Getting clean when you’ve been habitually using drugs is a positive change that offers heaps of benefits – but there’s often an uncomfortable detox period before you really start feeling healthy and energized. In the early days of getting off drugs, your body works hard to rebalance brain function, restore nutrition status and process out all the toxins that have accumulated from drug use. You may feel worse than ever at first!
Brain fog, fatigue, insomnia, digestive problems, scattered attention, anxiety, depression – these are normal responses when you stop using. While there’s no way to avoid some of these withdrawal symptoms, you can take action to make it easier and more comfortable to get clean. Positive nutrition choices help transform negative health cycles during substance dependency into a vibrant system of wellbeing, as well as mental and emotional clarity.
Improved eating habits help make detox more tolerable, and sobriety more sustainable. We’ve already outlined general nutrition principles for recovery, and those basics still apply. However, specific drugs cause damage to the body in unique ways (as we’ve already explored with alcohol dependency). Now we’ll look at some of the typical challenges for detoxing from different drugs, giving tailored eating solutions for each.
We want to focus on the interaction of nutrition and digestion in early recovery, and so we won’t cover all the medical consequences of addiction and detox here. What we will outline are effective, evidence-based tips and clean-eating strategies that can help you feel better, faster. As you begin to utilize a smart, clean eating approach, you’ll find it easier to stay clean, and to live with more health, energy and wellbeing than before.
Clean eating that helps you feel better sooner supports your chance of successfully getting clean.
Clean Eating for Any Addict
Drug abusers in general likely have low body weight and poor protein, making them more likely to experience fatigue, weakness and lowered immunity. They’re also more likely to have lower levels of Vitamins A, C and E compared to people who do not use. Substance use may be associated with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health conditions that occur together. They raise risks of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Addicted women may have worse nutrition than men, as do people who have been addicted longer and those with more difficult life circumstances (like family struggles or trauma). Regardless of what your addictive substance may have been, liver damage from detox is common. Because of this, those in recovery may process nutritional supplements differently than expected and will want to be careful about using them for their recovery.
A diet that focuses on enjoying abundant brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (such as berries, capsicum/bell peppers and leafy greens) will provide micronutrients that support detox, replenish nutrient stores and reduce the impact of toxins as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. Sipping unsweetened green tea amps up your intake of protective antioxidants during the detox process and beyond. Recovery can be fun when you learn to take risks in positive new ways ~ try a luscious green tea matcha latte when you want a beverage that tastes indulgent but still sneaks in health benefits!
Even while some people’s damaged livers might poorly process some dietary supplements, some other supplements will still be well-tolerated by most people in recovery. They may even provide a boost to the detox and repair process, and they include: basic multivitamins/multiminerals, Co-enzyme Q10, l-dopa, and phenylalanine. While the research on their effects remains mixed (and often based on rodent studies rather than on human subjects), these supplements likely won’t cause harm. For a personalized approach for determining which supplements are worth your money and which are probably snake oil, consult a qualified health coach.
Medical marijuana may be gaining wider acceptance in some circles, but it can still become a health problem for habitual users, rather than a panacea. Marijuana dependency may be linked with weight gain and impaired memory (which most people might’ve already guessed). Because the body stores marijuana’s metabolites (products released when the drug breaks down) in the its fat tissues, they may take months of abstinence to fully clear from the system. A person may not regain their full sense of mental clarity for some time. Marijuana use is also associated with a poor diet, as regular weed users consume more sugar-sweetened and alcoholic beverages, more high-sodium snacks, more cheese and pork, and fewer fruits than non-users.
Quenching your thirst with low-sugar, non-alcoholic beverages will support cleansing. Stored toxins leave the fat cells over time, particularly if abstinence leads to healthful weight loss – but that doesn’t mean that you should avoid fats. You should emphasize healthy fat sources, such as omega-3 and/or plant-based fats (from salmon, flax and walnuts) to support improved brain function and immunity, among other benefits. When weight loss is an appropriate goal, it can begin by: reducing portions of refined/packaged foods; increasing servings of nourishing fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins; and increasing physical activity.
Want a way to do all that and enjoy it? Trade getting stoned on the sofa for walking around a local farmers’ market. It might just boost your health and sense of community connection, all while you stock up on farm-fresh foods. As an added bonus, the Vitamin D you’ll get from a little sunshine helps alleviate brain fog and fatigue. That sun exposure can also help re-sync your body clock if your sleep has been disrupted.
Narcotics and Opioids
Kicking an addiction to narcotics is not easy, as witnessed by the scores of people suffering in the “opioid epidemic” of the United States. Withdrawal from opioids, whether street drugs or prescriptions, is so excruciating and intense that many users can’t remain abstinent all the way through detox. The good news is that, because drugs like heroin and barbiturates are water soluble, they are not stored in the body’s fat tissues. This means they clear out of the system relatively quickly, if the addict can stay the course and not relapse. Narcotics have profound effects on the digestive system (slow digestion, constipation and eventual nutrient deficits). During withdrawal, poor fluid intake, inability to keep food down and diarrhea often occur, increasing the risk of potentially dangerous electrolyte imbalances. Opioids are also associated with glucose intolerance, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes – happily, this health concern often clears spontaneously with abstinence.
Opiate users may begin treatment underweight, and rapid weight gain is common and often desirable in early recovery when a person may benefit from coming up to a healthy weight range. However, it’s not uncommon for people to experience weight gain as distressing, given our cultural fixation on thinness as an ideal. By keeping your attention on ensuring sobriety first with a basic, balanced diet second, you will give yourself the best chance to stay clean. Eventually, any weight functions should smooth out to a more healthful, and sustainable personal best.
Drinking enough water crucially supports detox, even though it’s often difficult to keep anything down during withdrawal. Try clear broths with a little salt to guard against electrolyte imbalance, or easy-to-eat fruit popsicles for added nutrients. Another option is packaged liquid nutrition drinks, which some people find a palatable and convenient way to jump-start nutritional healing when they can’t eat solid food.
Some addicts may, with their healthcare team, choose to support their abstinence with medications, so it’s important to understand their nutrition impacts. Naltrexone (also used for alcohol and opioid addiction) may be associated with loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, vomiting – but then, so is opioid withdrawal. Given that maintaining sobriety is the most important health goal, if this medication helps someone stay on track until their system is clear of narcotics, it may be well worth the side effects. Methadone and buprenorphine (brand-name Suboxone) come with risks of constipation, abdominal pain, dry mouth, appetite changes, potassium and magnesium deficiencies, and weight gain.
Narcotics and opioid detox may also impact diet, as people on methadone likely have a higher sugar and lower fiber intake. Avoiding alcohol in favor of water and other unsweetened beverages, while also increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, will help combat these side effects. For those prescribed clonidine to assist with managing withdrawal, there is some evidence that herbal preparations of passionflower can maximize the anti-anxiety effects and thus help the addict stay stable throughout withdrawal. Finally, N-acetylcysteine is an amino acid supplement that may be helpful in reducing heroin cravings.
Uppers like methamphetamine (aka: meth, ice, speed, crystal, etc), cocaine, and even prescription drugs (like Adderall) may damage the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and cause malnutrition. Their use is linked with eating disorders, and they can decrease appetite, causing potentially dangerous weight loss. Dental problems are common among meth users, and many individuals will need foods with a soft texture and perhaps dental treatment to regain optimal health when they begin their recovery journey. Early stage detoxification from stimulants lasts approximately 7-10 days, and it’s a risky time for dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This is dangerous to individuals whose heart health may already have been damaged by the drugs.
Adequate nutrition and hydration are key for getting clean from uppers, helping the liver clear the drugs out and providing the nutrients which the body needs for repairs. In early withdrawal, an amphetamine user may actually be rebounding from the edge of starvation, and appetite returns quickly. Brain function can stay impaired long after the initial detox period, however, making it more difficult for the person in recovery to identify and respond to hunger and fullness signals. A balanced diet of generous servings of vegetables, whole grains, healthful proteins, and plant-based fats might become the best approach for most people. Until these basics are well-managed, there is little need to create a complicated plan based on various trendy diets.
There are supplements that can support detox, such as N-acetylcysteine which some take to reduce cocaine cravings. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) is a prescription medication that may reduce cravings for methamphetamine, and also acts as an antidepressant. While antidepressants carry nutrition risks, such as dry mouth, constipation, nausea, and appetite change, these typically prove much milder than the risks of drug abuse. People can work around them through savvy nutrition choices and a thoughtful healthcare team.
Hallucinogens (such as psilocybin mushrooms, ecstasy, or LSD) are not widely associated with malnutrition, unless they are being abused together with other drugs. While weight changes aren’t common, hallucinogens do significantly impact neurotransmitter function, particularly serotonin. Getting clean may involve a period of adjustment to the brain and bodies’ naturally occurring neurotransmitter balance. The basic rules of sound nutrition apply to detoxification from prolonged hallucinogen use, and will support rebalancing the brain in these ways.
|Lulu Cook, APD/RDN, CPC
Dietitian and Counsellor