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Nutrition and Exercise: Your Defense Against Addiction

Nutrition and Exercise: Your Defense Against Addiction
Written by Seth Fletcher on October 9, 2019
Last update: February 26, 2024

It took 80 friends and acquaintances to die from addiction for athlete and polydrug addict Dominic Scalzo to change his life. His substance use disorder began innocently enough. His alcohol indoctrination started in college, before a foot injury got him hooked on prescription painkillers. He then progressed to crack and cocaine while joining a rough New York crowd. He got arrested and thrown out of school. Despite going to inpatient rehab four times, he kept relapsing. He overdosed twice on heroin and cocaine, ending up in the hospital.

His move to a Florida treatment facility put him on the right path. From there, he went back to college and joined a lacrosse team. At one point, he got a chance to represent Team USA. This led him to attend a CrossFit gym where he got his coaching certification. He then joined the CrossFit Open leaderboard where he finished 66th in the world.

Scalzo is a shining example of a triumphant transition from drug addict to world-class athlete. Granted, not all recovering addicts can achieve the same heights as he, but they can emulate his success to some degree. Or simply take inspiration from him to quit substance abuse, maintain sobriety, and embark on a healthy lifestyle.

The power of movement

This means both exercise (all forms) and the other kind (being regular). Snigger all you like, but it’s true. Ask any nutritionist. There’s a reason why the fibre industry is a multimillion-dollar business.

The merits of nutrition

Proper nutrition is important when recovering from addiction—or still struggling with it— because of nutrient deficiency from drug or alcohol use. This stems from under eating, overeating, or poor nutrition (indulging in junk food). This deficiency, together with the mental, physical, and emotional consequences of substance use disorder, wreaks havoc on the human body.

How substance abuse affects eating

Drug and alcohol addicts spend most of their time and money on their habit, making necessities like food less of a priority. Some purposely use substances to lose weight. Many lose so much money on drugs that they can’t afford to buy food.

But even substance abusers with sufficient food intake don’t get a free pass. Excess alcohol, in particular, affects the liver and pancreas. Other organs can be damaged, not just in the gastrointestinal system.

Addictive drugs disrupt overall physiological function, especially when it comes to the absorption of vital nutrients. When one’s system can’t process or metabolize food properly, malnutrition develops. Substance addiction also contributes to cravings for unhealthy ingredients in food like salt, sugar, and, fat, creating nutritional deficiencies. Depression from substance use also affects one’s eating habits.

Drugs and the brain

All drugs of abuse negatively affect overall health, including the brain’s reward centre. They cause the neurotransmitter dopamine to overload the brain. A regulator of instinct, mood, emotions, and motivation, dopamine in excess is bad. It produces the ‘high’ drug users crave. Drugs change the inner workings of the brains of users, compelling them to indulge more, which affects their decision-making. This is one of the main causes of substance addiction. Add poor nutrition to drug abuse, and you get serious adverse brain changes.

Nutrient deficiencies and medical conditions from alcohol and drug abuse may cause brain damage. This is of great concern with pregnant women who drink alcohol. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders have been known to occur from babies’ exposure to their mothers’ alcohol intake.

Drugs and the rest of the body

Substance use disorders cause temporary and permanent adverse effects. They can vary depending on the user’s general health, substance amount and frequency of use, and drug type.

Substance addiction can cause serious deficiencies in vitamin A or B, calcium, magnesium, folate, and electrolytes. Alcohol and opioids both interfere with nutrient processing and absorption, as they damage gastrointestinal organs. Stimulants decrease appetite, resulting in dehydration, weight loss, and poor nutrition. Marijuana, on the other hand, increases the appetite, resulting in weight gain. Overdose effects of amphetamines and methamphetamines include agitation, hallucinations, convulsions, coma and death.

Other side effects of substance addiction:

  • Compromised immune system.
  • Cardiac problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and blood vessel infections from drug injections
  • Gastric problems like cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Neurological problems like memory lapses, confusion, cognitive decline, seizures, and stroke
  • Respiratory problems like lung cancer
  • Endocrine problems like breast development in men
  • Psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia

It’s not too late for change

The good news is, even if the negative effects of addiction have already ravaged the body, with proper nutrition and exercise, these can still be reversed.

What recovering (and still struggling) addicts eat and what they do with their bodies next will determine how fast they heal from the damage left by their drug use. A balanced nutritious diet will energize the body, improve mood, reverse malnutrition, and stave off drug cravings and relapses. Proper nutrition also helps improve psychological health, which positively impacts relationships.

Organic solutions

Natural remedies for treating depression are also effective in alleviating drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Clinical child psychologist Dr. Mary Fristad, of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, suggests four main modalities: sleep, nutrition, supplements, and exercise.

She recommends eating more unprocessed foods and minimizing processed ones for physical health and mental health. This promotes the production of serotonin and dopamine (happy hormones).

Broad-spectrum vitamin supplements help to regulate mood, claims Fristad. Other useful supplements include omega-3 fatty acids found in wild, fatty fish such as salmon and sardines). Fristad says those who eat “a couple of servings per week might not need a supplement.” People who want to take omega-3 fatty acids should search the label for EPA and DHA: compounds that help with depression. Fristad recommends 1-2 grams daily.

A word of caution. Psychiatrist Dr. Danica Vargo of ProHEALTH Care New York’s behavioral health department recommends consulting your primary doctor before taking supplements. Side effects can occur when certain supplements interact with other medications. Some herbal remedies used to treat depression, like St. John’s Wort, should not be mixed with medications for depression.

What works on depression is also effective for addiction

Both depression and abuse of substances, especially opiates, disrupt appetite and cause mood swings. So one should eat food that meets nutritional needs at regular intervals. This will prevent fatigue, and stabilize energy and blood sugar levels.

The website offers an excellent infographic on exercise as a deterrent to depression. Research cited from WebMD, National Institutes of Health, and other sources shows that regular exercise improves all levels of depression. This also applies to substance use disorders.

The same research claims that 1 in 10 Americans takes antidepressant medication, but for many people, there are other ways to fight depression. Exercise is often a better alternative. A study pitting exercise against antidepressants revealed exercise as the winner. Researchers divided participants into three groups: one using aerobic exercise programs, the second using antidepressants, and the third using both. After 16 weeks, 65% of people in all the groups no longer had major depression. The results of exercise and antidepressants were the same, but the effects of the former lasted longer.

Exercises for addiction recovery and depression management

  • Running: Some aim to achieve ‘runners high’, which happens when they cross a certain threshold.
  • Aerobics: Aim for 20-30 minutes per day, five days a week. Don’t worry about intensity levels.
  • Strength training: An increase in strength helps boost mood. Other benefits include mastery and control of oneself and a greater capacity to focus.
  • Yoga: Combines exercise, mindfulness, and meditation—helpful in blasting those nasty repetitive negative thoughts. Stretching and breathing exercises improve flexibility and balance the mind and body.
  • Hiking or walking: Benefits include a lowered risk of disease, an energy boost, and promotion of heart health.
  • Other physical activities like biking (stationary or mobile), swimming, and other sports.

“There’s no exercise that’s best. It’s just important to get moving,” Vargo says. Any physical activity will do. But it has to be something you truly enjoy that you can do regularly. “Exercise is a good antidepressant,” Fristad says, “because it triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain that act as a natural boost to mood.” When substance abusers are in a pleasant mood, they are less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol.

Mayo Clinic research has proven that exercise is an excellent tool for recovering addicts. It boosts self-confidence, relieves anxiety and stress, zaps boredom, enriches social networks, and reduces the risk of relapses.

Vargo stresses the importance of a routine because this is one of the things substance abuse disrupts. This means maintaining physical exercise and meal plans and sleeping on a regular schedule.

How exercise relieves depression and reverses addiction’s negative effects

  • It intensifies the healing power of endorphins, which strengthen the immune system
  • It reduces pain levels.
  • It stimulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which improves mood.
  • It lowers blood pressure.
  • It protects against heart disease and cancer.
  • It boosts self-esteem and mental health.

Conventional meets alternative

Integrative medicine is particularly effective in alleviating pain and the symptoms of chronic conditions, especially diabetes, multiple sclerosis, thyroid disease, and obesity. It includes wellness coaching and various forms of therapy. The most popular types are movement exercises, chiropractic, physical therapy, massage therapy, acupuncture, and Ayurveda (which gave rise to yoga).

Previously considered alternative practices, they are now known as ‘complementary and integrative medicine’, which heals the whole person and doesn’t just treat symptoms. They are not used in place of conventional methods but in conjunction with them.

Unlike most types of coaching, wellness modality does not dictate methods to patients. Rather, it caters to their lifestyles and what they are able and willing to do. Practitioners find that patients are more likely to stick to routines when they are not forced and if the activities are ones they enjoy. Implementing exercise and good nutrition doesn’t seem like a chore anymore.

Wellness coaches observe a holistic approach. Dr. Carleen Phelps, chair of Saybrook University’s Integrative Wellness Coaching, explains, “In conventional medicine, health is often equated to biological fitness, while well-being refers to mental health. But wellness brings both together, adding factors like environmental responsibility, financial health, and relationship health.”

Mindfulness and meditation

Both systems involve awareness and acknowledgment of thought and practice ‘existing in the present’. They make intrusive or negative thoughts less distressing. Studies have shown mindfulness and meditation to positively affect mental, emotional, and physical health. Both reduce stress, improve sleep, increase focus, and improve relationships.

Meditation isn’t the sole domain of traditional gurus anymore. It has embraced online technologies and spawned digital mindfulness programs. The Internet has served as a great medium for disseminating information. Apart from social media and websites, there are now thousands of apps on meditation.

One of these is the Headspace app, available on and offline on mobile devices and computers. Headspace claims to “reduce stress in 10 days, improve focus by 14% in four weeks, and increase happiness by 16% in 10 days.”

Nutritional guidance

Talking about food bores a lot of people who are not into it. This is where experts come in. If patients don’t want to grapple with terminologies and methodologies, they can always ask a nutritionist or dietician to help. Those who have gone through detox and rehab programs are already familiar with their work, as nutritional guidance is usually included in comprehensive treatment programs. These experts educate patients on nutritious food groups that are beneficial to the recovery process and better health. The focus is on optimal nutrition to counter poor diet.

Nutritional counseling is an important first step to healthy living and long-term recovery from addiction. Therapists help clients eliminate ineffective ways of thinking about food and the body, and replace these with healthier habits and beliefs.

Some drug or alcohol abusers have simultaneous eating disorders. They need both practical and psychological support during rehab to reinforce long-term sobriety. Nutritionists and dietitians relate patients’ risk of relapse with what and how they’re eating. They look at patients’ relationships with food and access to it, along with their belief systems and their knowledge of nutrition and a healthy diet.


This is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression. Dr. Pamela Peeke, WebMD’s lifestyle expert and senior science advisor to Elements Behavioral Health—a network of eating disorder and addiction centres— is an epigenetics expert and addiction specialist. Her current research focuses on how addictive behaviour greatly influences daily lifestyle habits. She chants the mantra of green vegetables, meditation, and exercise as the hallmarks of epigenetics. Her New York Times bestseller, The Hunger Fix, is the first consumer book describing the newly emerging science of food, addiction treatment, and epigenetics.

Tie-ins with insurance

Insurance providers have jumped on the fitness bandwagon. Some apps now connect with certain insurance companies. Their programs reward the insured with loyalty points, discounts, or higher tiers of coverage when they reach goals they set in their fitness apps. For example, one insurance provider has an app that connects to Fitbit monitors. The user sets a goal of walking one mile a week, for example. Once he reaches that goal, his insurance premium decreases or he gets insured for a higher amount.

Keep in mind, though, that metabolic rate is affected by factors like age, gender, and genes. So it cannot be artificially influenced by gadgets. Most of these just act as monitors to aid progress.

Strategies for adherence to health routines

  • Invite friends or family to exercise with you. Make physical fitness a social event.
  • Ask them to help you eat better by joining you in food shopping and preparing healthy meals.
  • If you can afford it, hire a personal trainer to create an individualized workout plan and guide routine physical activity.
  • Each week, plan your meals to prevent impulse buying.
  • Keep only healthy foods in the house; no junk food snacks. Have someone trustworthy hide car keys or transport money to prevent you from slipping out to buy unhealthy foods. Of course, you can always get food delivered. This is where you test your willpower.
  • Focus on whole foods: fresh fruits, vegetables, root crops, whole grains, beans, lean protein like meat, fish, and poultry. Avoid processed foods to maximize nutrients.
  • Forget fad diets. The key is balance, not restriction.
  • Consume complex carbohydrates, which increase serotonin in the brain—important for regulating mood.

The ability to alter destiny lies within us

We can glean some wisdom from Peeke’s effusing on epigenetics. She said that everything affects everyone’s gene expression. “Every move we make, everything we eat, every thought alters our destiny and transforms the mind and body.” She assured the audience in her 2013 TEDx talk: “Regardless of our DNA makeup, we could still reverse it through healthier living. Genetics may load the gun, but epigenetics pulls the trigger.”

What does all this science talk teach us? Peeke said we can use our thoughts and perform new actions to change what nature has given us. This includes what we have done to our bodies previously. “DNA is not your destiny, but everything you do with your life from now on will be your destiny.”

Let us apply this in the battle against addiction. We have the power to change our fate and build a healthy life. What better time to take the first step than now?

Sources used for the article


Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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