When it comes to mainstream addiction recovery, nutrition is often the one thing that is looked at last, or in fact, even considered at all.
Truth is, there are many nutrients we must consider in the early days of sobriety, because when we battle life with addiction, they either get depleted from the substance we use, or we neglect them through poor diet choices.
Although there are many to consider, in this article, we will briefly cover a few that are higher up on the totem pole in terms of consideration in early addiction recovery.
Let’s dive in.
Amino acids are essential building blocks of proteins, which are crucial for the proper functioning of the body, including our nervous system. During addiction recovery, a balanced and healthy diet that includes an adequate intake of amino acids is particularly important.
While protein is most commonly associated with the repair and building of muscle, it’s also essential for other tissue, including our liver, kidneys, and brain. We also need these amino acids found in protein to produce a healthy ratio of neurotransmitters.
During substance abuse, this balance of neurotransmitters is often disrupted, which often leads to a dysregulation of mood, behaviour, and other functions that drive up withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Learn more about The Importance of Protein Intake During Addiction Recovery here.
B Vitamins consist of a group of eight water-soluble vitamins including Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), Folate (B9) and Cobalamin (B12), all of which are essential in countless catabolic and anabolic enzymatic reactions throughout the body.
We need these water-soluble little suckers for things such as brain function, DNA repair, neurotransmitter synthesis, glucose delivery, and more importantly, overall energy production. B Vitamins are essential for the health of our mitochondria (which we need for energy), and if these aren’t functioning properly, other things tend not to do well either.
B Vitamins such as Riboflavin are actually neuroprotective and work towards lowering neuroinflammation, which in return protects us from glutamate toxicity, something that can often remain high in addiction (Marashly & Bohlega, 2017).
Another good example is Pyridoxine, which is involved in healthy neurotransmitter synthesis including dopamine, serotonin, Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid(GABA), noradrenaline and melatonin. Neurotransmitter replenishment is absolutely critical for a healthy mental state, and our mood can be an important factor to consider in early sobriety (Parra et al., 2018).
Interestingly, the consumption of alcohol interferes substantially with the absorption and utilisation of B Vitamins, so replenishing our B’s in early sobriety becomes paramount, and may even be the first step in nutritional addiction recovery.
So, replenishing our B Vitamins first becomes an important and almost critical first step in nutritional addiction recovery.
Zinc is an essential nutrient and the second most abundant trace mineral in the body (with iron being the first), and when we’re both psychologically and biologically stressed, we burn through it faster. This is primarily due to Zinc’s potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, so when we create more oxidation in our body through things like substance abuse, we burn up our zinc stores much faster than we usually would.
Not only that, but we also need zinc for an array of functions throughout our body as it relates to addiction recovery including healthy brain function, neurotransmitter release, cell regeneration and division, and gene expression.
Zinc actually helps regulate the excitatory and inhibitory balance in regards to neurotransmitter binding to various GABA and glutamate receptors in the brain (Gower-Winter & Levenson, 2012). Without Zinc, we can have unstable fluctuations of these two neurotransmitters, which are also heavily impacted by chronic alcoholism, stimulant intake and even chronic stress.
One other big factor we need Zinc for in addiction recovery is cell regeneration, and more importantly, the growth of nerve tissue. We need Zinc for our nervous system, particularly our brain, for nerves to grow and function properly (Levenson & Morris, 2011). Long-term zinc deficiency can result in a reduction in neurogenesis (nerve cell growth) and an increase in neuronal apoptosis (death of nerve cells).
Studies have also shown chronic ethanol exposure to alter ZIP transporters, which are involved in transporting zinc around the body for use. It’s thought that this is due to the chronic oxidative stress exposure from alcohol, meaning, long-term alcohol abuse may lead to abnormal zinc transporter activation, impairing our absorption.
This makes zinc a pretty important mineral to consider in early sobriety, and I’ve only just scratched the surface here in regards to other functions of zinc, one big one is its major influence on immune function
I discuss more on the critical nature of zinc in the body here.
Magnesium is the fourth most common mineral we find in our body, followed closely by calcium, sodium, and potassium, and when it comes to the list of roles it plays in our body, it’s pretty extensive.
Magnesium is best known for its ability to relieve muscle cramps and spasms, which is attributed mainly to its natural calcium-blocking properties.
From a neurological standpoint, we need adequate magnesium to establish healthy nerve communication throughout the body, and prevent cell death through excessive neurotransmitter excitation, which is often the result of too much glutamate in the cell (Mishra et al., 2018).
During substance and early sobriety, we can often tend to have higher than usual glutamate levels, which often leaves us the more jittery, sleepless, and overly anxious type. Supplementing with magnesium will allow for healthy nerve function, and prevents or “dampens” any hyper-excitability that we may have from the result of high glutamate.
In addition to magnesium’s ability to regulate glutamate-induced excitation, it also stimulates our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. GABA is involved in stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system, which creates a more rested and relaxed state, resulting in fewer jitters and far less intense withdrawal symptoms in addiction recovery (Nechifor, n.d).
Lastly, and most importantly, magnesium can dampen addiction intensity. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter involved in the body’s reward pathways, which is often a key influencer in the development of relapse and dependence on various addictive substances. Magnesium works towards reducing stimulation of dopamine synthesis, which results in a reduction in intense cravings, and a greater reduction in our chances of relapse (Nechifor, n.d).
As you can see, magnesium is a pretty big deal when it comes to looking after ourselves nutritionally in early sobriety.
If you’d like to read up more on the other benefits of magnesium, I’ve written a fairly lengthy article here about the key role of magnesium and how to correctly choose the best magnesium supplement.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Fatty Acids, also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) consist of two compounds known as Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are key components in the health of our nervous system.
EPA/DHA play an integral role in establishing healthy cell membranes, in fact, these molecules are critical for maintaining the structure of over 100 billion nerve cells in our body, which in the end helps support optimal brain function, cognition and memory retention (Lopes et al., 2017).
DHA specifically, can be neuroprotective against dependence-related neuronal injury (Collins, 2015), and provides protection against alcohol-induced neuronal death (and death of neurons is generally not a good thing).
One big factor EPA/DHA also plays a role in is reducing excess inflammation, which can be common in individuals who have led a life of substance abuse, paired with an industry that’s riddled with inflammatory foods. The downside is, these sorts of foods including fried, processed foods are often the snack of choice when it comes to addiction, making Omega-3 fatty acids another nutrient that’s high on the radar in nutritional support for addiction recovery.
On top of this, excessive inflammation is linked with symptoms of depression, a common characteristic in early sobriety. Individuals with major depressive disorder have shown to exhibit signs of inflammation, which impact on neurotransmitter status (Liao et al., 2019), and thus, create a substantial level of mood dysregulation. When our mood is constantly thrown to and from from high inflammation, it increases our risk of relapse.
Supporting our nervous system through EPA/DHA is paramount, and if we don’t, we may start to see signs of increased irritability, mood swings, and depression, making our journey through early sobriety more difficult than it needs to be.
Using the power of good nutrition to support our journey through early sobriety is so important.
Compounds such as B Vitamins, Zinc, Magnesium, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids all collectively support the health of our nervous system and overall well-being, setting us up for greater success through addiction recovery.
Of course, this only scratches the surface as to the array of key nutrients we can use in our journey towards limitless, long-term sobriety, luckily, I provide a more in-depth analysis in my upcoming book, Hacking Your Addiction.
Hacking Your Addiction not only discusses 9 key nutrients we need to support our sober journey, but also dosage recommendations, and the food sources we can get them from.
I highly recommend you express your interest to be one of the first to find out when exclusive prices and pre-orders are announced!
Collins, M. (2015). Alcohol abuse and docosahexaenoic acid: Effects on cerebral circulation and neurosurvival. Brain Circulation, 1(1), 63. https://doi.org/10.4103/2394-8108.162533
Liao, Y., Xie, B., Zhang, H., He, Q., Guo, L., Subramaniapillai, M., Fan, B., Lu, C., & Mclntyer, R. S. (2019). Efficacy of omega-3 PUFAs in depression: A meta-analysis. Translational Psychiatry, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0515-5
Lopes, P. A., Bandarra, N. M., Martins, S. V., Martinho, J., Alfaia, C. M., Madeira, M. S., Cardoso, C., Afonso, C., Paulo, M. C., Pinto, R. M., Guil-Guerrero, J. L., & Prates, J. A. (2017). Markers of neuroprotection of combined EPA and DHA provided by fish oil are higher than those of EPA (Nannochloropsis) and DHA (Schizochytrium) from microalgae oils in Wistar rats. Nutrition & Metabolism, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12986-017-0218-y
Marashly, E. T., & Bohlega, S. A. (2017). Riboflavin has Neuroprotective potential: Focus on Parkinson’s disease and migraine. Frontiers in Neurology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2017.00333
Mishra, A., Singh, S., & Shukla, S. (2018). Physiological and functional basis of dopamine receptors and their role in neurogenesis: Possible implication for Parkinson’s disease. Journal of Experimental Neuroscience, 12, 117906951877982. https://doi.org/10.1177/1179069518779829
Nechifor, M. (n.d.). Magnesium in drug abuse and addiction. Magnesium in the Central Nervous System, 333-344. https://doi.org/10.1017/upo9780987073051.025Parra, M., Stahl, S., & Hellmann, H. (2018). Vitamin B6 and its role in cell metabolism and physiology. Cells, 7(7), 84. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells7070084
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All the best in health,
Former Drinker & Clinical Nutritionist
Former drinker, Nutritionist, Biohacking enthusiast, self-experimenter, research fanatic, and self-taught writer, Stephen immerses himself deep into the literature of human optimisation and better understand the nature of addiction. His goal is to help people take control of their addiction, reset their cravings, unscramble their broken brain circuitry and use actionable strategies that work ten times better than anything else.