February 5th, 2024
When we’re feeling low, we might forget to look after ourselves in the ways that matter. That could mean we struggle to keep up with personal hygiene or maintain our social connections. It can also lead to us forgetting about our bodies. When struggling with alcohol addiction, it’s not always easy to nourish ourselves and move in ways that make us feel good. Unfortunately, though, forgetting about these areas can often make our mental health decline further. And, therefore, drive us deeper into alcohol addiction.
Getting into positive routines and practising respect for our bodies are two key components of alcohol addiction treatment. Our eating and exercise habits can feed into this, helping us reestablish healthy relationships through small, everyday acts. Reassessing our diets and movement can represent a significant mental shift and can, therefore, play a crucial role in addiction recovery.
Why Does Nutrition and Exercise Matter?
You might hear therapists describe excessive drinking as a kind of maladaptive behaviour. This means that it is something that is potentially harmful. Overeating, undereating, lack of exercise and eating an unbalanced diet can, in themselves, be maladaptive. This means that the harmful behaviours that feed addiction can leak into our other habits. This can cause us to develop poor relationships with ourselves and also leave us feeling sluggish and down.
In our busy lives, it can be easy to start thinking of eating and moving as tasks rather than something to be enjoyed; however, paying attention to exercise and diet nutrition can be invaluable. Low mood is frequently characterised by periods of anhedonia and a reduced ability to experience pleasure. When paired with low motivation and distracting alcohol cravings, it can be difficult to actively attend to our bodies through nutritious meals and intentional movement.
However, food can nourish the mind as well as the body, and exercise boosts energy levels and wellbeing. This makes these two areas of daily life key focuses during alcoholism rehab. Food can be healing in its own way. As Ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates reportedly advised: ”Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
Food and Mood: How Does it Affect Addiction?
Eating and Wellbeing: An Overview
Researchers have identified a causal relationship between good food and good mood. ‘Healthy eating patterns’ can be linked to lower instances of depression and improved wellbeing. This has been linked to the way different foods affect our bodies. Different foods can cause spikes in blood sugar, affecting our energy levels. Certain foods can also catalyse the release of different endorphins when they hit our bloodstream. High-sugar processed foods have been linked to a release of serotonin, which then causes a brief surge of pleasure. Scientists have even begun to evaluate the importance of a ‘happy gut’, investigating our gut microbiome’s role in mood management.
Eating well can be an act of self-compassion. In an age of ultra-processed and convenient food, it is often hard to make informed decisions about what is best for our health. When carbohydrate-rich and sugary foods spark our serotonin levels, it can be hard to resist them. However, reliance on foods high in sugar, fat and carb content can lead to cycles of craving, obesity, and even depression. If these kinds of foods have depressant effects, heavy drinkers are at a double risk, as alcohol itself is also linked with low mood, lethargy and low energy levels.
Nutritional Deficits in People Who Use Drugs and Drink Heavily
When we think of poor nutrition and mental health, we may think of overeating. Examples of people ‘eating their feelings’ abound in popular media. Ice cream, pizza, takeaway food and sweet treats are usually stereotyped as the diet of individuals who are feeling down. However, it is common for individuals struggling with alcoholism to experience undernutrition. A 2021 study illustrated that many individuals currently dealing with drug or alcohol addiction relied on one meal a day. This meal is typically eaten late at night.
The meal is usually high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat but low in fruit and vegetables. It is common for these meals to be picked up from takeaway vendors late at night or constructed after an evening of heavy drinking. This can lead to dramatic weight loss but also to nutritional deficits. These deficits can have various effects, including unstable energy levels, lethargy and sudden spikes in mood. The research found that individuals struggling with addiction experienced a lack of vitamins and minerals, including:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
It is common for these intakes to be below average in individuals in need of addiction help. Eating this way for prolonged periods can lead to deficiencies in vital micronutrients. It can also lead to the integration of risky eating behaviours and potentially develop into anorexia, binge eating or night eating syndrome.
Exercise: Why Is It Important in the Treatment of Alcoholism?
Moving with Intention: Exercising for Health and Wellbeing
Exercise is often referred to in conjunction with dieting. We may see fitness gurus and influencers online discussing the best ways to pair calorie deficits and exercise regimens in order to achieve a specific physique. But exercise does not only exist in the dieting world. Moving with intention has more applications than the sole goal of losing weight.
Researchers and mental health charities emphasise the importance of exercise in an age of overly sedative lifestyles. Exercise is especially suggested to people dealing with mood disorders and anxiety. It is also recommended as a potential distraction when individuals may be at risk of engaging in risky behaviours, such as self-harm or substance use. This is because exercise has powerful psychological benefits alongside the expected physical effects. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. This rush of positive emotion can work in two ways. It acts
- to temporarily alleviate distress, low mood or anxiety,
- and begins to help the brain build an association between moving and feeling good
This comes with a range of health benefits for both our bodies and our minds, including:
- better sleep
- stress relief
- boost in mood
- boost in energy
- decline in lethargy
- increased endurance
- increased libido
These factors all play into increasing our sense of general wellbeing. Moving can make us feel brighter and more alert and, therefore, less likely to engage in harmful behaviours such as binge drinking. Exercise can make us feel more confident, give us a reason to leave the house, and help us to begin to establish a sense of respect and appreciation for our bodies.
Studies have found that people who engage in ‘regular aerobic exercise’ (such as swimming, walking or running) ‘are less likely to use and abuse illicit drugs.’ Some past users even state that exercise was a kind of replacement for addiction, providing them with a thrill, ‘high’ and subsequent drive without the associated risks of alcoholism. This is thought to work because exercising stimulates the same serotonin and dopaminergic pathways in the brain as substances do.
Good Food, Good Mood: Eating Your Way to Recovery
Most people may think that treatment for alcoholism ends once you leave the rehabilitation centre. But this is not the case. Attending rehab is a huge initial step in the journey, but recovery continues post-rehab. One of the ways you can aid this recovery is through continuing to manage your relationship with food.
During your time in inpatient rehab, you will have access to a range of well-balanced, healthy meals made with your nutrition in mind. When you leave rehab, the hope is that you will take this nutrition knowledge with you. By being intentional about how you eat, you can approach food in a way that feeds both your body and mind.
By eating balanced, you can avoid the ebb and flow of the energy cycle resembling drug cravings. You can also add structure to your day by planning, preparing and eating three meals. You may also find that this careful consideration of what you eat – and what makes you feel good – will reacquaint you with what it feels like to take care of your body. With the right fuel and fewer depressant effects from alcohol, you are likely to achieve a more stable mood.
In place of heavy drinking sessions, you may find it helpful to cook a good meal. This could be shared with family and friends and promote opportunities for connection as well as nourishment. Food is a very social thing – and socialisation can be pivotal to fighting feelings of low mood and loneliness that can appear from time to time during recovery. You may find eating at home becomes a new pleasure, without the temptation and anxiety of being surrounded by beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks.
Some ways you can practise eating your way to recovery include:
- planning meals in advance
- eating three meals a day
- using the eat well plate
- try cooking a new meal
- cook with or for friends
- try a type of cuisine you have not eaten before
Getting Active: Exercise During Each Stage of Recovery
Your journey with nutrition and exercise may start in the rehab centre, but there are ways to maintain it outside of active alcoholism treatment. During rehab, there are opportunities for recreation as well as intervention. This can include the chance to try yoga and engage in group walks.
You should see the mental health benefits of moving with intention after engaging in 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week.
During the early stages of recovery, it is helpful to try impact exercise. This can help to build up confidence and causes less strain on the body. Options for this period may include short, regular walks, stretches, and yoga.
As recovery continues and you begin to feel physically stronger, you may wish to try out other options, such as group sports, swimming, or running. These can be particularly helpful following an alcohol detox when you are no longer managing difficult withdrawal symptoms.
During long-term recovery, you may explore different types of exercise in order to find a new passion. This could include cycling, hiking, weight lifting, or even dancing. Team sports can be a great way to stay connected after leaving rehab.
Getting Support for Alcohol Addiction
At UKAT, we know addiction is multifaceted. By paying attention to your physical and psychological needs alongside any social and substance related difficulties you may be faced with, we hope to provide a package of all-round support.
The cost of rehab will depend on your specific needs. However, inpatient rehab always includes access to private rooms and ensuite bathrooms. Luxury rehab options include access to private chefs and gym equipment. These options are well-positioned to help you integrate both nutrition and exercise at the very heart of your recovery from alcohol addiction.
(Click here to see works cited)