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4 substances that affect digestion and 3 powerful ways nutrition can help

Posted on 05-24-16 in Health and Wellness, Recovery

4 substances that affect digestion and 3 powerful ways nutrition can help

Most people know the major health risks of addiction: an increased risk of accidents, catching diseases from shared needles, overdoses.

But that’s not all. Substance abuse can also negatively affect the digestive system. Many addicts neglect their diet, creating a host of complications in recovery. However, there’s an important role dietitians can play in recovery. By helping patients learn (or relearn) good nutritional habits, they can fix many of the serious health problems substance abuse can create.

Here’s how four commonly abused substances can affect digestion:

  • Alcohol: The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus site reports that alcoholism is a major cause of nutritional deficiency in the U.S. Alcohol can deplete the body of essential vitamins and folic acid, which can result in both anemia and nervous system problems. Also, heavy drinking can physically damage the pancreas, liver and other organs involved with digestion.
  • Opiates: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) opiates work by attaching themselves to proteins in the body known as opiate receptors, which are found in various organs of the body. This reduces the body’s sense of pain. However, as opiate receptors are also found in the digestive system, opiate use can slow digestion down, leading to constipation and even intestinal blockage. Diarrhea and vomiting are also common symptoms of opiate withdrawal, which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Marijuana: There’s ongoing debate on marijuana’s effects on the digestive system. Although when compared to alcohol and other drugs, marijuana is relatively benign, it does have an effect on the digestive system: the “munchies.” A recent study from the University of Bourdeaux in France suggested that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, may affect receptors in the brain that regulate appetite.
  • Stimulants: One of methamphetamine’s infamous side effects is the condition popularly known as “meth mouth,” a condition caused by grinding teeth, dry mouth and poor nutrition and hygiene. In addition to other potential medical problems, meth users who share needles run the risk of contacting viral hepatitis and HIV.

Medical nutrition therapy

A longstanding component of healthcare, medical nutrition therapy has traditionally been used to improve chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. As NIDA reports, addiction is also a chronic disease, and proper nutrition can aid in recovery in four ways:

Healing the body: Whether due to personal neglect or the toxic effects of the substances themselves, many addicts lose valuable vitamins and minerals as they use drugs. Addiction’s also an unhealthy lifestyle – lack of sleep, poor eating habits and no exercise can create further health problems. Encouraging those in recovery to eat better and at regular times as well as get exercise will improve health and teach new habits useful for a lasting recovery.

Healing the brain: Drugs work by rewiring how the brain functions, causing neurotransmitters to not function properly. Carbohydrates can help; in addition to stabilizing blood sugar, carbohydrates can also increase serotonin levels, which can help stabilize a recovering patient’s moods.

Stopping cravings: Drug cravings often result from depressed or anxious moods. Long-term addicts can often forget what regular food cravings feel like, and mistake them for urges to start using again. Poor diets are also a problem in recovery, as sweet food can be a source of comfort. Studies have shown that sugar can replicate the same reward and craving cycles as drugs do. Nutrition therapy can steer patients towards healthier habits – as well as reminding them of the difference between hunger pangs and drug cravings.

Sovereign Health is a leading provider of mental health and addiction treatment. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at