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Substance Use Disorders and Malnutrition

A healthy diet and adequate nutrition are fundamental for the brain and body to function normally.  Unfortunately, individuals with substance use disorders often neglect diet and nutrition, along with family, friends, and other areas of self-care. The reality is that individuals suffering from substance use disorders exhaust their time, energy, and money pursuing their destructive habits.

As a substance use disorder progresses, neglecting the intake of necessary nutrients can begin to interfere with the body and brain’s overall well-being and ability to function normally. Some of the typical dietary behaviours of individuals suffering from addiction are as follow:

Not eating enough: active addiction tends to suppress one’s appetite. As a result, individuals will often not eat enough food.
Low quality diet: individuals with substance use disorders will often spend most of their money on drugs or alcohol, leaving them with insufficient money to spend on healthy food.
Binge eating: individuals with substance use disorders will sometimes have an insatiable appetite when they are coming down from a high. This will often result in consuming abnormally large amounts of unhealthy foods.


Substance use disorders and poor eating habits often go hand in hand. Unfortunately, this combination will often result in malnutrition, which can produce the following effects:

Depression

  1. Immune deficiency
  2. Irregular heart rate
  3. Muscle atrophy
  4. Cognitive impairment
  5. Irregular body temperature
  6. Vitamin deficiencies

Although these are many of the most common side effects, there are more specific effects that depend on the substance being used.

Alcohol
Malnutrition tends to be especially problematic for those struggling with alcohol use disorder. Chronic overconsumption of alcohol can damage the stomach lining, which severely disrupts the body’s ability to break down and absorb nutrients.

Alcohol use disorder can also result in digestive enzyme deficiency. Chronic overconsumption of alcohol can damage the pancreas which is responsible for producing enzymes that aid in the digestion of lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates, as well as hormones that regulate blood sugar levels. This can potentially leading to an irreversible condition called “alcohol-induced pancreatitis”—which, without proper treatment, can result in death.

Chronic overconsumption of alcohol can also result in vitamin deficiencies that can cause an irreversible brain condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This condition can occur when an individual with an alcohol use disorder does not get enough of thiamine. Since alcohol hinders the body’s ability to absorb this vitamin, thiamine deficiency is common among alcoholics. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome leads to permanent memory loss, difficulty creating new memories, and psychosis.

Stimulants
Stimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamines, are known to produce euphoric highs that can keep users up for days at a time. They’re also known to suppress a person’s appetite, which can often lead to severe dehydration and vitamin deficiencies, placing them at high risk of malnutrition.

Prolonged periods of stimulant use and malnutrition can result in a number of consequences including the following:

  1. Open sores
  2. Tooth decay
  3. Hair loss
  4. Irregular menstrual cycles
  5. Death
  6. Opioids

Chronic constipation is one of the most common side effects for individuals with opioid addictions. This occurs because opioids can partially paralyze the stomach. Studies have shown that up to 80% of individuals with opioid use disorders suffered from opioid-induced chronic constipation.

Chronic constipation is very uncomfortable and often motivates individuals to overuse laxatives in an effort to find relief. Unfortunately, this can lead to a whole new list of complications including electrolyte imbalances, heart palpitations, heartburn, vomiting, and developing chronic gastrointestinal conditions.

Healthy Eating in Recovery
Healthy eating and adequate nutrition helps individuals in drug rehab programs, or in recovery, feel better because nutrients give the body energy, help build and repair organ tissue, and strengthen the immune system. Individuals recovering from substance use disorders will often have sustained some damage to their vital organs and healthy eating provides them with the nutritional building blocks they need to begin restoring these damaged tissues.

Nutrition also plays a very important role in mood regulation. Research suggests that changes in your diet can alter brain structure both chemically and physiologically, and influence your behaviour. Furthermore, the consumption of certain foods has been tied to increased production of key neurotransmitters like serotonin, which plays a role in mood regulation.

This means that individuals recovering from substance use disorders can improve the way they feel by eating healthier diets. Their bodies will receive the nutrients they need to repair prior damage and operate on a more optimal level. Psychologically, better nutrition will improve their mood and overall sense of well-being. In many cases, feeling better will reduce the risk of relapse; conversely, individuals with poor dietary habits will be more likely to relapse.