Drug addiction, medically termed substance use disorder (SUD), is a mental health disorder affecting millions of people yearly. A 2020 survey found that 40.3 million Americans had an SUD.
That number accounts for both illegal and legal substance abuse. Drug dependence can have many negative consequences on your physical and mental state.
Exercise and nutritious meals are vital in recovering from substance abuse by setting the pathway for a healthy body and mind.
In this guide, you’ll learn the roles of a healthy diet and exercise in the addiction treatment process. You’ll also learn how physical health can steer a healthy mental state.
How Exercise And Diet Impact Mental Health
It’s often more accessible for children, teens, and young adults to stay active by playing organized sports.
As adults, some may continue this physical activity by joining adult rec leagues, hiking, or going to the gym.
However, many people in addiction recovery find it difficult to maintain a regular exercise plan.
Mood changes and low motivation can affect physical activity, and food cravings during drug binges can lead to eating primarily low-nutrient foods.
A sedentary lifestyle mixed with an improper diet can have major negative implications on mental health. This can be especially damaging for people already living with addiction.
Similar to a car needing a healthy engine to run, humans need a healthy heart to operate. This analogy applies to our mental health.
Food, which is the fuel for our bodies and brains, plays a big part in how we feel. And exercise activates areas of our brain that increase happiness, productivity, and confidence.
There are several ways dieting and exercise impact our mental health, such as:
- preventing depression
- warding off dementia
- improving cognitive function
- creating a healthy gut, where most of the body’s serotonin is stored
- gaining confidence through improved body image
- releasing endorphins, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters in the brain that induce positive feelings
For people with substance use disorders, the relationship between how they treat their bodies and mental health plays a huge role when trying to find sobriety.
Below we’ll explore how a healthy lifestyle impacts the addiction recovery process.
Exercise And Drug Self-Administration
In a study, female rats with long-term access to physical activity displayed lower levels of drug self-administration.
Rats that exercised for six weeks were less likely to repeat cocaine ingestion compared to rats who were never exposed to exercise.
Additionally, exercise decreased the physical effects of cocaine and improved diet. This suggests exercise can help prevent drug use while encouraging healthy behaviors, such as eating, which often go overlooked in drug addiction.
There are several reasons why exercise can be a deterrent to drug use, such as:
- releasing endorphins that create positive, happy, and confident feelings
- making drug experimentation less appealing through feeling the benefits of exercise
- creating a “natural high”
The Impact Of Diet On Addiction Recovery
In active addiction, many do not consciously consider what they put in their body. Often, diets during alcohol or drug binges include sugary and processed foods that do not supply the body with energy and real sustenance.
Additionally, drugs can impact a person’s appetite. Some substances induce binges, while others curb hunger significantly.
Stimulants and opioids impact diet by lessening the desire for food, leading to:
- weight loss
- a weakened immune system
Alcohol abuse can induce weight loss and gain, depending on what type of alcohol is consumed (hard liquor, beer, or wine) and the lifestyle attached to it. However, alcohol abuse is typically associated with weight gain.
When someone decides to get sober, their body may be malnourished and dehydrated. This can also be reflected in their emotional state.
Upon entering drug addiction treatment, some facilities may design a diet plan specific to certain drug disorders to supply the right minerals and vitamins to the body.
Let’s dive into some diet essentials when recovering from drug addiction.
Balanced Serotonin Levels
Serotonin is mostly stored in the gastronomical tract of your body, which is your gut. Eating foods high in complex carbohydrates will balance serotonin, which is responsible for sending messages between the brain and the body.
When someone has balanced serotonin levels, they often feel relaxed, perform duties better, and are generally happier.
Foods that help balance serotonin levels are:
People with alcohol abuse disorders usually have b-complex vitamin deficiencies. These vitamins provide people with energy, boost mood, and may improve cognitive performance.
They can also lower depression and anxiety, which can be critical in early recovery when someone can relapse from feeling sad, lonely, or depressed.
There are many essential B vitamins, including:
- B1 (Thiamine) supplies the body with nutrients and energy. It can be found in pork and sunflower seeds.
- B2 (riboflavin) acts as an antioxidant and energy booster. B2 may be found in beef and mushrooms.
- B3 (niacin) works to repair DNA and help metabolism. This vitamin is found in chicken and lentils.
- B5 (pantothenic acid) helps the body maintain energy and regulate cholesterol production. B5 is available in foods such as liver and avocado.
- B6 (pyridoxine) creates neurotransmitters and red blood cells. This can be found in chickpeas and salmon.
- B7 (biotin) is essential for carbohydrate and fat metabolism. It’s often found in eggs and cheese.
- B9 (folate) is needed for cell growth, including red and white blood cells. Leafy greens and beans have high folate levels.
- B12 (cobalamin) is vital for neurological function. Meats, eggs, and dairy contain B12.
Otherwise known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is an essential nutrient the body needs to perform bodily functions.
It repairs, heals, and builds tissues, collagen, and bones, which can be damaged from excessive drug use or drinking.
Vitamin C is used in the early intervention of recovery, especially for people in withdrawal. It gives the body a chance to recover from damage while building strength.
Vitamin C can be found in:
- citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, grapefruit)
- green peppers
- white and sweet potatoes
- dark leafy greens
Vitamin D became very popular during COVID-19 because of its ability to strengthen the immune system. Weakened immune systems can make people very susceptible to sickness.
In active addiction, some may have pushed their immune systems to the brink, making them more susceptible to illnesses, infections, and fatigue.
The benefits of vitamin D vary in both the physical and mental. Vitamin D is responsible for oral health and bone development.
Vitamin D absorbs calcium and phosphorus and creates resistance to diseases. It can also help regulate mood and lower depression.
The biggest supplier of Vitamin D is the sun, which is free to soak in. However, there are ways to incorporate vitamin D into your diet, as well.
You can find vitamin D in:
- seafood, such as salmon, herring, sardines, and shrimp
- orange juice and milk
- egg yolks
- beef liver
What Is The Best Diet Plan For A Person In Recovery?
With all of the above factors in mind, you can customize the right diet plan based on your recovery needs, as well as the substance you’re recovering from.
In general, a diet for a person in addiction recovery should have:
- complex carbohydrates, meaning plenty of grains, vegetables, and fruits
- dairy items that are rich in calcium
- moderate protein intake
- healthy fats, such as those found in avocados or canola, olive, and flaxseed oil
Foods To Avoid In Addiction Recovery
It’s easy to make foods a new coping mechanism to replace urges to drink or use. This is why it’s suggested that people try to limit their intake of sugar and caffeine.
Both sugar and caffeine can supply the body with a short-lived burst of energy and rush, followed by a crash, similar to the pattern of drug abuse.
Also following the patterns of drug use are the withdrawal symptoms and cravings that can follow the consumption of sugar and caffeine.
Your body may become used to the energizing, stimulant effect of these substances and experience a mild withdrawal (headaches, nausea, cravings) when not supplied.
Low-nutrient foods can also negatively impact mood. So, it’s best to avoid sugary drinks, candy, processed foods, and other empty-calorie foods.
It’s important to note that any of the aforementioned substances are typically fine in moderation. It’s not so much cutting out coffee and candies completely, but making sure you’re mindful of how often you’re consuming such drinks and foods.
Remain conscientious of the foods you’re consuming and how they make your mind and body feel.
The Impact Of Exercise On Addiction Recovery
No matter what sort of drugs are taken and their route of administration, moderate to long-term substance abuse will have many effects on the body.
Many addiction recovery clinicians encourage physical exercise to be incorporated into the recovery process to recoup some of the physical losses during chemical dependency.
Exercise offers many benefits to early and ongoing sobriety. Below we’ll explore some of these benefits.
Physical Activity Stimulates The Release Of Endorphins
Once drugs are removed from the body, there may be a period of anxiety, depression, and stress due to the abrupt cessation of endorphin production.
Even if physical withdrawal symptoms subside, psychological drug cravings can remain. The brain will need to find new sources of happiness.
Exercise can be a great way to replace drugs and a healthy way to release dopamine and activate endorphins.
Endorphins interact with opioid receptors in the brain and trigger positive feelings in the body, similar to how opioid drugs work.
This is where the term “runners high” comes from. But this euphoric feeling can result from any type of workout, including playing sports, enjoying a long hike, or a taking bike ride.
The release of endorphins in the body can:
- reduce stress
- lower symptoms of depression and anxiety
- boost self-esteem
- improve sleep
In addiction recovery, these benefits can all be vital to staying on track with set goals, improving spirits, and staying motivated to remain sober.
Improved Body Image
Getting in shape doesn’t just improve your internal systems and rebuild your strength. It can help a person to gain muscle, lead to weight loss, and create a healthy and more vibrant look.
People who spent years in addiction may have physical effects, such as lesions and scars, or experienced weight loss or gain. These can be causes of shame and negative self-talk.
In a drug haze, someone may not care or have the resources to find a remedy for physical effects, worsening these issues.
Many people use recovery as a time to reclaim self-discipline, hygiene, and self-love by improving their physical health.
Exercise can affect body image and addiction recovery by:
- healing some of the physical effects of drug addiction
- building confidence
- offsetting triggers of relapse
Seeing positive changes in your body/appearance and feeling the effects of boosted self-confidence can be an important source of motivation to continue on the path to sobriety.
Exercise Can Prevent Relapse
While initial sobriety is a great feat, the possibility of relapse is real and is often contingent on your mental health.
People in early recovery, and even in later sobriety, may find certain experiences triggering. Sometimes, it only takes a passing thought or stressful situation to trigger old habits.
This is why it’s essential to take steps to prevent relapse before those triggers arise. Exercise is a good starting point when generating a strong relapse prevention plan.
By incorporating daily activity into your recovery routine, you can:
- find healthy ways to burn energy and tension
- settle a restless mind, focusing your energy on meanwhile activities that benefit your health
- promote positive feelings
- lessen symptoms of co-occurring disorders such as anxiety or depression
- discover the power of routine
Exercise Builds Community And Accountability
The lifestyle of drug addiction can bring about loneliness, alienation, and loss of community. Addiction creates abnormal behavior and loss of socialization through drug-seeking behavior.
In early recovery, it’s common for people to be less inclined to connect with their friends and loved ones.
Physical activity, especially in groups such as organized sports, can help people in recovery to connect with and enjoy the company of others by sharing in a common interest.
Exercise can build community and accountability by helping people in recovery to:
- learn to work with others to accomplish goals
- build empathy and trust with other people
- become motivated to stay in recovery through witnessing the success of others
- improve time management, self-discipline, and self-efficacy
Best Exercises For Addiction Recovery
Any physical activity is beneficial in addiction recovery. Treatment centers may implement different exercises and activities to get the body moving and encourage group participation.
If there isn’t a specific sport or physical activity you already enjoy doing, try out a few different options to find a good fit for your new sober lifestyle.
A few of the best exercises for people in addiction recovery include:
- aerobic classes
- cardio, such as running, walking, jogging, or hiking
- tai chi
Combining Health And Fitness With Addiction Treatment
Most drug addiction therapy techniques ask people to look at past behaviors, find new coping skills, and learn how drug addiction may be a symptom of deeper psychological issues.
Honestly engaging in these discussions and finding breakthroughs are some cornerstones of addiction recovery.
Combined with addiction treatment, exercise and diet can:
- give people time to process and level off discomfort from therapeutic breakthroughs
- add to positive feelings generated from cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy
- act as healthy outlets to build a new sense of identity
Rehabilitation centers often provide clients with meals to help rebuild the body, stay energized for activities, and promote better diet habits.
Clients may engage in holistic methods, such as breathwork, yoga, and tai chi, which encourage a connection between mind and body.
These activities release endorphins through physical movement while focusing on mindfulness through breathing techniques.
As the mind and body improve through dieting, physical activity, and therapy, you can set yourself up for lifelong healing.
Health And Fitness Resources For Addiction Recovery
Starting the path of addiction recovery is never easy. For some, drug addiction has been a part of their life for years, and the idea of sobriety seems unattainable.
However, some of the resources below can help you begin on this path. Everyone is worthy of recovery and a better life, and starting with your physical health can be a great stepping stone.
Learning about and taking action regarding physical activity, mental health, and addiction can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.
The following resources can help you improve your health through exercise:
- Addict II Athlete Podcast: Interview, education, and sports podcasts by people who have lived with addiction and are in recovery with help from exercise and athletics.
- American College of Sports Medicine, Exercise Is Medicine: Resources on the benefits of exercise across all areas of health and wellness.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Physical Activity: A wide variety of resources on the benefits of exercise, physical activity recommendations from experts, and more.
- Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: Up-to-date recommendations on physical activity for every demographic, tips for increasing physical activity, and resources for learning more.
- Harvard Health, “Can Exercise Help Conquer Addiction?”: An article on the science behind evidence-based approaches to addiction recovery by Claire Twark, Harvard psychiatry professor and director of the Athlete Mind Program.
- MedlinePlus, “Benefits of Exercise”: An overview of the health benefits of exercise, plus resources for learning more.
- SmokeFree.gov, “How 10 Minutes Can Be a Workout”: Tips for making it easier to add physical activity to your daily schedule in short bursts.
- WebMD, “How Exercise Can Help with Addiction Recovery”: An article that focuses on the research behind exercise’s role in addiction recovery.
- World Health Organization (WHO), Physical Activity: Factsheets, a database, and other resources on the importance of increasing physical activity in economically developed countries, where health-related impacts from inactivity are prevalent.
The following resources can help you improve your health through nutrition:
- CDC, Nutrition: Resources for learning about nutrition, gaining access to food assistance programs (such as the hunger hotline), and more.
- DHHS, Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Up-to-date nutrition recommendations for every demographic, tips for improving nutrition, and resources for learning more.
- Integrative Nutrition Institute, Recipes: Nutrition-focused recipes by category, including vegetarian, gluten-free, and other special diets.
- Many Hands Sustainability Center, “Nutrition in Addiction Recovery”: This 50-page booklet from Many Hands, a nonprofit organization based in Maine, offers detailed information on food’s role in recovery.
- MedlinePlus, “Substance Use Recovery and Diet”: Information on specific substances’ effects on nutrition and the body and foods to eat in recovery.
- Nutrition.gov, Basic Nutrition Printable Materials and Handouts: Recipes, factsheets, lesson plans, and more focused on nutrition and specific demographics.
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Overcoming Addiction Using Nutrition”: An Exam Room podcast episode featuring an interview with a young man who used nutrition to help overcome addiction and other mental health challenges.
- Psychology Today, “Nutrition in Recovery from Addiction”: A research-backed article on the importance of eating healthy in recovery by neuroscientist and psychologist Nicole Avena.
- University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute, “Nutrition During Recovery”: Information on dietary needs and specific challenges during drug detox and addiction recovery.
- WHO, Nutrition: Factsheets, FAQs, and more on malnutrition and efforts to overcome it.
Here are additional resources for improving your health and well-being:
- The Addicted Mind Podcast: Duane Osterlind, a therapist who overcame addiction and the death of his infant daughter through treatment and support, interviews others who are in recovery.
- CDC, Healthy Living Resources: A searchable database for a wide variety of health-related resources on everything from “abdominal aortic aneurysm” to “zygomycosis.”
- The Happiness Lab Podcast: Dr. Laurie Santos teaches psychology at Yale University, the most popular course at the school in its 300-year history, on which her podcast is based.
- MedlinePlus, “How to Improve Mental Health”: Simple tips for improving mental health, plus resources on specific mental health issues and tips for finding treatment.
- MentalHealth.gov, Resources: Mental health resources for a wide variety of demographics and needs.
- National Institutes of Health, Emotional Wellness Toolkit: Also available in Spanish, this toolkit provides strategies for building resilience, reducing stress, coping with loss, and addressing other specific emotional health needs.
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Healthy People 2030: Resources for learning about leading health indicators, social determinants of health, and evidence-based strategies for improving the health and well-being of all Americans.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Creating A Healthier Life: This 22-page booklet provides a step-by-step guide to improving all areas of wellness, including physical, financial, environmental, spiritual, social, emotional, and occupational aspects.
- SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: Resources for anonymously finding addiction treatment and mental health treatment anywhere in the U.S.
- American Psychological Association — The Effects Of Exercise On Cocaine Self-Administration, Food-Maintained Responding, And Locomotor Activity In Female Rats: Importance Of The Temporal Relationship Between Physical Activity And Initial Drug Exposure https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-23390-001?doi=1
- Harvard Health — Can Exercise Help Conquer Addiction? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-conquer-addiction-2018122615641
- Medline Plus — Substance Use Recovery And Diet https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002149.htm
- National Library Of Medicine — Early Intervention, Treatment, And Management Of Substance Use Disorders https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK424859/
- Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration — SAMHSA releases 2020 National Survey On Drug Use And Health https://www.samhsa.gov/newsroom/press-announcements/202110260320#:~:text=The%20Substance%20Abuse%20and%20Mental%20Health%20Services%20Administration,had%20a%20negative%20impact%20on%20the%20nation%E2%80%99s%20well-being.'