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Addiction May Be Linked to Nutritional Deficiencies

February 13, 2020

Addictions of any kind can impact the quality of someone’s life. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, sex, opioids, or food addictions, addictive behaviors can affect relationships, finances, work, and other aspects of normal life functioning. In most cases, overall physical and mental health are greatly affected as well. 

Here are two interesting questions that researchers are trying to answer when it comes to addictions…

Is there a correlation between nutrition, specifically vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and addictive choices?

If so, does this correlation lead to an increased risk of physical and mental health issues?”

For the majority in addiction recovery therapy, nutrition as a form of treatment is often an afterthought, especially in conventional medical treatment of addiction. New research looking into the effect of vitamin and mineral deficiencies suggests there may be potential in lowering the risk of addictive habits through proper nutrition.

First, A Few Fast Facts on Addiction

According to experts at the American Psychiatry Association, an addiction is a brain disease that causes distorted thinking and compulsive behaviors, so much so that it interferes with healthy daily functioning. People with such addictions tend to have a preoccupation with a certain substance or substances, even though it causes them harm. People who struggle with addiction also sometimes suffer from certain types of mental illness.

Current addiction treatment

A growing body of science has pointed to the role dopamine has on addictive habits. Research, such as a 2018 study by Blum and colleagues, shows that the seemingly insatiable need for more and more dopamine is the main reason why most addiction occurs. Because the brain will desire and seek out ways to get more dopamine, researchers are trying to see how they can better control a person’s dopamine needs in order to better help those with addictions. However, until there’s more practicable information, conventional treatments are still most popularly offered, including:

  • Medication
  • Individual and/or group therapy
  • Hospitalization
  • Outpatient programs

These conventional programs do not look at nutritional deficiencies as a preventative avenue in addictive behavior protocols. The question of whether there is a possible correlation between nutritional deficiencies and addictions is quite intriguing to nutritional researchers. Results of this research are popping up in science journals everywhere, supporting the hypothesis. For example, a 2017 study by Karajabani and colleagues reveals that oxidative stress is higher in those who struggle with opiate addictions. More researchers are suggesting that the draw to opiates is exacerbated by an antioxidant vitamin deficiency, which could have an impact on the physical and mental health of those with addictions as well.

Common nutrient deficiencies in those with addiction

Not only do people with nutritional deficiencies have a possible predisposition to addictive habits, many people with addictions have been found to have nutritional shortfalls as well. A 2018 research article by Sebastiani and colleagues reports that alcohol and drugs can lead to nutrient deficiencies of all kinds including:

  • Omega-3 fatty acid
  • Zinc
  • Choline
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Selenium

The research also reports that children whose mothers have such addictions can also develop nutrient deficiencies because of the mother’s lack of nutrients. Furthermore, a 2018 study by Zhai and colleagues shows that those with a methamphetamine addiction are likely deficient in vitamin B12. And interestingly, the level of such deficiency can affect their recovery since decreased B12 can increase the risk of developing mental health disorders.

Is There A Mental Health and Nutritional Deficiency Link?

Besides vitamin B12, several other nutrient deficiencies can lead to an increased risk of mental health issues. A 2017 article in Integrative Psychiatry reports that deficiencies of zinc and vitamin B6 can contribute to issues like anxiety, depression, memory problems, and irritability. Zinc deficiency can also lead to poor immune function and poor appetite, which can make a person more likely to get sick more often.

When it comes to alcohol, Dr. Carolyn Ross of Psychology Today reports in a 2016 article that heavy alcohol use can lead to deficiencies of:

  • Vitamins A, C, D, and K
  • B vitamins, especially thiamine
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Magnesium

So, as you can see, depending on what substance a person is addicted to, there can be a significant impact on nutritional status.

What about food addictions?

Let’s not forget that food addictions can also negatively impact nutrition, too. In fact, a 2018 study by Ayaz and colleagues in Plos One reports that high amounts of fat and sugar are often seen in those with food addiction. This is likely from high intakes of processed foods that often lack adequate vitamins and nutrients. As a result, people with food addictions can develop nutrient deficiencies over time.

How can you help treat nutrition-related addiction issues?

A November 2016 article in USC News reports that people with addiction often enter treatment programs with severe weight loss and malnutrition. But unfortunately, nutrition education and treatment remains low priority in many recovery programs, leaving addiction sufferers not only in an unhealthy state but less likely to overcome their addictions with a body chronically out of nutritional balance. 

For example, people who are chronically low in antioxidants may be prone to mental health conditions related to inflammation, including anxiety and depression. This obviously can negatively impact recovery success in the long-term.

Nutrition experts suggest that patients in such treatment programs receive assessment for refeeding syndrome first to avoid health complications. According to medical experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital, refeeding occurs when people experience severe fluid and electrolyte shifts due to little to no nutrition for more than 7 days and/or significant weight loss. Refeeding syndrome is dangerous and potentially deadly if not treated promptly.

Once refeeding is addressed and treated, patients should receive nutrition education to teach them how to follow a healthier diet. Other things a person can do to treat addiction with nutrition include:

  • Start taking a daily multi: Your doctor can test for any nutrient deficiencies you may have due to addiction or otherwise, and recommend a proper dietary supplement to help. Even the best of us will find it difficult to get all the daily vitamins and minerals we need through food alone. A good daily multivitamin supplement can help fill in the nutritional gaps so there is less guessing about whether your daily recommended value of vitamins and minerals have been consumed. However it must be properly formulated; 99% of multis out there are woefully deficient in key minerals, and contain exceedingly high (even toxic) amounts of some vitamins.
  • Consume a protein supplement drink in between meals: Such nutritional shakes contain added protein, a key macronutrient to help fight cravings. In addition, if you are underweight, certain types of shakes have a calorie-dense formula that can help those who are malnourished gain weight and become used to consuming adequate nutrition through an easy to digest liquid supplement.
  • Plan healthy meals and limit processed foods: Processed foods like salty chips or sugary drinks are inexpensive to purchase but have very little nutrition. And some people who are recovering from addictions may not know how to plan healthy meals, so they subsist primarily on such empty calories, which can further contribute to nutrient deficiencies. Seeing a registered dietitian through your treatment program resources or local hospital can help you plan healthy meals, provide budget-friendly healthy food options, and can also provide resources if you can’t afford to purchase the healthy food you need.
  • Focus on fruits and vegetables: Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can help reduce the oxidant levels in the blood. This, in turn, can help reduce inflammation in the body that can increase the risk of inflammatory conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, anxiety, and depression.

Bottom line

We all know that addictions are serious issues that can harm the body and mind, but there are natural things you can do to equip yourself to better fight your addictions. Genetics and environment can make some of us more likely to develop an addiction than others, but nutrition plays a role as well. With support from healthcare professionals and changes in diet, you can better prevent physical and psychological harm from addictions.

It’s important to remember that as a primary treatment of your addiction, you also should contact a qualified healthcare professional. For resources on getting help for your addiction, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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