and body image issues.
The Long-Term Effects of Unhealthy Eating During Sobriety
Turning to unhealthy food only adds to a cycle of bad choices, weight gain, and often – relapse. This is especially true of people battling co-occurring disorders. Those who have eating disorders coupled with a substance abuse problem and continue to eat poorly during recovery can develop:
- Severe depression, stress, and anxiety, especially in relation to weight gain
- Heightened body image issues
- Resuming the former eating disorder
- High risk of relapse
People detoxing from opioids who use Methadone as a form of medically assisted treatment (MAT) can also face weight gain as a side effect of the drug. If patients are not properly monitored in terms of their nutrition and diet during this process, they can face significant weight gain. Many people who abuse alcohol and drugs also struggle with depression and stress, particularly when they’re trying to abstain from drinking and using drugs. These mental health issues can lead to wanting the substance he or she just detoxed from and instead of using again, people may choose comfort food to deal with these painful emotions and complex psychological symptoms – beginning a vicious cycle.
Tackling Cravings and Making Better Nutritional Choices During Recovery
Following a healthy diet, a daily exercise routine, and alternative therapies can help mitigate sugar cravings, reduce stress, normalize blood sugar levels, and help with mood swings during recovery. Here are key ways to tackle cravings and stay healthy during your recovery group sessions as well as throughout your sobriety journey:
Avoid sugar and caffeine: this may seem drastic to some people, but cutting down or quitting sugar and caffeine intake can be one of the most beneficial things you can do for your body during recovery. For those detoxing from alcohol, their blood sugar levels drop significantly (alcohol converts to sugar, spiking blood sugar levels) and they develop intense sugar cravings. Those stopping drugs deal with similar cravings, but from the need to raise dopamine levels. Both sugar and caffeine raise blood sugar levels and cause crashes. Avoiding both items during this period will substantially help normalize blood sugar levels, but also ward off feelings of exhaustion, depression, and anxiety that can lead to relapse. During meetings, it may be helpful to:
- Bring healthy snacks high in protein and fiber to share. This can help you avoid sugary snacks, feel fuller longer, and maybe even help others think about making better choices.
- Suggest to your group the idea of having a nutritionist who specializes in recovery come to speak about the benefits of healthier eating during sobriety.
Exercise and a balanced diet: maintaining an exercise or fitness regiment during recovery can not only help you ward off cravings by naturally increasing dopamine and serotonin levels, but it can also help you lose weight, gain muscle tone (often lost during addiction), reduce stress, improve sleep, and help with any mental health issues, such as depression. Eating foods high in fiber, antioxidants, protein, and complex carbohydrates will normalize blood sugar levels (reducing cravings), increase your brain’s natural dopamine levels, reduce fatigue, and keep you feeling full longer. When it comes to treating substance use disorders and addiction, it’s most important to help the individual find ways to combat depressive or anxious feelings without relying on substances. At The Kimberly Center, we teach holistic methods of addiction and mental health management including a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, ongoing therapeutic support and mindfulness. If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, and has been diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder such as depression, reach out to us today at 855-452-3683 to learn more about our programs.