Addiction and Brain Chemistry

(Stock Image)

(Stock Image)

Drug and alcohol addiction is a complex disease and needs to be viewed as a disease of the brain – it must be recognised that addiction has physical roots as well as psychological ones.

Addiction itself, as well as the addictive substance, changes the brain and how it works physically. These physical changes can lead to altered biochemistry in the brain that must be re-balanced for true recovery to take place. This process can be hugely supported by nutritional supplementation.

For most affected by addiction, food is not a high priority so eating is usually irregular; the food is quick and cheap with little nutritional value. This results in malnutrition and is compounded by the fact that the body is less able to absorb any vitamins and minerals from food. Calcium and Magnesium loss can be massive, along with Vitamins B, K and C. These nutritional deficiencies affect our brain, its chemistry and how it works.

Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are manufactured in the brain to send different types of signals all around the body like making us move, feel tired, hungry, happy or sad. They also have an impact on our behaviour and mood and if they are unbalanced they can bring about cravings for drugs, alcohol and other similar acting substances in the body like sugar, caffeine or nicotine.

These neurotransmitters are created from amino acids found in protein-rich foods so it is imperative for recovery and relapse prevention that a high protein diet is followed. By supplementing with vitamins and various amino acids (depending on the addiction), brain chemistry can be re-balanced to help normalise and restore optimal function and help prevent further cravings and relapse.

Recovery should be further supported with healthy fats, wholegrains and regular healthy proteins. Avoiding processed foods will help the liver heal and detox and lots of fibre will help heal the gastrointestinal system. Caffeine should also be kept to a minimum as it can exacerbate insomnia and anxiety, particularly in the early stages of recovery.

Recovering from drug or alcohol addiction is an extreme challenge of will and perseverance. Supporting an individual to face his or her addiction, admit it and accept help is only part of the puzzle. The bigger picture also needs to be taken into consideration – factors such as biochemical imbalances, ethnicity, genetics, food allergies, poor diet, psychological distress, mental illness, exposure to toxins and social pressures.

A more holistic approach to healing addiction, which incorporates nutrition, is vital to recovery and the prevention of relapse. The re-discovery of self-care and self-worth and re-connecting with our innate instinct to nurture ourselves can in itself be a powerful psychological tool in recovery.

Nicky is a Naturopathic Nutritionist practising in Dublin. She writes, speaks and advises nationwide on all aspects of health, nutrition and wellbeing. See for further info, upcoming courses and workshops.

By Nicky Flood