The Link Between Substance Abuse and a Bad Diet
An unhealthy diet or substance abuse problem can quickly derail one’s well-being. But few people understand the relationship between the two.
To gain some insight into how a bad diet and substance abuse relate to each other, I spoke with Keith Kantor, PhD, and expert in nutritional science and naturopathic medicine. Dr. Kantor, who frequently blogs and speaks to the media, just launched a program called Nutritional Addiction Mitigation Eating & Drinking or N.A.M.E.D.
Dr. Kantor spoke with me about the relationship between diet and addiction, as well as how a healthy lifestyle can help those in recovery stay on track.
Q: How does an unhealthy diet contribute to or exacerbate the health effects of substance abuse?
A: Most people who have addictions also have bad diets. Using alcohol as an example, they get 50% of their calories from the sugar in alcohol. The same goes for almost any other addiction. They’re eating mostly junk food.
A poor diet will result in nutritional deficiencies. Some of these nutritional deficiencies cause cravings and inflammation. The way they cause cravings is that most bad diets include sugar, gluten, some milk products, sugar substitutes, a lot of preservatives, dyes, etc. These stimulate the opiate receptors, and that stimulation causes cravings. When you have a craving, if you’re not addicted to anything, you’ll probably just crave more of the bad food. But if you’re already addicted to something, you crave more of what you’re addicted to. Using sugar as the easiest example, it’ll make you crave more oxycodone, if that’s what you’re addicted to. So it’s a vicious cycle.
Besides just being bad for you and giving you poor nutrition and other deficits, a bad diet also causes inflammation. You can get inflammation in your heart, brain and intestines, and it causes a lot of problems. Inflammation is caused by acidosis, which is a low pH (below 7) in your body. Junk food tends to give you a low pH. Besides causing inflammation, low pH throws the insulin mechanism out of whack. That’ll cause either poor sugar cravings, which will then, of course, stimulate the opiate receptors, or it (interferes) with the insulin mechanism where it’s not processing the sugar at all and tells your cells to drop the sugar they have, because it thinks it’s short of sugar, and that stimulates the opiate receptors. When that happens, it causes cravings for the abused substance.
Q: How does a bad diet affect recovery from alcohol or drug abuse?
A: When you’re in recovery, it’s very important to have a healthy lifestyle. That’s a big part of what N.A.M.E.D. is about. But when you have a bad diet, you stimulate the opiate receptors, and that’s going to tell you to have what you’re craving — which is a substance that you hopefully just stopped taking. Plus, a bad diet causes all sorts of other nutritional deficiencies. If you eat sugar, it’s going to give you diabetes, it’s not good for your heart, and it’s going to cause obesity, which could cause strokes and other things. So a bad diet continues the cycle of stimulating the opiate receptors and giving you the urges for the abused substances.
The concept behind the program is to increase the success rate of withdrawal and to decrease the relapse rate of people recovering from addictions. The overall success rate for addiction withdrawal currently is an abysmal 13% to 14%.
Q: Say you’re caught in a spiral, trying to stave off cravings for alcohol or drugs by eating unhealthy foods. How can you stop the cycle?
A: Using my program as an example, I give menus and recipes and show how to use them, and there’s a week’s worth for free. Assuming they went through a clinic, they’ll have full access. I don’t want to tell somebody who didn’t go to a clinic, where they’d have the counseling and other aids, that healthy eating alone is going to stop the addiction. I don’t think it’s enough. I think you need to be in a controlled environment for a month at least.
But anyone could start eating a healthy diet. Make sure your plate has at least one-quarter protein and is half-filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. And it should have some healthy fats, because our brain is made of healthy fats. There are all sorts of recipes on my own site as well. Those aren’t specifically designed for people with addictions, but they’re still much healthier than most diets.
Q: What does research say about the influence of diet on substance abuse and recovery?
A: Research points out that the surges and drops in blood sugar levels when people have a poor diet resemble the highs and lows of substance abuse. There’s also a lot of research on inflammation and how that throws the insulin mechanism off track. You have to stay away from certain foods. Research on the brain tissues in mice revealed there’s an increase in the opiate response specifically when gluten is consumed. They have the same findings for sugar and certain sugar substitutes.
Q: What steps would help people who are eating a bad diet while working on their recovery?
A: Overall, start living a healthy lifestyle. They have to want to live a healthy lifestyle, through activities such as working out, getting into some type of fitness routine, walking, using a bicycle or a treadmill, or stretching. Any type of a constant working out almost daily is very good for people in recovery.
Then use the plate method: Have at least a quarter of good, lean protein, half a plate with fruit and vegetables — mostly vegetables, because they’re high in fiber — and some healthy fats. Stay away from anything processed. Stay away from simple carbohydrates because they just turn to sugar right away.
The most important thing everybody forgets is drinking water. You’re supposed to drink one-half of your body weight in ounces per day. If you weigh 140 pounds, you should have 70 ounces of water a day. When you’re dehydrated and not drinking enough, especially during the summer, everything moves slower, like sludge. A lot of people have trouble telling if they’re thirsty or hungry.
We tend to eat more when we’re really just thirsty. Drinking enough also helps satiate and makes everything flow better.
Q: Is what you advocate a kind of holistic healing?
A: It is. I believe the body can heal itself if we give it materials it needs to heal itself. If you don’t exercise and you’re sedentary — now they say the effects of that are the equivalent of smoking. You have to be active. You have to drink enough water. And you have to eat properly.
It’s a good hobby to try to get into learning different healthy recipes. You can make them very tasty, and it can become fun. If you can get into a routine where you’re working out, it makes you feel better.
Q: Talk about how eating healthily helps heal the body, mind and spirit.
A: Eating right and maybe taking some vitamins gives us the nutrition we need because the body is constantly rebuilding itself. If your body is just breaking down and you’re not rebuilding it and giving it the nutrition it needs, that’s going to cause problems. Eating right makes you feel better. If you feel better by working out, living a healthy lifestyle and eating the proper foods, that also affects your mood. When you don’t eat properly, that affects your mood, too. If an unhealthy lifestyle puts you into a bad mood, things like being depressed or getting upset easily do lead to substance abuse. Eating properly helps your mood because you’re producing the proper hormones and amino acids and enzymes, such as serotonin and melatonin that keep you in a good mood and make you feel better.
By Suzanne Kane