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Research suggests that there’s a strong connection between gut health and mental health, with one study noting that people with depression were missing several key species of gut bacteria. Depression, along with other mental health disorders, can result in people experimenting with substances to self-medicate, which can spiral into addiction. Substances can also cause havoc on the gut and mental health, creating a vicious cycle. When recovering from addiction, it’s important to use an integrative approach that looks at healing the entire body and mind as addiction will affect every part of a person.
The effect of drugs and alcohol on your gut
Your digestive system allows nutrients to enter your body, so anything that harms the health of your digestive system will affect the amount of nourishment your body gets. For example, alcohol inflames the gut, which makes it difficult for it to absorb nutrients. The digestive tract is also responsible for identifying and dealing with toxic substances with the gut wall acting as a barrier that keeps harmful substances out of your bloodstream.
However, the stress that comes with having an addiction leads to a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone, which can make the intestine’s walls more permeable and allows those toxins and other pathogens into the bloodstream. This can lead to inflammation in both the gut and the brain where it can affect your mood and sensitivity to future stress, which can increase your chance of relapsing or diving deeper into your addiction. Overall, alcohol and drugs put a strain on your entire digestive system, leading to poor digestion and constipation, both of which are often seen in people with substance abuse problems.
A Diet For Recovery
People dealing with addiction often skip meals, eat foods that aren’t nutritious, and experience vomiting and diarrhea, all leading to poor nutrition. Throughout recovery, eating foods that balance the levels of serotonin in the brain will help you to relax. This means eating high carbohydrate foods, particularly complex carbohydrates, like legumes, root vegetables, pasta, and bread.
If you’re recovering from alcoholism, your body is likely to be low on B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, and calcium, so eat foods high in these. The first year after you stop using alcohol or drugs comes with higher nutritional needs to help your body to recover, but you may need to slowly introduce meals if your body isn’t used to digesting food anymore. Speaking to a healthcare professional who can identify any deficiencies you have is a good place to start, along with working with a nutritionist who can help you to plan your diet.
Caring for your gut during recovery
When you decide to get sober any gastrointestinal problems you’re dealing with should start to clear up by themselves, assuming long-term damage hasn’t been done and there’s not another condition that needs treatment. There are some things you can do to help speed up your gut’s recovery by giving it a helping hand. Taking a probiotic supplement will help to restore the guts good bacteria and improve any damage done to the liver caused by alcohol. Probiotic bacteria also produce anti-inflammatory cytokines that can help to calm everything down in your gut, as well as boosting your mood and reducing constipation, gas, and bloating. Constipation can also be managed with a magnesium supplement of 400-800mg daily.
Plant-based digestive enzymes can be helpful to take too as they help to break down carbohydrates, fats, and protein, taking the pressure off your gut and reliving symptoms on poor digestion. You should also thoroughly clean any fresh produce and follow good food hygiene practices to prevent any bad bacteria from getting into your system, such as from eating food that has fallen on the floor or from soil on unwashed vegetables. Some people may get away with eating these, but when your gut is already in bad shape it’s not worth the risk.
What drugs and alcohol do to your mental health
Many people will turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate feelings of depression and anxiety, which only makes them worse in the long-term. One of the reasons for this is theorized to be because the gastrointestinal tract is the second largest collection of neural tissue in the body, with only the brain being bigger. The digestive tract is also home to a huge amount of microorganisms, including good and bad bacteria that balance out to stay healthy. Drugs and alcohol can cause these proportions to imbalance, which can lead to inflammatory molecules known as cytokines. Cytokines have been linked to having a significant effect on how the brain functions, including triggering depression, anxiety, and other cognitive problems.
An integrative approach for whole-body recovery
People battling an addiction should focus on self-care for their entire body and mind when recovering and maintaining their sobriety. Everything is so intricately linked that neglecting one part can lead to another problem, which can be enough to trigger you into a relapse. Caring for your mental health can help to improve your gut, just as caring for your gut can lead to better mental health and wellbeing. Of course, dealing with the physical and mental aspects of withdrawal and getting sober is essential, but prioritizing the effect addiction has had on your entire body and mind is a key part of the process and journey too. An integrative approach also means that the cause of your addiction should be identified and dealt with. As the cause is usually emotional problems and lifestyle factors, this means that therapy is a good way forward.
It’s important to look at your recovery as an ongoing journey that will take time and won’t always be smooth, even years later. The link between gut health and mental health is well-established and caring for both can be the difference between success and relapse.