How Diet Can Aid Recovery From Substance Use

Diet and nutrition

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. Everyone’s digestive system and biochemistry are different—figuring out what’s ideal for you is a process that often requires professional insight coupled with a lot of trial and error. 

That being said, while there is (and will continue to be) ongoing debate around nutrition, there are certain foods that are undeniably unhealthy. Without moderation, processed foods, refined sugar, and trans fats are likely to harm gut health. 

If you’re recovering from substance use, the importance of diet shouldn’t be overlooked. Despite being misattributed to Hippocrates, there’s a reason the saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” persists today. 

Surprisingly, despite the obvious importance of nutrition, many doctors study little of it. Indeed, according to Stanford Medicine:

“During four years of medical school, most students spend fewer than 20 hours on nutrition. That’s completely disproportionate to its health benefits for patients.”

Fortunately, this is beginning to change, and nutrition is becoming recognized as a cornerstone of mental and physical health, as well as a viable treatment for some psychiatric disorders and a valuable aid in the recovery process.  

Healthy diets are a spectrum

Digging into the minutiae of different diets is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say, there are success stories for many of them. Whether it’s vegetarian, vegan, paleo, carnivore, lion, or keto, figuring out which diet is right for you requires an understanding of your unique gut microbiome, both on an intuitive and scientific level. 

Of course, recovering from substance use can be a challenging process. Taking that first bold step toward healing is incredibly courageous and requires a considerable amount of focus and dedication. 

It may seem like implementing the perfect diet will add a lot of additional stress, however, once you’ve found what works for you, it will serve as a solid foundation for your recovery. Ultimately, it will improve your overall health, energy, mood, and well-being.

The relationship between the gut and the brain

For many years, countless health professionals have underestimated the role of the gut. This vital organ has a complex and dynamic relationship with the brain (often referred to as the gut-brain axis), involving bidirectional communication between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system.

Neural pathways

The brain and the gut constantly communicate through many neural pathways, including the vagus nerve (the longest nerve in the body that runs from the brainstem to the abdomen). The vagus nerve carries signals from the gut to the brain, allowing it to play a role in regulating many aspects of digestive function, including motility, secretion, and sensation.

Hormonal pathways

The gut also communicates with the brain through hormonal pathways. For example, hormones produced in the gut (such as leptin and ghrelin) can regulate hunger and satiety. What’s more, the gut microbiome, or the collection of microorganisms that live in the gut, can release various compounds that can impact the brain and behaviour.


Young woman suffering from stomach ache on bed at home, space for text. Food poisoning

Inflammation in the gut can also affect the brain and vice versa. Chronic low-grade inflammation in the gut has been linked to several neurological and psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and Parkinson’s disease. On the other hand, stress and other psychological factors can also affect gut inflammation, leading to digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

When we eat nutritionally dense food (suitable for our specific gut microbiome), we promote the growth of “good” bacteria. Put simply, when this chemical factory is functioning optimally, your gut will send positive messages to your brain. 

Conversely, if things aren’t going so well (i.e. you’ve eaten a lot of gluten-dense, processed food) your brain will reflect that. 

So, rather than splitting the two and treating each in isolation, it’s best to view it holistically. For example, psychotherapy, no matter how helpful, won’t get to the root of the problem if your gut is suffering. Conversely, only focusing on nutrition without supplementing with therapy treatments may not be enough to adequately support your recovery.

Substance use and nutritional deficiencies 

Drugs can interact with our biochemistry in a variety of ways, and different substances can result in different nutritional deficiencies. 

These can be felt most acutely during the first few weeks of withdrawal and, if not properly attended to, can make the process much more difficult. 

On a fundamental level, many substances stave off hunger and thirst that can lead to malnourishment and dehydration. 

More specifically, alcohol can lead to a deficiency in essential vitamins and minerals, including thiamine, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and more. Opiates have been shown to result in magnesium and calcium deficiencies and cocaine is known to significantly reduce vitamin C levels. 

Ultimately, these are just some of the ways substance use strips the body of vital vitamins and minerals. 

If you’re in recovery, it’s recommended that you get thorough blood work done and are assessed by nutrition-literate doctors, so you can adjust your diet and supplements as necessary.

An optimal diet can make the recovery process easier

Recovering from substance use usually results in a period of withdrawal, both physical and psychological, while the body gets accustomed to life without the substance. During this time, it’s recommended that you attempt to maintain a diet that can help rebuild your physical and mental vitality. 

There are innumerable studies on how certain foods can boost mood, and energy focus, and increase one’s lifespan. Research has also shown that nutrition can have a positive impact on addiction recovery, as this 2009 study concluded:

“Food provides the vast majority of metabolic co-factors essential for the correct functioning and recovery of brain structures, an example of which can be the case of Wernicke-Korsakoff encephalopathy. This is just one example of how (mal)nutrition can play a big role in the development and perpetuation of brain and cognitive dysfunctions often observed in addicts, and how simple changes in dietary habits (or, in more serious cases, nutritional supplementation) may produce a big difference in mental wellbeing and in recovery of brain functions during alcohol and drugs recovery.”

It’s key to remember that, as we’ve stressed, an ostensibly “healthy food” may work for one person, while being detrimental to another. Although there is much debate about what a healthy diet consists of, there is, generally speaking, little doubt regarding the positive impact of eating healthy, whole foods. This is why, once you’ve found a healthy diet that works for you, you must try your utmost to maintain it.

Ingredients to try to avoid

Food itself can be an addiction and most people can relate to craving certain ingredients. Sometimes it takes a little self-control and the daily implementation of a healthy habit, to resist the temptation of harmful foods. Below are some ingredients we recommend moderating, or avoiding completely if you can.

Refined sugar

Foods to avoid for depression - Centres for Health and Healing

Today, refined sugars are more commonplace than you might think. Often, when you’re picking a bite from the supermarket, foods that may appear healthy are actually packed with it. Refined sugar may taste great, but there are few (if any) positive benefits of consuming it. 

According to Healthline:

“Refined sugars may increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. They’re also linked to a higher likelihood of depression, dementia, liver disease, and certain types of cancer.”

Additionally, when your body has more sugar than it’s accustomed to, it rapidly produces insulin to try and keep the levels consistent. This causes blood glucose to decrease, resulting in energy levels dropping (also known as hypoglycemia). This is the last thing you want to deal with when going through your recovery!

So, if you want to satisfy your sweet tooth we recommend substituting honey or a natural syrup. Sugars found naturally in foods, like whole fruits, are also a good alternative and come with many other health benefits.

Trans fats

When liquid vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated to become solid, you get one of the worst food substances out there: trans-fats. 

Commonly found in processed foods such as baked goods, fried foods, and snack foods, they can increase the levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body while decreasing “good” HDL cholesterol. This can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

We recommend opting for healthier fats instead like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, fish, olive oil, and avocado.

Choose healthy, whole foods

The world of food is as expansive as it is diverse. Once you’ve explored the whole range of healthy foods available you’ll find that they’re just as tasty (if not more so) than the processed variety. Not only can they easily satisfy your palate but they will also help maintain your physical and mental resilience through recovery.

High-quality protein

High-quality protein sources provide all the essential amino acids your body needs to build and repair tissues and support overall health. 

What’s more, protein sources that are low in saturated fat and free from additives, such as preservatives and excessive sodium, will further support your physical health. 

Healthy protein has been associated with innumerable health benefits, including improved respiratory health, reduction of risk for cardiovascular disease, and improved resistance to stress and anxiety. 

Fortunately, there’s a huge range of healthy protein sources to choose from, including:

  • Fish and seafood, such as salmon, tuna, shrimp, and crab
  • Lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, beef, and pork
  • Eggs and egg whites
  • Dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt, and cheese
  • Legumes, such as lentils, beans, and chickpeas
  • Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds
  • Soy products, such as tofu and tempeh
  • Quinoa, a grain that is also a complete protein

Vitamins and minerals

Young and happy woman eating healthy salad sitting on the table with green fresh ingredients indoors

Your body needs around 30 of these essential nutrients to function optimally, so your diet must be balanced for your body to get what it needs. If you’re suffering from nutritional deficiencies you may need to eat foods high in certain vitamins and minerals, or supplement when advised. Below are some examples of nutrient-dense foods:

  • Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are all rich in vitamins C and K, as well as antioxidants like anthocyanins and flavonoids.
  • Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens are rich in vitamins A, C, K, and folate, as well as minerals like calcium and iron.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage contain a lot of vitamins C and K, as well as folate and minerals like calcium and potassium.
  • Whole grains: Oats, brown rice, and quinoa, are packed with B-vitamins, vitamin E, and minerals like magnesium, zinc, and iron.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are all rich in vitamins E and B, as well as minerals like magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
  • Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, and black beans, contain plenty of B vitamins along with minerals like iron and zinc.
  • Fatty fish: Salmon, sardines, and tuna are rich in vitamins D and B, as well as minerals like calcium and phosphorus.


The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, including both beneficial and harmful bacteria. Maintaining a healthy balance of these microorganisms is integral for optimal digestion, immune function, and overall health. 

This is where probiotics work their magic. They are live bacteria and yeasts that can help promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria by adding to the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They can improve digestion, boost immune function, and enhance nutrient absorption. Good sources of probiotics include:

  • Yoghurt: We’re all familiar with this popular probiotic food. It’s made by fermenting milk with bacterial cultures, such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Try to look for yoghurts that contain live and active cultures, as these will provide the probiotic benefits you need.
  • Kefir: A fermented milk drink that’s similar to yoghurt but has a thinner consistency. Produced by fermenting milk with kefir grains, which contain a mixture of yeast and bacteria, Kefir is a good source of probiotics and can usually be found in the dairy section of most supermarkets.
  • Sauerkraut: A fermented cabbage dish of Germanic origin that’s high in probiotics. It’s made by fermenting cabbage with lactic acid bacteria, which help break down the cabbage and create a tangy flavour.
  • Kimchi: A spicy Korean dish made from fermented vegetables, such as cabbage, radish, and cucumber. It’s also high in probiotics and is a good source of vitamins and minerals.

The keto diet may be an effective treatment

The ketogenic diet, or keto diet, is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet and, despite its popularity in this area, isn’t only an effective way to lose weight. Dr. Palmer is breaking new ground in the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry. He’s overseen and collated a growing body of research that supports the Keto diet as a viable method for treating psychiatric disorders. 

As substance use and mental health disorders often coexist, this diet has far-reaching applications. 

In his new book, Brain Energy, Dr. Palmer proposes the theory that mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain. There are many mechanisms of action at play here, but one of the most salient is how the keto diet affects mitochondria (the powerhouses of cells). Essentially, it leads to increased fat oxidation which results in the production of ketones.

To put it simply, our liver produces ketones when it breaks down fats and our body uses them for energy. This typically occurs during fasting, long periods of exercise, or when we don’t have as many carbohydrates (i.e. the keto diet). These ketones serve as an alternative source of energy for the brain and other tissues. 

Increased fat oxidation can also lead to the activation of certain pathways involved in mitochondrial biogenesis, or the growth and division of mitochondria, which can improve overall energy production and cellular health. 

Incidentally, chronic substance use can negatively impact our mitochondria, as this 2014 study outlines:

“Mitochondria and mtDNA are particularly important in the nervous system and may participate in the initiation of drug addiction. In fact, some addictive drugs enhance ROS production and generate oxidative stress that in turn alters mitochondrial and nuclear gene expression.”

While this is all potentially valuable guidance, it’s important to note that the keto diet may not be for everyone. The high-fat content and lack of specific nutrients can lead to health issues like low cholesterol and the onset of fatty liver disease. If this diet appeals to you, it’s recommended you consult a specialist to help monitor your progress.

How can Centres for Health and Healing help?

Nutritionist giving consultation to patient with healthy fruit and vegetable, Right nutrition and diet concept

At Centres for Health and Healing, we know the importance of a holistic approach to recovery. If you require help with substance use recovery, our team of experienced, caring professionals is on hand to assist you.

We know long-term health and healing must include good nutrition, along with education about healthy eating. This is why we have local chefs and nutritionists who prepare special meal plans, designed to work in unison with the specific recovery needs of each of our guests. 

If you’d like to talk to us about this, the role of diet in recovery, or anything related, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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