Nutrition and Addiction
Many teens who struggle with addiction are not properly nourished, which amplifies the toll that substance abuse takes on their developing bodies. Not only does malnutrition damage growing adolescents’ bodies, it also invites a host of psychological problems.
4 min read
Poor Nutrition and Addiction
Teens who are suffering from addiction or who are in recovery face a number of unique nutritional concerns. Some of these concerns have to do with physiological changes to the body that occur when using substances; others center on self-care.
Teens battling addiction often do not have the wherewithal to consider healthy eating habits — drugs or alcohol become a major preoccupation. Many substances impact appetite, causing users to eat too much or too little. Adding to that, substance abuse can leach vitamins and minerals from the body, stealing whatever nutrients are available.
Addicted teens have basic nutritional needs, just like everyone else: they should eat regular meals at 3-4 hour intervals in order to curb blood sugar crashes, incorporate some form of protein at every meal for satiety, and eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which are fiber-rich for digestive health and are full of disease-fighting antioxidants and phytonutrients. In addition to the fulfillment of these basic dietary needs, supplemental nutrition therapy is necessary.
“The brain that is well-nourished as opposed to starving and micronutrient-deficient has a better chance of maintaining long-term recovery.”Margherita Grotzkyj-Giorgi, PhD.
How Substance Abuse Affects the Body
Drugs and alcohol have profound physiological effects on the teenage body and on the body’s intake and regulation of essential nutrients. Researchers at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital found that about one in four persons struggling with substance abuse was malnourished, and half were deficient in vitamins and iron.
Diminished Vitamin B12 Absorption
Prolonged use of alcohol and opioids like heroin can significantly damage intestinal lining. When the mucosa becomes damaged, the ability to absorb vitamins and minerals — in addition to macronutrients — becomes impaired. For example, atrophic gastritis (i.e. chronic inflammation of the stomach lining) decreases the ability of the stomach cells to produce intrinsic factor, a protein critical for vitamin B12 absorption.
Vitamin B12 allows a body to maintain healthy nerve cells, and it helps in the production of DNA, RNA and red blood cells. To remedy any deficiencies, vitamin B12 supplements and nasal therapy are recommended options.
Diminished Folate Absorption
Intestinal absorption of folate — another B vitamin — is diminished in chronic drinkers. For this reason, micronutrient supplementation is recommended for teens undergoing alcohol detox in a hospital setting.
In particular, thiamine supplementation helps prevent:
- Wernicke’s Encephalopathy — A state of confusion and loss of mental activity that can be fatal in those withdrawing from alcohol
- Onset of Korsakoff syndrome – A permanent brain disorder caused by lack of thiamine, this syndrome can involve hallucinations, loss of memory, inability to learn new skills and personality change — all of which amounts essentially to alcohol-related brain damage
Magnesium, Zinc and Calcium Deficiencies
Teens suffering from alcohol or opioid addiction are often calcium and magnesium deficient, which can cause muscle and nervous system disorders and pain. And in many cases, teens injecting drugs will develop abscesses and other wounds that would benefit from wound healing nutrients such as vitamins C and zinc, in addition to a high intake of protein.
While supplements can help a teen get their footing with good health, incorporating quality food sources are a more natural solution.
Food sources of magnesium include:
- Leafy greens
- Soy beans
- Whole grains
Food sources of calcium include:
- Leafy greens
- Some seafood
Food sources of vitamin C include:
- Bell peppers
- Dark leafy greens
- Citrus fruits
Food sources of zinc include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Garbanzo beans
- Some Dairy
Prolonged drug use can cause GI disturbances, including constipation and diarrhea. Over-the-counter probiotics can help replenish healthy gut flora and normalize bowel movements in a teenager.
Food sources of probiotics include:
- Sourdough bread
In many cases, prebiotics (e.g. onions, garlic, dandelion greens, artichokes, etc.) are also recommended so the probiotics can work optimally.
Drops in Blood Sugar
Teens in addiction recovery often turn to sugar-sweetened beverages or other sugary items — in addition to caffeine. Sweet foods and drinks alter mood and energy level, and they can quickly satiate hunger cravings. Unfortunately, processed sugar can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which are not helpful in dealing with drug cravings.
Research suggests that using heroin leads to fasting insulin levels four times higher than normal, showing that an addict’s metabolism of sugar is already impaired — making it even more important to eat regularly and reduce simple sugars.
Teens battling addiction often battle bouts of insomnia and can struggle with quality sleep. Foods rich in tryptophan (e.g. bananas, milk, turkey, sunflower, etc.) can promote proper sleep and provide a calming effect. Tryptophan can also help reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Drops in Body Weight
Powerful addictions can lead to dangerous loss of weight, in which instances the adolescent brain simply cannot make effective decisions. The affected teenage brain simply does not work correctly. It’s why an emaciated drug user in recovery struggles to choose between a therapy session or using — without adequate nutrition, the brain simply doesn’t have enough power to say no.
By first restoring fat and muscle stores and promoting weight gain, if appropriate, a teenager’s brain can have the nourishment it needs to start making healthy decisions. Equally as important, it is recommended that a child in recovery tries to minimize daily stressors and that they get appropriate amounts of sleep. Decision-making is much harder for the sleep-deprived and chronically-stressed brain.
Stunted Brain Development
As a parent, it’s important to understand how drugs affect teenagers and their brain development. Many addictive substances strip the brain of essential fats, making it important for your teen to incorporate omega-3 fats into their diet.
Food sources of omega-3 include:
- Fatty fish
- Hemp seeds
- Edamame (soy beans)
- Free-range chicken eggs
Alcohol and Malnutrition
Teen drinking can greatly impact nutrition. Alcohol is highly caloric, and teens often ingest huge amounts of extra calories just from drinking. When someone drinks excessively — even if they are eating a normal amount of food — they are bound to experience weight gain. Teenagers tend to choose sweet alcoholic beverages (such as hard lemonade), which contain even more calories due to their sugar content.
On the other hand, some teens engage in a habit unofficially dubbed “drunkorexia,” wherein they reserve the bulk of their daily caloric intake for alcohol. This is done by either avoiding food, exercising heavily before a night of drinking or intentionally vomiting after drinking. Because these “drunkorexic” teens fill their bodies with empty alcohol calories instead of nutrient-rich foods, they don’t get the vitamins and minerals their developing bodies need. This habit results in malnutrition.
A 2016 study by the Research Society on Alcoholism indicates that drunkorexia is on the rise among youth.
Even without considering calorie-related problems, alcohol abuse can take a heavy hit on the liver and the pancreas, both of which are crucial for proper nutrient absorption. When alcohol is eliminated from the equation, the body begins to heal and food is allowed to administer its benefits.
How Nutrition Impacts Recovery
For many teens, self-care becomes neglected during deep stages of drug addiction and even in the recovery process. In addition, some teens with addiction develop socio-economic difficulties, making nutritious food difficult to obtain. Some battle other demons, including depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder — all of which can impact eating habits.
These conditions are not conducive to appropriate self-care, and the will to eat regularly (or at all) may decrease over time. As a result, many addicts suffer from protein-calorie malnutrition. Teens in addiction recovery should start at the basics: Have three meals daily (or multiple small meals if eating is difficult). This will allow the body to adjust to a more regular and balanced intake of nutrition.
Eating regularly also helps equip teens to resist drug and alcohol cravings, as their blood sugars will be steadier throughout the day. A teen recovering from substance abuse is more likely to relapse if they have a poor diet.
A balanced diet produces the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin. When your teen feels better overall, they are less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol.
Rehab facilities are increasingly aware that nutrition has a significant impact on recovery and pay close attention to their patients’ diets. Some treatment centers even have onsite chefs and nutrition support, and some include nutrition education in their programs. That way, patients can learn healthy eating skills to take with them when their treatment program is over.
Recovery is hard work, and so is learning to eat differently. An effective drug or alcohol rehab plan will help your child honor their body and nourish it well.
Does Your Child Need Addiction Help?
If you notice any signs of addiction in your child, it’s important to reach out for help. Begin by contacting an addiction specialist (such as the folks at TheRecoveryVillage.com) or by calling a drug hotline.
At TheRecoveryVillage.com, our addiction specialists are always available to speak with you confidentially. We can help you decide whether a customized treatment program is the best way for your teen to get the help they need. We also offer addiction and recovery resources to help answer questions you may have regarding an adolescent drug or alcohol problem.
If you simply need to talk, we are here for that, too. We have years of experience in helping other parents who are suffering from the pain of an addicted child. You won’t find any forms of addiction stigma or judgment here — just compassion and help. The first step is the hardest, but also the most important. Call today. Let’s bring your child back to health.
This article features research from Gemma Hobbs, R.D., L.D., who has worked as a dietitian in inpatient, outpatient and day treatment settings for young people struggling with eating disorders. She believes that professional treatment can change and save lives.
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