When most people think of a drug detox, they think of removing the toxic substance from the body. However, an essential part of the detox process is feeding your body to replace lost nutrients. A healthy body makes it easier to avoid a relapse and will make a world of difference during your recovery.
Types of nutritional deficiencies
While every person in recovery can benefit from a baseline healthy diet, it’s helpful to understand the specific vitamins and minerals you may be lacking to get your body functioning smoothly again.
Nutritional deficiencies from an alcohol addiction
The most common vitamin deficiencies for alcoholics are vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B1 (thiamine), and folic acid. Lacking these nutrients can lead to problems such as anemia (decreased amounts of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood) or Korsakoff’s syndrome, a neurological disorder.
Individuals who have used alcohol heavily often show additional deficiencies in vitamin A, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin c (ascorbic acid), calcium and iron. Women are especially at risk of osteoporosis after drinking heavily and should increase their calcium intake. However, always consult a doctor before starting any diet, supplement or nutritional program.
Nutritional deficiencies from an opiate addiction
Opiates include heroin and morphine. Individuals who use these drugs often encounter constipation and problems with their digestive system on top of their withdrawal symptoms. Focus on a high-fiber diet during detox, including leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans and peas.
Nutritional deficiencies from a stimulant addiction
Stimulants (such as crack and methamphetamines) often cause users to stay up for days at a time, creating nutritional deficiencies in multiple areas. To get back on track during detox, eat balanced meals that include protein and sources of omega-3. The omega-3 is thought to provide multiple benefits, including lowering the risk of coronary heart disease and depression. Fish, canola oil, flaxseed, eggs and dairy products are all great sources of this nutrient.
What to eat: The foundations of a healthy diet
Start with hydration
Alcohol is notorious for dehydrating the body, and many drug users do not feel the need to drink water while using. Your body needs hydration to function well. In addition to lots of water, try electrolyte-packed beverages such as Gatorade and coconut water as well, especially if you’ve been vomiting. If you’re able to make an investment, consider getting a juicer and plenty of fruits and vegetables to start getting vitamins back in your system while you hydrate.
Dark green, leafy vegetables
Vegetables like spinach, kale, romaine lettuce and other salad greens can provide vitamin B6, folic acid and beta-carotene. These are all nutrients that are often found to be deficient in alcoholics. And guess what? Collard greens are actually a better source of calcium than milk.
Protein from both animal and plant sources are broken down into amino acids that the body uses to repair cells. Animal sources of protein like tuna, turkey and chicken are also great sources of vitamin B6. Red meat, pork and poultry provide iron, and fish like salmon are great sources of both omega-3 fatty acids and calcium. You can also get plant proteins from lentils, tofu (soy), black beans and quinoa.
Bright fruits & veggies
Foods like papayas, bell peppers, strawberries, pineapple and oranges are all high in vitamin C and many other vitamins. Load up!
Your body needs complex carbohydrates, from rice to beans to bread to potatoes. These contain fiber to help with digestion and boost your energy. When buying bread, stick to whole grain. White bread won’t provide nearly the same benefits.
Milk isn’t just for calcium. Whole milk, cheese and butter are great sources of vitamin A, and yogurt provides both vitamin B2 and live cultures that can promote digestive health.
Do you need supplements?
Your doctor may prescribe or recommend specific dietary supplements during the detox and recovery processes to rapidly replace some of the lost nutrients. Be sure to stick with the exact recommended amounts, and if you’re attempting detox on your own, be careful. It is possible to take too much of a nutrient and cause further problems in your body. For example, alcoholism causes a deficiency in vitamin A, but replacing too much vitamin A in your system can actually cause fibrosis (scar tissue buildup) in the liver. Similarly, omega-3 has a host of beneficial properties, but too much can lead to blood thinning.
Establishing healthy habits
Eating the right food is just the first step. When detoxing, it’s also important to:
You’re probably not going to be lifting weights or jogging, but do your best to get some fresh air every day. A simple walk will help you clear your head, and the endorphins may help with your withdrawal symptoms.
Don’t force food
You might feel nauseous during your detox. It’s important to eat what you can, but don’t force it and make yourself sick.
Stick to regular mealtimes
You may be used to eating sporadically, and changing that habit may take a little while. Focus on three healthy meals a day.
Know when it’s time to get professional help
It’s not usually a good idea to tackle addiction alone, but if you are detoxing on your own, have at least one close friend or family member present to help you prepare food and monitor your symptoms. Some substances, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines, can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can lead to hallucinations and seizures. If you have been using a substance for a long time, consider a medical detox program. In an accredited rehab facility, doctors will be able to help alleviate some of your withdrawal symptoms, prepare nutritious meals for you, and keep you safe.
Medline Plus. “Substance use recovery and diet.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, April 9, 2020. Accessed May 15, 2020. Lieber, Charles S. “Relationships Between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease.” National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, September 29, 2004. Accessed May 15, 2020. DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute. “Dietary Sources Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” Accessed May 15, 2020. National Osteoporosis Foundation. “A Guide to Calcium-Rich Foods.” Accessed May 15, 2020. SeafoodHealthFacts.org. “Omega-3 Content of Frequently Consumed Seafood Products.” 2019. Accessed May 15, 2020. Engel, Peter; Wyss, Adrian. “Vitamin A.” Nutri-Facts.org, 2017. Accessed May 15, 2020.
Medline Plus. “Substance use recovery and diet.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, April 9, 2020. Accessed May 15, 2020.
Lieber, Charles S. “Relationships Between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease.” National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, September 29, 2004. Accessed May 15, 2020.
DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute. “Dietary Sources Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” Accessed May 15, 2020.
National Osteoporosis Foundation. “A Guide to Calcium-Rich Foods.” Accessed May 15, 2020.
SeafoodHealthFacts.org. “Omega-3 Content of Frequently Consumed Seafood Products.” 2019. Accessed May 15, 2020.
Engel, Peter; Wyss, Adrian. “Vitamin A.” Nutri-Facts.org, 2017. Accessed May 15, 2020.
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