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Alcohol Use Disorder: Nutrition During Recovery

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 19, 2021

Recovering from alcohol misuse means forming new, lifelong habits, including ones related to nutrition. Proper nutrients are key to your overall health. Vitamins and minerals can:

Good nutrition also helps your brain rework old connections and make new ones. That’s called neuroplasticity. Alcohol and drug misuse interrupt these connections. This can make it hard to stay away from alcohol while you’re trying to get better.

How Alcohol Misuse Affects Nutrition

Alcohol use disorder impacts your health in different ways.

You don’t feel hungry. Alcohol slows down your appetite. You may even forget to eat and become malnourished.

You choose less nutritious foods. When you drink too much, you’re more likely to eat foods that are high in added sugar, salt, and saturated fat.

Your blood sugar dips. Alcohol and poor eating can stop your liver from releasing glucose into your blood. This can lead to low blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia.

Organ damage. Heavy drinking makes it harder for your organs to work the way they’re supposed to, especially your stomach lining, pancreas, intestines, and liver. Loss of appetite is one of the signs of liver diseases like cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis.

Digestive problems. Too much alcohol can cause inflammation in your stomach lining and pancreas. This could lead to ulcers in your stomach and esophagus. It also affects your body’s ability to absorb B vitamins and folic acid. It can trigger irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, and other gastrointestinal illnesses, too.

Best Foods and Supplements for Recovery

Damage to your liver and pancreas from heavy drinking can lead to imbalances in your body. Here’s a look at what’s usually missing and how you can replace them:

Vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid). A lack of vitamin B9 can trigger anemia and make you weak, tired, and moody. You might also get headaches and have a hard time focusing. Folic acid is in foods like enriched bread, flour, cornmeal, pasta, rice, and breakfast cereals. Veggies, fruits, fruit juices, nuts, beans, and peas naturally have folate.

Vitamin B6. Not getting enough of this vitamin can lead to anemia, depression, confusion, and a weak immune system. Poultry, fish, non-citrus fruit, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes are good sources.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine or thiamin). Too little could eventually cause serious learning and memory problems, a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome. Eat beans, peas, lentils, pork, brown rice, and fortified foods like breakfast cereal.

These nutrients also come in supplements. Talk to your doctor before taking any.

Foods for Your Brain

Certain foods can help rebuild your brain’s ability to grow and evolve during recovery. These include:

Carbohydrates. Your brain needs carbs to make the chemical messenger serotonin. That’s what evens out your moods, helps you sleep better, and soothes the urge for alcohol. Experts suggest a diet with lots of complex carbs like whole grains, veggies, peas, and beans.

Amino acids. Your brain needs amino acids to make dopamine. Without it, you can have strong cravings, mood swings, and hostile behavior. We get amino acids from protein in foods like meat, dairy products, and nuts, along with some grains and beans.

Dietary fat. It eases inflammation and protects the thin layer that surrounds your brain cells, called the cell membrane. This gives neuroplasticity a boost. Canola, olive, safflower, sesame, and sunflower oils are good sources of healthy fats.

Fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids found in shellfish and fatty fish like salmon also ease inflammation, while omega-6 fatty acids help with neurotransmitter activity. You can find it in corn oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil.

Foods to Avoid

Sugar. You may have a strong urge to eat sweets because they set off dopamine, the same chemical messenger triggered by some drugs.

Ultra-processed foods. They’re likely cooked in unhealthy fats, like saturated and trans fats, and aren’t very nutritious.

How Doctors and Nutritionists Can Help

You aren’t alone on the journey to recovery. Your doctors and nutritionist will likely work together to help you get better. Your doctor will look at or ask you about:

  • Your health history
  • Lack of nutrients due to organ damage or poor eating patterns
  • Weight changes
  • Possible eating disorders

A nutritionist can help get your eating back on track by coming up with a meal plan just for you. You’ll also learn how to:

  • Eat on a schedule
  • Choose nutrient-rich foods while avoiding those that have too much fat, salt, sugar, and caffeine
  • Take vitamin and mineral supplements if needed

Other Healthy Habits

Tips to keep in mind during recovery and after include:

Eat three meals a day. Early in recovery, your body will need to readjust to the feeling of hunger. At first, it may think hunger pangs are a desire to drink alcohol. That’s why it’s important to eat three meals a day plus snacks as your body heals. If you don’t feel hungry, think about taking nutritional supplements.

Watch out for food cravings. The changes in brain chemistry that can lead to alcohol cravings can also cause you to long for food. To fight food cravings:

  • Get into an eating routine.
  • Eat when you’re hungry but not famished.
  • Only eat until you’re satisfied.
  • Keep a food journal.
  • Avoid emotional eating.

Drink lots of water. Many times, people in recovery don’t get enough water. Try to drink around eight glasses each day.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Huntsman Mental Health Institute: “Nutrition During Recovery.”

Gateway Foundation: “Nutrition to Help Your Body Recover in Addiction Recovery.”

American Addiction Centers: “Nutrition for Addiction Recovery.”

Diabetes.co.uk: “Alcohol and Hypoglycemia.”

Mayo Clinic: “Alcoholic hepatitis,” “Cirrhosis,” “Alcohol use disorder,” “Thiamin,” “Nutrition and healthy eating: chart of high-fiber foods,” “Nutrition and healthy eating: Water is essential to good health. Are you getting enough? These guidelines can help you find out.”

National Eating Disorders Association: “Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders.”

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin B6,” “Folate.”

MedlinePlus: “Dietary Proteins,” “Dietary Fats,” “Diet and cancer.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “7 Things To Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”

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