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HOT TOPICS: Alcoholism  Addiction  AA  Cocaine  Heroin

Nutrition and Recovery: How Healthy Eating Can Help You Stay Sober

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By Jenny Smiechowski

04/15/14

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The Role of Amino Acids

Both Wiss and Farrell agree that one of the most promising areas of nutritional therapy for recovering addicts relates to neurotransmitters, amino acids, and how they affect the brain. Research has demonstrated the substantial role neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons and other cells in the body, play in addiction.

The connection between neurotransmitters and addiction results from the ability of drugs and alcohol to impact the brain’s output of certain neurotransmitters. For example, cocaine causes the brain to increase its production of the neurotransmitter dopamine which impacts mood and stimulates the feeling of pleasure. A problem arises, however, when the brain has been artificially stimulated to produce a neurotransmitter so often that it no longer produces this neurotransmitter on its own. Essentially, what this means is those recovering from addiction are dealing with a brain that no longer creates neurotransmitters, like dopamine, which play an integral role in their well-being.

According to Wiss, amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are precursors to neurotransmitters including those most related to addiction like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This connection indicates the potential to treat addiction through the targeted consumption of amino acids, which can be done through the intake of certain foods or supplements.

“Since dopamine is the key neurotransmitter involved with addiction and is associated with 'reward,' it is critical to restore depleted dopamine levels through a higher protein intake,” said Wiss. “Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid which is widespread in food that becomes tyrosine, which is converted to dopamine.” 

An example of how amino acid supplementation works for addiction can be found in the instance of alcohol withdrawal. Alcoholics going through withdrawal experience an increased turnover of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. The amino acid phenylalanine, however, is a precursor to norepinephrine. If an individual recovering from alcohol addiction eats foods high in phenylalanine, like meat and fish, he will be helping to fulfill the need for this neurotransmitter during withdrawal.

Amino acid therapy has become an increasingly popular treatment for addiction in recent years and often involves amino acid injections administered by a physician. Wiss, however, believes that recovering addicts don’t necessarily need to inject amino acids to get results; making the right dietary changes to get specific amino acids in their food could have the desired effect as well.

In her own personal journey of recovery, Patricia Farrell says she spent seven years trying to heal her neurotransmitters. “It takes a very long time to get to a place where you’re satisfied, and you’re happy, and you feel joy,” said Farrell. “That takes a long time because you’ve misused and reprogrammed your neurotransmitters. And so those lock and key type mechanisms are not working properly—they’re totally misfiring and that does take time to heal.” 

Farrell agrees with Wiss that amino acids are critical to the neurotransmitter healing process, and she highly recommends taking a supplement of the amino acid GABA to restore proper brain function. In addition to amino acids, Farrell suggests a few other vitamins and minerals that can benefit your neurotransmitters, including the B vitamins, vitamin D, and foods or supplements that contain Omega 3 like fish oil or flaxseed.

How to Begin: Nutritional Guidelines for Recovering Addicts

When it comes to nutritional guidelines for recovering addicts, Wiss and Farrell offer similar advice. Eliminating added sugar is high on both their lists, as is incorporating whole grains into your diet. The elimination of processed foods in favor of a diet of whole foods is key. Both nutrition specialists also emphasize the importance of protein because of its correlation with the production of amino acids. 

Other important dietary factors for recovery include how much you’re eating and when you’re eating it.  For example, Wiss not only recommends increasing protein intake but also spacing it out over the course of the day. “Instead of having one or two large protein-based meals in the day, make sure every meal or snack contains a minimum of 10 to 15 grams protein,” said Wiss.

Wiss also suggests more frequent and evenly disbursed meal times, a practice that corresponds with his mantra: never hungry, never full. He recommends eating smaller meals every two to four hours, starting with breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up. Farrell mirrors this sentiment suggesting that recovering addicts always keep a healthy snack on hand, like a bag of nuts, to avoid sugar crashes and help keep blood sugar levels stable. Both nutritionists also acknowledge the importance of good old fashioned sunshine (for vitamin D) and exercise in any recovery plan.

Dietary recommendations do vary somewhat depending on the substance you are withdrawing from. Alcohol and opiates, for example, negatively impact the stomach, so people recovering from these substances should work to restore gut health through increased intake of probiotics. Cocaine, says Wiss, is associated with essential fatty acid deficiency, so those recovering from cocaine addiction would benefit from increased consumption of Omega 3. Because of these nuances in each recovering addict’s dietary needs, it is important to collaborate with a trained nutritionist to determine what nutritional approach will help you most on your road to recovery.  

After long-term dietary neglect, what matters most is making a decision to finally give your body the nutrients it needs to be healthy. This does not mean your diet will always be perfect. And, obviously, it is more important to stay on track with your sobriety than to worry about adhering to a strict diet. But in the end, making dietary choices that support your body and brain as they heal will only help you prevail on the path to sobriety.

Jenny Smiechowski is a freelance writer who specializes in natural health and the environment. She is a regular contributor to Seedstock.

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