Drug and alcohol abuse can cause nutritional deficiencies and issues with digestion. Users often have depleted levels of vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids and fats, which can lead to a number of mental and physical problems.
How Substance Abuse Affects Appetite
Substance abuse can have many long-term effects on health and nutrition. Substances vary in their effects, but many of them disrupt physiological functioning and impair the body’s ability to receive proper nourishment.
Below are some of the many ways that drugs and alcohol can interfere with nutrition and diet:
- Failing to eat: Users may have a suppressed appetite or forget to eat while under the influence.
- Eating poorly: Those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol tend to prioritize their substance abuse over eating properly. As a result, their diets can be poor and lack sustenance.
- Malnourishment: Malnourishment can result from failing to eat consistently over time or from the body’s inability to absorb nutrients necessary for biological processes.
- Overeating: Eating too much can lead to obesity and a number of health conditions associated with excess body fat.
- Organ damage: Substance abuse can damage the liver, stomach lining, pancreas, and intestines, all of which contribute to the proper absorption, digestion, and storage of nutrients. 1
- Immune system damage: Substances such as alcohol and opiates can suppress the immune system and make the user more susceptible to infections and illnesses. 7, 8
- Gastrointestinal disorders: Alcohol can contribute to chronic gastrointestinal tract inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut syndrome, pathogenic bacterial overgrowth, fungal intestinal infections, and acid reflux. 1
- Hypoglycemia: Low blood sugar can be caused by a lack of sustenance or proper diet. 1
People who abuse alcohol often have poor diets.
People who abuse alcohol often don’t make proper nutrition a priority and tend to have poor diets. 6 Alcohol abuse also interferes with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients due to damage of the stomach lining and digestive enzyme deficiencies. 6
Further, chronic alcohol abuse can significantly harm the pancreas and the liver. The pancreas produces enzymes and pro-enzymes for the digestion of lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, and hormones that delicately balance blood sugar levels, while the liver metabolizes toxins, such as alcohol and drugs. 2 Damage to these two vital organs can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes, protein, calories, and fluids. 2
Persistent alcohol abuse can cause severe nutritional and vitamin deficiencies. The most common deficiencies include:
- Folic acid.
- Vitamin B6.
- Thiamine, or B1 (as many as 80% of alcoholics have insufficient thiamine). 4
These vitamin deficiencies can cause anemia and neurological issues. Anemia can lead to frequently feeling cold, fatigue, and dizziness, as well as experiencing headaches and shortness of breath. 3
A serious complication caused by a lack of thiamine, or B1, is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which can lead to severe learning and memory problems. 4
Alcohol abuse can cause liver damage, heart dysfunctions, cancers, and pancreatitis. Getting treatment can help prevent some of these conditions.
Withdrawal from opioids such as heroin, codeine, morphine, OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin
can include symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, which can deplete the body of nutrients, cause electrolyte imbalances, and lead to dehydration. 2
Although it can be difficult to eat during withdrawal, balanced meals that include complex carbohydrates can reduce the intensity of the symptoms. 2
Stimulants, such as amphetamines and cocaine, cause increased energy, euphoria, and decreased appetite in users. Satiety centers within the brain are influenced by the activity of stimulant drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine. Through mechanisms not altogether well-understood, their presence in the brain can send signals that turn down our drive to eat.
Stimulant users will often stay up for days at a time and repeatedly use the drug. These “binges” may lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances due to a significant decrease in appetite and inattention to nutrition. Consistent, long-term use can lead to severe weight loss and malnutrition.
Some problems associated with malnutrition include: 11
- Suppressed immune system.
- Muscle wasting.
- Respiratory muscle strength inadequate for forceful coughing, increasing the risk of pulmonary infection and lengthened recovery duration.
- Impaired healing of wounds.
- Low levels of phosphate, magnesium, and potassium.
- Cardiac rhythm disturbances.
- Low body temperature.
- Psychological and cognitive issues (depression, low self-esteem, apathy, confusion, and a lack of sex drive).
When people who abuse stimulants stop, their appetites may spike. They may feel compelled to overeat, which can shock the digestive system. An experienced treatment team should create a comprehensive nutritional plan consisting of a well-balanced diet and portioned meals that gradually reintroduce food to the stimulant user’s body.
Marijuana can increase a user’s appetite, particularly for junk food, which doesn’t contain essential vitamins and nutrients. Over time, a chronic marijuana user may gain an excessive amount of weight due to overeating and making poor food choices.
Regular marijuana users may also be deficient in essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. 1,9 When someone doesn’t have enough of these nutrients, they may experience: 9
- Inferior wound healing.
- Increased risk of infection.
- Dry rash and other inflammatory skin issues.
Those who use marijuana and binge on junk food consume more trans fats than recommended, which, along with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), impairs a cell membrane’s ability to work properly and repair damage. 1 Further, the overconsumption of unhealthy food can lead to obesity and increase the risk of conditions such as: 10
- Heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Cancer (breast, gallbladder, colon, and endometrial).
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Sleep apnea.
- Reproductive problems.
Those suffering from an addiction to marijuana who are overweight may need to be on a restricted diet and exercise program while receiving addiction treatment, with special attention to cutting back on empty calories such as sugar and fat.
How Nutrition Helps With Recovery
Long-term substance abuse puts remarkable stress on the mind and body. Proper nutrition can help both the brain and the body heal from chronic substance abuse and increase the user’s odds of getting and staying sober.
Some of the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet include: 2
- Repair of damage to organs and tissues.
- Improved immune defenses.
- Increased energy.
- Improved mood.
- Reduced risk of relapse due to fatigue or depressed mood.
You may be tempted to indulge in junk food while you’re recovering from addiction. But this can actually hinder your recovery process and make it more difficult for you to stay clean.
The best option is to eat a nutritious diet that will foster physical and mental health and improve your chances for long-term sobriety.
Diet and Nutritional Guidelines for Addiction Recovery
Some treatment centers offer nutritional counseling or programs. But here are a few tips to remember once you complete your addiction treatment program, or if you’re going through the recovery process on your own. They will help you to stay on track with your recovery and decrease your risk of relapse.
- Get more complex carbs: Complex carbohydrates provide you with steady, long-lasting energy without the spike and crash of simple carbs.
- Exercise: Regular exercise can boost your mood, improve body image, increase energy levels, alleviate cravings, and lower the risk of relapse in recovering addicts.
- Take vitamins and supplements: Vitamins A and C, zinc, and B-complex vitamins can help restore any deficiencies. But talk with your physician first. Amino acid supplements can also help repair neurotransmitters in the brain. 12
- Reduce caffeine: Caffeine can cause dehydration as well as appetite suppression.
- Drink plenty of water: People who are recovering from addiction are often dehydrated. Consume water with meals and in-between mealtimes. 2
- Monitor your sugar intake: Many addicts may crave sweets because they trigger dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter activated by some forms of drug use.
- Avoid processed foods: They lack nutritional value and typically have unhealthy fats.
- Eat more protein and fiber: Fiber makes you feel full, and protein can help to build muscles weakened by malnutrition.
- Eat regular, small meals: Eating regularly will keep your blood sugar levels high and decrease the craving for unhealthy snacks between meals.
Nutrition in Addiction Treatment Programs
Mental health professionals have found that recovering users maintain sobriety for longer periods of time and recover more quickly when provided with a nutrition program. 1 As a result, some recovery programs offer nutritional counseling and education as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Typically, a person must complete detoxification before they’re ready for nutritional therapy. Withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable and painful. Depending on the drug, the person can be treated with medication to ease these symptoms.
Developing a Nutrition and Diet Plan
Once the person goes through detox and is stable, the nutritional counselor will evaluate the person for any nutritional deficiencies and devise a program to meet his or her dietary needs. The plan will include well-balanced meals that provide quality fats, complex carbs, and proteins. 1 The person may also receive healthy snacks throughout the day, particularly early on in recovery. 1
Another important aspect of health and nutrition is exercise. Many treatment centers employ recreational therapists or personal trainers who work directly with the people in the program to improve fitness levels and promote wellbeing and positive body image.
Other recovery programs have gyms and fitness centers that you can use at designated times. Both regular exercise and a healthy diet can improve mood, increase energy levels, promote self-confidence and self-esteem, repair tissue and organ damage, and alleviate drug or alcohol cravings.
Diagnosing and Treating Eating Disorders
Substance abuse disorders often co-occur with other mental and behavioral health issues, including eating disorders. Dual diagnosis treatment centers can diagnose and treat both the eating disorder and the substance abuse disorder with integrated programs.
- Anorexia nervosa, which is characterized by a preoccupation with weight and severe caloric restriction, can lead to malnourishment and life-threatening weight loss. 13 Someone suffering from this eating disorder and an addiction to drugs or alcohol should receive proper nutritional care to restore his or her body back to a normal weight and to regain physical health.
- Bulimia nervosa is characterized by eating large amounts of food then purging by vomiting, using laxatives, or exercising excessively. 13 A person with this eating disorder will typically have a normal weight. But he or she may harm his or her health as a result of the condition. Some of the health effects of bulimia include dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, anemia, constipation, diarrhea, stomach cramping, muscle fatigue, low blood pressure, and heart failure. 14 All of the possible complications must be evaluated for and addressed when creating a nutritional plan for someone with this eating disorder.
- Binge eating disorder is characterized by the person repeatedly binging food but not compensating with any weight loss methods. 13 People with this condition have an increased risk of obesity and associated health problems. A nutritional counselor will likely begin a well-balanced diet and exercise program to promote healthy body weight.
Find a Diet Therapy Recovery Center
Nothing is more important than your health and happiness. If you or someone you know has an addiction, don’t hesitate to call our helpline at 1-888-892-1840Who Answers? to find an addiction recovery center that offers nutritional therapy as part of a comprehensive treatment program.
. Miller, R. P. (2010). Nutrition in Addiction Recovery. Many Hands Sustainability Center.
. National Library of Medicine.(2014). Diet and substance use recovery: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.
. National Library of Medicine. (2016). Anemia: MedlinePlus.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.
. National Library of Medicine. (2014). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.
. National Library of Medicine. (1993). Alcohol and Nutrition. Alcohol Alert No. 22- 1993.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2008). Morphine-Induced Immunosuppression, From Brain to Spleen.
. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2015). HIV/AIDS: Drugs and Alcohol: Effects on your immune system.
. Oregon State University. (2016). Micronutrient Information Center.
. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2012). What Are the Health Risks of Overweight and Obesity?
. Nutrition Support for Adults: Oral Nutrition Support, Enteral Tube Feeding and Parenteral Nutrition (Vol. 32). (2006). National Collaborating Centre for Acute Care (UK).
. Stein, A., M.D. Amino Acid Therapy to Restore Neurotransmitter Function. Stein Orthopedic Associates, P.A.
. Grilo, C. et al. (2002). Eating Disorders and Alcohol Use Disorders. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
. Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). Bulimia nervosa fact sheet.