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How to Nurse Your Battered Body Back to Health

A steady diet of drugs and alcohol can wreak havoc on your system, robbing it of crucial nutrients. But a mix of proteins, vitamins and specialty supplements can bring even the most battered addicts back from the brink.

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Vitamins: putting back in what addiction took out Thinkstock

By Ruth Fowler

04/19/11

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Once we’re out of rehab, done with detoxing, thrown into the big, wide world and left to our own devices, our bodies need a lot longer to heal than a 30-day drying out period. As Bill Wilson himself pointed out, alcoholism and addiction must be treated in a threefold way: spiritual, mental, and medical. And a landmark 1980 study by Richard Hall found that 46% of psychiatric patients suffered from physical ailments that caused or exacerbated their mental symptoms. 

Alcoholics and addicts frequently experience multiple health problems: after years of indulging in our poison of choice, we’re a notably undernourished lot. At the height of my addiction, my major food groups consisted predominantly of Krug champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, a bag of Cheetos and two baggies of coke. When I got sober, I immediately felt better. Free from the shackles of all-consuming hangovers and comedowns, life seemed glorious--until I realized I was tired and lethargic all the time. I started doing yoga, taking multivitamins, eating a balanced diet, and pouring endless rivers of green food powder and protein into vile-tasting homemade smoothies. And, according to L.A.-based nutritionist Frieda P. Fontaine, I was doing everything right.
 
Freida advises that recovering addicts focus on replenishing vitamins and minerals with fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Protein should come from lean sources like fish, chicken, and turkey, eggs, and low-fat dairy products. Protein is crucial, says Fontaine, because the amino acids in it help replenish serotonin levels depleted from excess substance abuse. Exercise is also vital when it comes to reviving serotonin-depleted bodies. And fresh fruits and vegetables, crammed with antioxidants, will also help ward off free radicals created in the body by years of drugs and alcohol.
 
After a few months of diet and yoga, I began to feel physically and mentally healthier. But often our bodies are so wrecked from the disease that diet and exercise needs a helping hand. Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, an addiction psychiatrist based in New York, emphasizes that this is not the time for self-diagnosis. It’s highly possible that as a recovering alcoholic or addict, you’ll be suffering from a B1, B12, folic acid and Vitamin C deficiency—and it’s a good idea to take a multivitamin to ward off these effects. But if you suspect you may need more of a boost, he says, go see your medical practitioner for a diagnosis, and avoid the pitfalls of self-medicating.  
 
Had I only held onto my health insurance (coke seemed like a more important priority at the time), I might have known that, as my British General Practitioner suggested, I was probably suffering from a thiamin—otherwise known as a B1—deficiency; I can’t help but speculate that my recovery might have been quicker if I had taken a daily regimen of thiamin supplements. Certainly, I could have saved a fortune on organic baby spinach that I endlessly juiced into nasty murky drinks (which I’m now addicted to, by the way). 
 
Thiamin is a vital nutrient that helps process carbohydrates in the body. But my diet, as an alcoholic, was predominantly composed of sugar--which doesn’t contain any vitamins of note. Like many alcoholics, my thiamine deficiency was exacerbated because my body was craving more B1 in order to process the large amounts of carbohydrates I was consuming in the form of alcohol. A wonderful Catch-22 that’s actually ridiculously simple. Had I kept going down the yellow brick road of booze, I may have been in danger of incurring neurological damage associated with B1 deficiency, a disease known as Beriberi which is extremely rare in the developed world – except in alcoholics (though exact percentages aren’t known). Thiamin deficiency can also lead to brain damage in alcoholics and amphetamine users in the form of a disease called Wernikes Encephalopathy. Dr Kamyar Cohanshohet, a Beverly Hills-based MD who specializes in addiction medicine, says thiamin, folic acid and daily multivitamin supplements are all necessary to prevent brain damage in advanced alcoholics, but urges patients seeking this vitamin cocktail to first consult with their doctors.
 
Thiamin is renowned for boosting the immune system and maintaining a positive attitude; it also increases energy, fights stress and improves your learning ability. It’s basically good stuff, and available as an intramuscular injection as well as a dietary supplement. Chuck, a 33-year-old L.A.-based chiropractor with a year of sobriety, says, “After I had a nasty relapse on mouthwash and cough medicine, the thiamin injections I was prescribed by my homeopathic doctor cut my recovery time in half compared to previous relapses.”
 
Alongside thiamin and folic acid, recovering alcoholics--and particularly addicts--should consider Vitamin C supplements. Vitamin C is a natural antioxidant and a number of studies have suggested that it plays an important role in opiate recovery because it aids in the detoxification of heroin and methadone by abating the painful symptoms of withdrawal. The ability of Vitamin C to neutralize the toxic products of alcohol has been well documented, but C is also particularly helpful when it comes to healing physical damage suffered by intravenous drug users. The simple maintenance of healthy skin, hair and organs is also vastly increased by a daily dose of Vitamin C--but try not to overdo it, since if you take a tad too much you’ll be running to the bathroom all day. According to Cohanshohet, the amino acid phenylanine can also be used to alleviate withdrawal symptoms in alcoholics, while another amino acid, taurine--the same stuff you get in Red Bull--has been proven in recent animal studies to be beneficial for cocaine detoxification. (No wonder I craved all those energy drinks for the first year!)
 
If you can’t find your way to a medical professional for a thorough diagnosis of what crucial vitamins and supplements your body may be missing, you can learn to help yourself with a healthy diet, a daily over-the-counter multivitamin, and a regular exercise regime. All this will boost your serotonin and slowly start to replenish your body. Ever find yourself wondering what to do with all the spare time sobriety gives you? Spend it on nursing your body and mind back to health. It’s a full-time business, and an obsession you can throw yourself into without suffering the dire side effects caused by all those previous dietary “supplements.”
 
British-born author, screenwriter and journalist Ruth Fowler lives in Venice, California and has written for The Village Voice, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Post and The Observer, among others. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote Finding the Perfect A.A. Meeting, among many other Fix stories.

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