Recovery isn’t just about getting clean and sober; it’s about rebuilding your life on a stronger, more stable foundation. Cultivating your overall health will not only help you maintain your sobriety; it can also give you the energy and strength to fulfill your most cherished personal goals. From the time you enter detox to the time you complete your rehab program and begin the aftercare phase of recovery, it’s crucial to make your health a top priority by practicing good nutrition, regular exercise, and stress management techniques.
Good health encompasses the mind and spirit as well as the body. To reach your optimal level of wellness, you need activities that relieve anxiety, nourish your soul, and provide an outlet for your emotions.
A comprehensive recovery plan includes holistic and experiential therapies — yoga, guided meditation, recreation therapy, and creative therapy — that provide healing on all levels.
The Importance of Health in Recovery
When most people enter rehab, their bodies and minds are suffering from the damage caused by alcohol, drugs, poor nutrition, and a lack of exercise. Substance abuse can harm all the body’s system, causing health problems such as:
- Excessive weight loss or gain
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Kidney damage
- Nerve dysfunction
- Type II diabetes
- Stomach ulcers
- An increased risk of cancer
- Memory loss and learning problems
- Frequent illnesses and infections
- Chronic pain
Fortunately, many of these problems can be prevented or reversed through a balanced diet, regular exercise, and a drug-free lifestyle. While you may not see the improvements you’re looking for overnight, healthy habits can eventually provide the following benefits:
- Increased energy and stamina
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved sleeping patterns
- Deeper, more effective respiration
- Stable blood sugar levels
- A steady, appropriate body weight
- More efficient digestion
- Increased lean muscle tissue
- Stronger bones
- A stronger immune system
- A sharper memory
- More even moods
- Better tolerance for stress
- Reduced pain
Best of all, clinical studies show that regular exercise and proper nutrition can decrease the desire to abuse substances. You don’t have to wait until you graduate from rehab to start living a healthier life. Choose a treatment facility that recognizes the importance of nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction in the recovery process.
Getting The Right Nutritional Support
When you’re in recovery, nutritious food is one of your most powerful healing tools. With each meal or snack, you have the opportunity to nurture and strengthen your body. Many individuals who enter recovery are malnourished when they enter detox. Drugs and alcohol can cause appetite loss, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and digestive problems. All of these issues can affect your body’s absorption of nutrients. It is also common for people to start recovery in a state of dehydration, with insufficient fluids and electrolytes in their system. Replacing lost fluids and nutrients is one of the top priorities of a medically managed rehab program.
Reversing the damage caused by substance abuse requires the help of qualified specialists with training in addiction recovery. A credentialed nutritionist or dietitian can analyze your current eating habits and help you develop a plan to improve your diet and reach your optimal level of health. The following nutritional guidelines can be helpful for adults recovering from substance abuse:
- Establish regular times for meals and snacks.
- Drink plenty of caffeine-free fluids, especially water.
- Schedule your meals no more than five hours apart.
- Plan your meals and snacks in advance.
- Carry healthy snacks and bottled water with you at all times.
- Increase the amount of lean protein, whole-grain foods, and fruits and vegetables in your diet.
- If necessary, supplement your diet with vitamins and minerals that have been depleted by substance abuse, such as vitamins A and C, the B vitamins, and zinc.
- Limit foods that are high in calories but low in essential nutrients, such as candy, potato chips, or snack cakes.
The National Institutes of Health points out that many people in recovery are tempted to overeat, especially if they have been abusing stimulants, which suppress the appetite. Recovering alcoholics may crave sweets as a substitute for alcohol. In some cases, binging on junk food becomes an alternative to substance abuse as a compulsive behavior. Meals and snacks should provide a combination of protein, complex carbohydrates, and heart-healthy fats to satisfy hunger without promoting weight gain.
The Benefits of Exercise
Numerous clinical studies have confirmed that exercise can help recovering individuals stay on track with their treatment plan and avoid relapse. According to Frontiers in Psychiatry, people who exercise are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol for several reasons:
- Physical activity consumes time and energy that might otherwise be devoted to destructive behaviors.
- Exercise stimulates neurochemical reactions that trigger the brain’s reward system, eliminating or reducing the craving for drugs.
- Regular activity may cause changes in brain function that actually make the individual less susceptible to substance abuse.
- Physical fitness gives the individual more strength and stamina to pursue healthy activities, reducing the desire to drink or use.
Exercise provides many short-term as well as long-term benefits. Increased physical activity elevates the heart rate and stimulates deep breathing, increasing blood flow throughout the body. Activity also triggers the release of endorphins and other neurochemicals that promote a sense of energy and well-being.
Working out several times a week produces even greater long-term benefits, including a more efficient cardiovascular system, increased endurance and strength, weight stabilization, greater flexibility, and decreased blood pressure. From a psychological standpoint, physical fitness generates a sense of self-efficacy, or the confidence that you can create positive outcomes in your life. A regular exercise schedule can provide a diversion from the desire to drink or use drugs, while replacing those addictive behaviors with positive, healthy ones.
Healthy Exercise Guidelines
Studies show that exercise can reduce both anxiety and depression in men and women who work out consistently. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that recent research on exercise and depression confirms the positive benefits of physical fitness. For example, in one study, a program of 20 to 40 minutes of walking, three days per week, proved to be more effective at relieving the symptoms of depression than a social support group.
While most studies have focused on the effectiveness of cardiovascular exercises like walking or jogging, research has shown that strength training and weight-lifting can be equally effective at stabilizing moods and promoting mental health. As part of a comprehensive rehab program, a personal trainer or fitness specialist can help you develop an exercise program that’s safe and effective for you. Once you’ve had medical approval to begin exercising on a regular basis, the following guidelines could help you stay on track:
- Choose activities that you enjoy. Just because a specific type of exercise works for someone else doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. If you don’t enjoy jogging or walking, for example, try swimming, hiking, aerobic dancing, martial arts, or strength training.
- Make exercise a priority in your life. There are hundreds of responsibilities and obligations that can get in the way of exercise. However, you won’t be able to fulfill any of your goals if you aren’t healthy and fit. Exercise gives you the strength and motivation to build the life you really want.
- Vary your activities. While it’s important to stick to an exercise schedule, you don’t necessarily have to do the same activity every day. You can work different muscle groups and reap different benefits by varying your routine.
- Work out with a partner, friend, or group. Exercise is a great way to strengthen your existing relationships and to form new ones. Exercising with a buddy also makes you more accountable and gives you the extra motivation you need on days when you don’t feel energetic.
- Support your activities with healthy foods and fluids. Nutritious food and water are the fuel you need to maintain your exercise schedule. Don’t forget to drink regularly while you exercise, and to have a light snack before your workout for energy. A post-workout snack will help your body recover more efficiently.
Learning to Manage Stress
Stress is one of the biggest triggers for substance abuse in early recovery. Many individuals in rehab have spent years coping with stress by drinking heavily, taking drugs, or engaging in compulsive behaviors. In treatment, they must learn how to replace these destructive actions with fulfilling activities that feed the soul while calming the body.
Learning to manage stress effectively takes time, patience, and professional guidance. In your new sober life, you may feel at loose ends, with too much unstructured time on your hands. Look at this time as an opportunity to pursue the goals and dreams that you neglected when you were caught in the trap of addiction. Here are just a few of the soothing techniques and activities that can help you fight tension, anxiety, and boredom:
- Tai chi
- Music therapy
- Acupuncture and massage
- Painting, drawing, or sculpting
Stress-relieving activities like yoga can lower the heart rate, deepen breathing, and increase concentration. According to Yoga Journal, studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can actually decrease the body’s production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which are toxic to the body when produced in excessive amounts. Yoga can also raise levels of the brain chemicals (such as gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA) that are responsible for feelings of happiness, relaxation, and contentment.
In the early stages of recovery, it can seem that nothing will replace the pleasures of using drugs or alcohol. But over time, the regular practice of stress reduction techniques, combined with the support of sober friends and professionals, will provide much deeper, richer satisfaction.
Pharmacotherapy and Recovery
Medication therapy plays a crucial role in an overall program for a healthy recovery. Anti-addiction medications can help you overcome addiction by alleviating withdrawal symptoms, or by suppressing the craving for opiate drugs or alcohol. Some of the most commonly prescribed recovery medications include:
- Methadone (Methadose, Dolophine). Since the 1960s, methadone has been used successfully to help opiate addicts recover from powerful drugs like heroin and morphine. Methadone is still one of the most popular medications used in opiate replacement therapy.
- Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex). Recently approved for the treatment of opioid addiction, buprenorphine is an effective replacement for drugs like heroin, morphine, or oxycodone. Like methadone, buprenorphine is prescribed to relieve the cravings and withdrawal symptoms of opiate addiction.
- Disulfiram (Antabuse). One of the oldest anti-addiction medications available, disulfiram, or Antabuse, can help discourage drinking by causing adverse side effects when the user is exposed to alcohol.
- Naltrexone (ReVia, Vivitrol). Available as a pill or as a monthly injection, naltrexone blocks the pleasurable effects of opiates or alcohol, reducing the user’s desire to drink or take drugs.
- Acamprosate (Campral). One of the newer anti-alcoholism drugs on the market, acamprosate can help restore healthy brain function in heavy drinkers and reduce the craving for alcohol.
In addition to medications that inhibit substance abuse, many people in recovery take psychotherapeutic drugs to manage the symptoms of co-occurring depression, anxiety, or psychosis. These medications allow patients with mental illness to focus completely on their recovery and to create healthy, rewarding lives in sobriety.