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Nutrition and Exercise in Addiction Recovery—What Role Do They Play?


Nutrition and Exercise in Addiction Recovery—What Role Do They Play?

No one would deny that nutrition and exercise are essential elements of a healthy lifestyle. But what role do they play in addiction recovery? Treatment programs for substance abuse are usually focused on psychological and spiritual healing with an emphasis on building healthy social networks. But what about the physical body that has weathered the storm of substance addiction? When it comes to effective treatment strategies that promote lasting recovery as they restore physical and spiritual health, nutrition and exercise should play a significant and meaningful role in your recovery toolbox.

The Importance of Nutrition and Exercise in Addiction Recovery

When Nutrition Feeds the Body, the Spirit, and the Brain

Nutrition, the whole foods and component nutrients that nourish our physical bodies, is often neglected in the throes of substance addiction. Whether by the unintentional failure to consume essential nutrients or as a result of the punishing effect various substances have on our bodies, many of us start our recovery journeys at a serious nutritional deficit. But beyond managing the withdrawal process—by providing support for the symptoms we experience as a substance clears from our body—many addiction recovery programs fail to address the physical rebuilding necessary for healing.

Food as medicine is not a new concept. It nourishes our physical bodies, but when done right, it can also feed our souls. The sights, smells, tastes, and textures of the foods artfully prepared with attention to detail can evoke positive emotions and be truly pleasurable. As part of a structured program to repair the damage wrought by substance abuse, a focus on nutrition can be healing and restorative. Making intentional food choices and putting time and effort into food preparation can be therapeutic in and of itself as it provides an opportunity to prioritize our own physical and spiritual needs. It also amounts to concentrated self-care that both heals the damage wrought by substance abuse and reinforces the idea that we are worth the effort.

Alcohol and/or drug use affects neurotransmitters in the brain; this can negatively alter cognitive functioning, emotional stability, and our sense of well-being. Brain chemistry impacts both mood and behavior. Without significant restructuring and replenishing, we may be more susceptible to relapse. A diet high in protein and complex carbohydrates may be helpful in overcoming the cravings common in early recovery. Neuroscience research suggests that there may be overlaps between addiction and appetite in the reward-processing center of the brain. For this reason, nutritionists recommend avoiding sugar and caffeine in recovery, as these substances can cause ups and downs.

Exceptional addiction recovery programs understand that malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies are fairly universal in their clients starting on the road to recovery. They also recognize the healing potential of food and the fellowship potential of mealtime. By including a registered dietician in their treatment team, they not only serve nutritious, brain-healing, whole foods but also arrange participatory learning of nutrition and healthy food preparation as part of their rehabilitation programming. Learning to prepare and implement a varied diet that includes the essential macronutrients (good quality proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) will provide the best chance of brain recovery and long-term sobriety.

When Exercise Can Support Long-Term Addiction Recovery

As the addicted brain begins to heal, there is another powerful tool that can help us shift focus, and that is exercise. Known to be good for strengthening our musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems, the power of exercise has only recently been acknowledged as an effective way to address the healing of a body recovering from substance abuse. When used with nutrition, exercise becomes part of a lifestyle makeover that helps participants in addiction recovery prioritize the health of their bodies, minds, and spirits.

Exercise helps to prevent the escalation of drug use

In both animal and human studies, researchers have demonstrated the protective effects of exercise as both a treatment intervention and a preventive measure. Like an abused substance, exercise may serve as a positive reinforcer that activates neurotransmitters. This fact allows exercise to provide an alternative focus that brings multiple benefits to treatment programs—though, it is best used in combination with other evidence-based therapies for an optimal effect on long-term sobriety.

Exercise aids in decreasing cravings and minimizing withdrawal symptoms

Research with human and animal subjects has determined that exercise effectively helps to control cravings and mitigates withdrawal symptoms during exercise and afterward. When exercise becomes part of the regular routine, these benefits are ongoing. A meta-analysis of exercise research concluded that both aerobic and mind-body exercises, such as yoga or tai chi, attenuated withdrawal symptoms and eased anxiety. These benefits applied regardless of whether the exercise was characterized as low, moderate, or high-intensity.

As an ongoing strategy, exercise can help to prevent relapse

As part of a new, healthier lifestyle, exercise can have a lasting impact that increases cardiorespiratory fitness and changes brain structure and functioning. With positive effects on neurotrophic growth factors, exercise activates chemical cascades that have a healing effect on the brain. It eases anxiety and depression and provides a new, healthier focus. Novel treatment programs based on this critical research help to sustain engagement and take advantage of the full potential of this powerful intervention.

When used in a strategic plan to address the damage caused by substance abuse, exercise as an adjunct to conventional therapies and counseling can offer a tremendous advantage. As a powerful treatment intervention, exercise has the potential to help repair the brain, discipline the body, and challenge the spirit.

The Lasting Benefits of a Holistic Addiction Treatment Model

In the best-case scenario, treatment for substance abuse will be nourishing and restorative to the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. To derive the maximum benefit from your recovery experience, look for a treatment center that prioritizes and promotes holistic recovery.

By stressing the inclusion of healthy cooking and clean eating, addiction treatment can use this highly social endeavor as a healing strategy that brings people together for healthy and enjoyable meals. When exercise is used proactively to prime the restructuring and healing of the brain, this activity that builds muscles and strengthens bones can also increase resilience, grow confidence, and shore up self-discipline. By emphasizing these important and accessible assets, treatment centers help us to recognize and appreciate the tools within our reach and to create a healthy, sustainable routine that promotes peace of mind, strength of body, and fulfillment of spirit.

To maximize the benefits of nutrition and exercise in addiction recovery, reach out to New Choices Treatment Centers. Understanding the universality of malnutrition in substance use disorders, we test all of our clients for nutritional deficiencies in order to provide personalized remediation. Our Active Recovery Coaching program highlights life-changing exercise therapy that increases motivation and social engagement, helping you to build your toolbox to prevent relapse and achieve longterm sobriety. Contact us online or at (726) 888-7003 to learn about our game-changing programs for addiction recovery.