“You are what you eat.” Or so the saying goes, with a growing body of research to back up the claim. Undeniably, what we eat directly impacts our physical and mental health—and often quite profoundly.
Yet what we eat is also often easy to overlook as the cause or contributor to any one of a number of health issues. In this sense, food and diet are simultaneously the most obvious and the most overlooked link to many of our modern-day ailments.
As an addiction psychiatrist, I’ve seen this reality firsthand among the clients I treat for drug or alcohol addiction. Many of our clients enter detox with an appreciation for how certain substances (namely, drugs and/or alcohol) have been harmful and toxic to their system, but they aren’t as quick to notice how the food they are eating may be damaging their health and contributing to an addiction.
Our clients soon learn, however, that a healthy, well-balanced diet is an important component of successful recovery, starting with detox. This critical window during early recovery involves the added stress on one’s immune system of the physical and mental withdrawal from one or more drugs.
Often, too, and depending on the substance, clients may enter detox with certain vitamin deficiencies that can complicate withdrawal or are crucial to the healthy long-term functioning of the brain and body. Among alcoholics, for example, it’s not uncommon to see a deficiency in thiamine (B1), which is a known cause of alcohol-induced brain damage. (The role of thiamine deficiency in alcoholic brain disease—Wernicke Syndrome as a case in point—is well-established.)
What, then, are the best foods to eat during detox? Below are some pointers:
1. Foods Rich in B12 and Other B Vitamins
B-complex vitamins are essential to mental and emotional well-being, yet often are also the most vulnerable to alcohol and other drugs of abuse. Recent research has found a consistent link between low levels of a number of B-complex vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B9, and B12) and depression.
A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found, for example, that every one of 172 depressed patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital were deficient in B2 (also known as riboflavin).
During detox, the body is under greater physical and emotional strain and thus more susceptible to depression (which can also be a common relapse trigger). It’s thus critically important to eat foods rich in B-complex vitamins that can buffer against depression and lower one’s risks of relapse.
Additionally, a depletion of B-complex vitamins can cause fatigue and low energy levels. (B vitamins help the body convert carbohydrates into fuel for energy, after all.) During detox especially, the body can benefit from the greater energy reserves that B-complex vitamins provide.
B-complex vitamins can also help to alleviate some symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs. For example, B12 can reduce hallucinations in alcohol withdrawal (AW), and B9 (folic acid) can prevent anemia.
Foods rich in B12 and other B-complex vitamins include the following:
- Shellfish, such as clams, crabs and mussels
- Certain fish, such as salmon, tuna, trout and haddock
- Fortified soy products like tofu and soymilk
- Red meat (ideally lean, grass-fed beef)
- Fortified cereals
- Dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs
To boost your levels of Vitamin B1 (also known as riboflavin), try incorporating one or more of the following foods into your daily diet, in addition to the above foods:
- Enriched noodles
Other foods that can be good sources of Vitamins B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), and/or B9 are:
- Sunflower seeds
- Dark green, leafy vegetables
- Enriched breads
- Citrus fruits
- Fruit juices
2. Foods Rich in Calcium and Magnesium
Research suggests there may be a causal relationship between low levels of magnesium and alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as seizures or delirium. Opiate addicts entering detox also can suffer from deficiencies in calcium and magnesium, due to poor diet and inadequate intake. In the case of recovering opiate addicts, such deficiencies may in fact be part of the root problem of addiction, insofar as they may have contributed to a pain or nervous/muscular disorder for which the opiates provided some relief. In these circumstances, redressing a deficiency during detox and treatment can reduce the chances of an opiate relapse.
For foods rich in calcium and magnesium, you can’t go wrong with the following on your grocery list:
- Dried fruit including prunes, raisins, peaches, apricots and dates
- Leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, and beet and turnip greens
- Certain vegetables like potatoes, carrots, radishes and garlic
3. Foods Rich in Antioxidants and Healthy Fats
“Antioxidants” are dietary nutrients that help prevent cell damage from toxic molecules that our bodies take in from pollutants in the environment and other harmful substances (including drugs and alcohol). These “free radicals” have been found to be both a cause and a result of inflammation, which recent research has linked to an increased susceptibility to addiction and depression. Free radicals are also implicated in a compromised immune system, a decline in brain function, and in the onset of cancer and heart disease.
During detox, then, a diet rich in antioxidants like beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin C can help cleanse the body of these damaging toxins from drugs and alcohol, and can facilitate the body’s healing process, by strengthening the immune system.
Foods that are known to be high in antioxidants include:
- Berries (goji berries, black berries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, etc.)
- Plums, cherries and red grapes
- Brussel sprouts, corn, red bell peppers, beets and eggplant
- Prunes and raisins
- Kidney beans
- Dark chocolate
In order to absorb these antioxidant-rich foods, your body needs healthy saturated fats also, via:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Fatty fish containing Omega 3
- Grass-fed meats
- Whole milk
- Egg yolks
4. Plenty of Water
A healthy and well-balanced diet during detox also includes what you drink, of course. Plenty of fluids, especially water, help the body flush out toxins. Dehydration, on the other hand, can impair cognitive functioning and cause changes in mood, only amplifying the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal.
Daily fluid intake recommendations vary by age and sex. These guidelines from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board are a good place to start.