I am going to start out by saying that I am not a huge fan of “superfood,” “top 10,” or any other list forms of instant gratification as they can imply that there are shortcuts or hacks to improved health or sobriety. However, they can be highly effective in that they provide quick, easy, and often highly effective tips in motivating incremental dietary and lifestyle changes that can have a profound effect upon health. Whether you have years or days in recovery, a PhD in nutritional counseling or simply enjoy reading health and wellness magazines, spend hours in the kitchen each day or barely squeeze out 5 minutes in front of the stove without wanting to scream, here are a few of my favorite foods that everyone in recovery should consider if they wish to dramatically improve their health and sobriety.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids support synaptic plasticity to improve learning and memory while helping to fight against mental disorders such as depression and mood disorders. Conversely, omega-3 deficiency has been associated with increased risk of several mental disorders, including ADD, depression, and bipolar disorder. Walnuts and flaxseeds are excellent plant sources of omega-3’s, but, unfortunately, the variety found in these foods (ALA, as opposed to EPA and DHA which are found in fish) are harder for the body to utilize.
In addition to incorporating more of high quality foods such as salmon, walnuts, and ground flaxseeds, we must also be mindful of how much we are consuming and avoid overeating to better support neurological health. Consuming too much food can reduce the flexibility of the synapse and increase the vulnerability of cells to damage caused by the formation of free radicals – a natural byproduct of digestion and cellular respiration. Similarly, diets rich in saturated and trans fats – synonymous with highly processed convenience foods – adversely affect cognition.
Chicken and Turkey
Chicken and turkey contain a wealth of complete proteins, which contain all the essential amino acids that the body is unable to produce on its own. In the brain, amino acids are turned into neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of happiness and wellbeing, which are often depleted by substance abuse. Neurotransmitters of particular importance to those in early sobriety include dopamine, serotonin, and beta-endorphin. Dopamine plays an important role in reward-motivated behavior and chronic or acute substance abuse alters the dopamine system to reinforce consumption and encourage dependence. Serotonin is well known for its ability to contribute to feelings of happiness and well being, but substance abuse can deplete stores and down-regulate production to facilitate dependence and highly aggressive behavior. Beta-endorphins are responsible for the “rush” that accompanies exercise, excitement, pain, and love, but are also linked to feelings of self-esteem, the capacity to handle stressful situations, and feeling of hope or despair, which are all adversely impacted by the habitual consumptions of drugs or alcohol.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan in recovery, it is important to get the entire complement of essential amino acids throughout the day, which can be done by pairing complementary proteins such as grains and legumes or legumes and nuts or seeds. For example, a brown rice and black bean bowl or a quinoa and walnut salad would provide all the essential amino acids that the brain needs to produce all the vital neurotransmitters.
Broccoli, Cabbage & Kale
Broccoli, cabbage and kale are members of the Brassicaceae family and are unmatched in their ability to support liver detoxification and health. Liver detoxification occurs in two phases, aptly named Phase I and Phase II detoxification, which convert hard to eliminate and highly detrimental fat-soluble toxins into substances that are easily processed and relatively harmless. If either phase in the detoxification process isn’t functioning optimally, toxins can accumulate in the body and brain where they can reside for years, if not a lifetime. Such accumulation and toxin overload is particularly hard on the brain and the glands of the endocrine (hormone) system, which may exacerbate any mental illness, mood instability, or hormone imbalance that occurs with heavy substance abuse.
The downside of having to eat more broccoli, cabbage, and kale is that you have to eat more broccoli, cabbage, and kale. These foods can be somewhat unpleasant for those unaccustomed to eating a plant-heavy diet and a period where consumption increases incrementally may be necessary to better allow the palate to adjust. Start by incorporating a single serving of cruciferous vegetables every other day, ultimately working towards multiple servings daily. How these foods are prepared also greatly impacts their taste and texture. Sautéing broccoli, cabbage, and kale in a tablespoon of butter or coconut oil with a pinch of salt and pepper is going to be a lot more enjoyable then simply eating these foods raw. You will have to experiment to see what works best for you, but a good rule of thumb may be to get as many servings of cruciferous vegetables into the body as possible each and every day.
Spinach and other dark leafy greens such as collard, chard, and mustard greens are packed with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that function as antioxidants and help reduce and eliminate oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that travel around the body stealing atoms from other molecules, essentially killing cells and igniting a cellular stress cascade that increases the risk of ill health and disease.
Dark leafy greens are also rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients that can help the body properly process toxins and heal tissue damage that may develop as a consequence of our dietary and lifestyle choices. For example, highly processed foods rich in sugar, preservatives, enhancers, and industrial fats spark an inflammatory response that can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. Similarly, large amount of exercise, both aerobic (long and slow) and anaerobic (short and fast), can place a tremendous amount of stress via tissue repair and inflammation.
If your head hasn’t exploded at the thought of eating salmon, broccoli, and spinach on a daily basis, awesome! If you’re getting a little nauseous just thinking about it, that’s okay! Either way, start slow and gradually work your way up to enjoying these foods on a daily basis. Your body will thank you, trust me.
Matthew Lovitt is a holistic nutritionist specializing in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction with food and fitness. He is the staff nutritionist for an all men’s long-term treatment facility in Prescott, Arizona and maintains a private practice where he helps addicts, alcoholics, children, families, and those suffering from specific, often acute, conditions restore health and well being through dietary and lifestyle modification. Matthew is a recovery alcoholic and drug addict with over 6 years of sobriety. You can learn more about him and his diet and lifestyle philosophy at twelvewellness.com, on Facebook and Twitter.