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Addiction and Nutrition

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 11, 2021

If you have a substance use disorder, whether it involves drinking or drugs, you could be low on certain nutrients you need to be healthy. In fact, even smoking robs your body of important nutrients. Addiction can cause you to eat too little or choose foods that lack key vitamins and minerals. Chemical substances also make it harder for your body to absorb these nutrients.

A poor diet can make you feel depressed, anxious, and low on energy. Those feelings can lead to cravings for drugs and alcohol and trap you in a stressful cycle.

If you are in recovery for substance use, good nutrition is a crucial part of healing your body. You need to replenish the nutrients you haven’t been getting. This will help restore your physical and mental health. Feeling better in both body and mind can also increase your odds of staying clean.

Here’s how substances might have affected your nutrition and how you can begin to repair the damage.

Nicotine can cause you to be low in:

This puts you at risk for:

  • Eye disease
  • Nerve problems in your hands, feet, and spinal cord
  • Anemia (too little iron in your blood)
  • Heart disease
  • Osteoporosis (weak, thinning bones)
  • Lung cancer
  • Scurvy (a disease caused by a severe lack of vitamin C)

Some symptoms you could have:

What can help:

Adding fruits and vegetables to your diet provides more vitamins and minerals for your body to absorb. Foods that are high in vitamin C include broccoli, green peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruits, and strawberries. A vitamin C supplement could also help, but check with your doctor first.

Opioids can cause you to be low in:

This puts you at risk for:

Some symptoms you could have:

What can help:

A protein-rich diet and choosing fresh or frozen fruit over sweets is a good place to start. You can talk to your doctor about probiotics, a “good” type of bacteria that helps your gut health. An omega-3 fatty acid supplement can help reduce inflammation. (Omega-3s may also help curb opioid cravings, but experts need more research to be sure.)

Alcohol can cause you to be low in:

  • Vitamin A
  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Amino acids (building blocks of protein)
  • Zinc

This puts you at risk for:

Some symptoms you could have:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of muscle
  • Night blindness
  • Weakened sense of taste and smell
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Getting sick more easily
  • Dental issues
  • Gastrointestinal problems (like gas, constipation, or diarrhea)

What can help:

Focus on small but frequent meals that contain complex carbs (like whole grains), dairy, protein, and healthy fats like those in olive oil or fish. Vitamin supplements could make a difference, but talk to your doctor first. Too much of some vitamins, like vitamin A, can harm your health.

Stimulants (like cocaine and methamphetamine) can cause you to:

  • Not drink enough water
  • Not eat enough food

This puts you at risk for:

Some symptoms you may see:

  • Trouble chewing
  • Severe weight loss
  • Brain fog

What can help:

Drink water instead of caffeinated drinks, energy drinks, or soda. (Aim for 8 ounces every hour.) Eat a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains. Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese can strengthen your teeth and gums. Making a meal plan that includes sufficient portion sizes will also help make sure you get enough nutritious food.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Today’s Dietitian: CPE Monthly: Substance Abuse and Nutrition.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Relationships between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease.”

Michigan State University: “Alcohol can lead to malnutrition.”

Nutrients: Dietary Supplementation with Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Reduces Opioid-Seeking Behaviors and Alters the Gut Microbiome.

Gateway Foundation: “Nutrition to help your body heal in addiction recovery.”

Drug Aware: “How Does Meth Affect Your Life?”

Progress in Food & Nutrition Science: “Cigarette smoking -- nutritional implications.”

Jamaica Hospital Medical Center: “How smoking affects nutrition.”

Frontiers in Oncology: “Inverse association between dietary intake of selected carotenoids and vitamin C and risk of lung cancer.”

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: “Smoking’s Immediate Effects on the Body.”

Mayo Clinic: “Vitamin deficiency anemia.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Vitamin D deficiency.”

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: “Zinc.”

Visions Journal: “The Role of Nutrition in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Addiction.”

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