Protein: A Crucial Nutrient in Addiction Recovery

Protein is a critical macronutrient with many benefits to our overall health. Our body does not keep a backup store of this vital nutrient, so we have to continuously consume it for maintaining good health.

What role does protein play in recovery? Protein is involved in virtually every function our body carries out to run efficiently. Drug and alcohol use leads to under-nutrition and poor health in most instances, due to an inattention to diet which can be felt for months after adopting a healthier lifestyle. The resultant damage to organ systems and to metabolic processes requires protein to help repair. Protein can also help to accelerate recovery from the effects of mal-absorption that occurs in addiction.

Whilst we recommend a higher protein intake for those recovering from addiction, there are no set recommendations for protein intake in addicts. The guideline is to incorporate protein rich foods at your 3 meals and 3 snacks. The benefits include increased energy levels, improved strength, better digestion and improvement in liver function.

Dietary sources of protein include:

  • Meat (poultry, red meat, and seafood)
  • Legumes (dry beans and peas)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy (milk, cheese and yogurt)
  • Soy and Tofu
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Some grains (quinoa, whole grains etc.)

So why does increased protein benefit the recovering addict?

Protein is important in the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in our brain that sends information to the rest of our body. Some neurotransmitters make us feel happy and energized while others help us feel calm and optimistic. The proteins we eat are broken down into amino acids which then help the neurons, in our brain, manufacture neurotransmitters. Tyrosine and Tryptophan are two of the main amino acids which support the production of dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine, the pleasure molecule, is associated with the reward center of the brain. Drugs, alcohol, gambling and even food addiction, hijack the neurotransmitters through an over stimulation in the production of dopamine which floods the brain and produces a high. During withdrawal dopamine levels diminish and become off balanced which often creates a yearning to go back to the behaviour that produced the high, and is in part what fuels drug seeking behavior.

When planning meals it is important to be mindful of combinations. I like to encourage the ‘eating of the rainbow’ and keeping foods as close to their natural state as possible. Think grilled salmon, brown rice, red beans and steamed carrots and broccoli. Side that with a huge tossed salad with a combination of your favorite salad vegetables such as lots of kale, spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, lettuce etc. Go easy on the salad dressing or try your hand at making your own. It could be as simple as olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Snacks can consist of hummus and whole wheat pita bread, cottage cheese and fruit, Greek yogurt with granola, string cheese or tuna or natural peanut butter with whole wheat crackers. Be creative!

Restoring the natural balance and production of dopamine is important to recovery hence incorporating foods that are high in protein throughout the day helps to slowly stabilize the production of dopamine in the recovering addict. In recovery, restoring the normal production and balance of the many neurotransmitters present can help to lessen the symptoms experienced, including cravings for your drug of choice.

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