Disclaimer: This is general advice, derived from research and anecdotal evidence from my clinical practice. Before making major dietary changes, always seek personalized advice from your doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, or specialist— especially if you have a complex health history, take multiple medications, or suffer from a serious condition like cirrhosis or diabetes, or have digestive issues.
During our first year of recovery, 0ur nutritional needs are higher than usual. Substances such as alcohol, opiates, caffeine, amphetamines, cocaine, nicotine, and marijuana strip key nutrients out of our bodies— especially the vitamins and minerals needed for our organs to create the natural feel-good chemicals like serotonin (which promotes wellbeing and happiness), GABA (controls stress reactions and relaxation), and dopamine (which impacts our emotional responses and feelings of motivation and satisfaction). As well as improving our moods, replenishing these depleted nutrients gives the body energy, helps to repair and rebuild organ tissue, and strengthens the immune system. That means that specific food choices can help us feel stronger physically, mentally and emotionally.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all dietary regimen for recovery, and every body is different. But replenishing nutrients and regularly eating certain functional foods can ease some of the symptoms that many people experience, such as mood swings, digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, depression, muscle pain, irritability and insomnia. I studied nutritional medicine after I’d gotten sober, and I wish I’d had this list of supportive foods in my early days of giving up booze. Now I help clients across the alcohol use spectrum— from sober curious to sober-for-decades— with nutritional advice to strengthen their recovery. These are my top five recommendations to make recovery easier— no matter where you are on your sober journey.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all dietary regimen for recovery, and every body is different
1. Soups, Stews, and Smoothies
I’m a big fan of pureeing foods when you’re newly sober, and relying on hydrating foods like soups and stews.
That’s because substance use in any amount strains the digestive system, and the body might struggle to process the fibre-packed foods lower down on this list. You can take the load off by introducing meals slowly in the early stages of recovery— or anytime you’re super stressed— starting with soups, stews, and smoothies. Not to be gross, but well-cooked and pureed foods are in effect partially digested— chopping, heating, and blending food starts the breakdown of fiber and proteins so that our stomachs don’t have to do that hard work. That makes these foods easier to digest, and they’re super hydrating.
Why is hydration important? It helps to get drug metabolites out of the body during early recovery and can ease the severity of detox symptoms— fatigue, anxiety, nausea and depression are all way worse if we’re even slightly dehydrated. Unfortunately, alcohol and most other drugs dehydrate the body, so we have to work twice as hard to get hydrated and stay there for at least the first few weeks of sobriety. Drinking tons of water was unthinkable when I quit alcohol— water tasted bad and seemed to make me feel more nauseous. I was only thirsty for sugary drinks but they sent me on an emotional rollercoaster. I felt much better once I figured out I could get hydrated with soups and smoothies.
Pro-tip: If you’re struggling to meet you’re daily water intake requirements, try getting hydrated with soups and smoothies.
2. Fermented Foods
Tempeh, kimchi, miso and other fermented foods boost gut health, which is a major focus of addiction and recovery research right now. Bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and viruses (collectively called the microbiome) in our intestines produce chemicals and hormones that impact how we feel, what we think, and even how we behave. Yikes! Okay! Understanding how to support the gut and the microbiome can make recovery a little easier.
Substance use throws the microbiome way out of balance and this interferes with the secretion of feel-good anti-inflammatory chemicals, hormones and neurotransmitters that are released from the gut. Opioid use in particular destroys Bifidobacterium and Prevotella bacteria— beneficial bugs that produce the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter GABA. When drugs and alcohol kill off these good gut bacteria, the “bad” bacteria dominate— an overgrowth of these nasties causes inflammation, constipation, diarrhea, depression, anxiety, cravings, and increased risk of serious disease like colorectal cancer.
Luckily, the gut microbiome significantly repairs and balances itself once we stop using. One study showed this repair began after just three weeks of abstinence from alcohol. Eating probiotic foods like fermented veggies can improve resilience against drinking again by boosting the population of beneficial bacteria in the microbiome. These good gut bugs produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. Staying sober and adding fermented foods to your diet is a big step towards rebalancing the ratio of good to nasty bacteria in the gut. A balanced microbiome can help to ease pain, improve mood and energy levels, and decrease inflammation throughout the entire body.
All sorts of fermented vegetable products can help repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria—in addition to kimchi, miso, and tempeh, you can pile on the sauerkraut or pickles.
Pro-tip: Try to include some fermented foods in every meal.
Eating probiotic foods like fermented veggies can improve resilience against drinking again
3. Calcium-Rich Foods
Replenishing calcium should be a major nutritional focus for the first three years of sobriety—my three favorite sources during recovery are tahini, kale, and tofu.
There are a few reasons why calcium is so important: In a 2017 study, researchers found that participants at a detox facility with the lowest levels of calcium in their blood had been the most frequent drinkers. This was kind of old news, as we’ve known for decades that alcohol interferes with calcium absorption and leaches calcium out of the bones. But the researchers also found that the participants who had higher dietary calcium intakes and higher levels of calcium in their blood also had significantly less severe withdrawal symptoms. This might be why the participants who had the highest calcium intakes were the least likely to relapse compared to those who consumed less calcium. In other words, calcium intake can ease withdrawal symptoms and might even be the difference between recovery and relapse.
Pro-tip: Sesame seeds and their tasty paste, tahini, are my favorite sources of highly bioavailable calcium. Tofu also contains a good amount of dietary calcium. Unlike dairy, these plant-based calcium sources rarely cause stomach upsets in recovery. If you have constipation issues or a find fats difficult to digest, opt for kale instead of tahini – kale’s fiber content keeps things moving, if you know what I mean.
4. Carbohydrates—yes, really!
Carbs have a bad name in fad diet culture. But in reality, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy– without carbs, the brain doesn’t function well. Neurotransmitters are thrown out of balance. Blood sugar becomes unstable and triggers waves of frustration, anxiety, and cravings. We need carbs, especially in early recovery. Potatoes, oats, and brown rice are all good choices— they’re unrefined, whole foods and are packed full of nutrients.
At the start of my alcohol sobriety, I tried to quit sugar and carbs. I hadn’t studied nutritional medicine yet— I’d just read that my body would detox faster and my symptoms of withdrawal would be easier to handle if I cut out all carbohydrates along with the booze. The theory is that the body requires protein to make feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, and that carbohydrates just get in the way. I thought I should focus on eating meat and saying goodbye to potatoes. Big mistake. Hello depression, agitation, and insomnia.
While it’s true that protein sources like meat and eggs (as well as plant-based sources) do contain the amino acids that the body needs to make those mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA— carbohydrates are way more important. Amino acids have to make it from the gut to the blood and into the brain before they can be converted into neurotransmitters by nerve cells. This is trickier than it sounds. There is a limited number of transporters available to shuttle nutrients between the blood and the brain. In fact, protein-rich foods like meat actually block neurotransmitter production by overcrowding these transporters, which stops key amino acids from passing into the brain. Carbohydrates reverse this problem.
There are no bad foods. There are no foods you “can’t” have during recovery
When we eat carbs, our insulin levels go up. A moderate increase in insulin clears out the crowded blood-to-brain transporters, and chaperones amino acids into the brain where they can become neurotransmitters that help us feel good in the face of withdrawal symptoms. Insulin also increases the effects of dopamine, which in turn might help to prevent relapse.
Most of us know that eating a meal before bed is a recipe for a bad night’s sleep. But a few crackers, a rice cake or a small bowl of oatmeal thirty minutes before you snooze can combat insomnia and nightmares by helping tryptophan become melatonin.
You’ll see rules about avoiding refined carbohydrates (and even my dear potatoes) in recovery literature. These are good guidelines— refined carbs break down quickly and can cause a sugar rush that ends in a crash, sudden hunger, terrible moods, cravings, and potentially relapse. But in my professional opinion, there are no bad foods. There are no foods you “can’t” have during recovery — and excessive food restriction can lead to relapse.
Pro-tip: You can choose to avoid a sugar crash by eating mostly fiber-rich carbs like oats, brown rice, fresh veggies, and whole fruits. Just be aware that refined sugars found in processed foods like candy, cakes, and chocolate are risky, particularly after opiate use.
5. Nuts– for easy snacking!
I try to keep a bag of nuts and other filling snacks on hand to avoid hangry mood swings, rescue myself from sugar crashes, and stay strong against cravings for alcohol.
What types of nuts are best? Honestly, any that you like enough to actually eat. If you want to get specific, here are some facts:
- Cocaine use depletes essential fatty acids— the types of fats that help neurotransmitters to reduce anger, fight depression, and prevent relapse. Walnuts and chia seeds are rich in these fatty acids.
- As I mentioned, alcohol use severely strips the body of calcium, so supplementing with calcium-rich almonds can help to restore levels of this essential mineral.
- If you’re worried about your liver or immune system, go for Brazil nuts— they’re packed full of the powerful antioxidant selenium, which is required for immune cell production, supports detoxification pathways, and can even help restore liver function.
If you find it difficult to digest nuts, start slow or opt for other snacks like rice crackers, fruit, muesli bars, chia puddings, fresh fruit and vegetables, and dips.
Pro-tip: If you’re feeling plagued by sugar cravings, mix in dried fruits with your nuts to satisfy a sweet tooth— the fiber and fat in the nuts will keep blood sugar levels balanced to avoid any hardcore sugar crashes and mood slumps.
All of the foods mentioned in this article are rich in B vitamins, another group of nutrients that drugs and alcohol quickly deplete from the body. Boosting your Bs supplies your body with cofactors to make more energy, sleep deeper, heal faster, and resist relapse. Thanks again, food!
Nutritional medicine is meant to make the recovery process easier and more sustainable—don’t worry about making all of these changes at once. In fact, I recommend making dietary adjustments gradually during recovery. You can support your moods by eating a meal of complex carbs like brown rice, some calcium-rich tofu and kale, and a side of fermented veggies like kim chi just once a week. Pack your lunch-box with plenty of snacks to stabilize your energy, or go for soups and smoothies if you’ve got detox tummy troubles. These don’t have to be big changes, and your diet doesn’t have to be “perfect.” If in doubt, just eat something!