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The Pro-Recovery Diet: Q&A With Our Nutritionist

A table of healthy, natural foods.
The pro-recovery diet at The Raleigh House emphasizes lean proteins and includes healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits.

With everything that goes into a holistic treatment program, nutrition can be overlooked by many treatment providers. What should you or your loved one eat during treatment and recovery? Are you allowed to eat out at restaurants? Should your loved one have sugar or dairy?

These are all common questions asked about one’s nutrition when trying to recover from substance abuse. At The Raleigh House, our treatment approach includes a pro-recovery diet and nutrition educated, spearheaded by our Master Chef and certified nutritionist.

In this article, you’ll hear directly from our certified nutritionist, Portia, about what the pro-recovery diet is, how eating the right foods heals the body and brain after addiction and how we approach nutrition during treatment.

Nutrition in Addiction Recovery at The Raleigh House

Q: What is the pro-recovery diet like at The Raleigh House?

A: We use nutrition and nutritional supplementation to support and repair the biochemical deficiencies that would predispose someone to using a mind-altering substance or have mental health issues.

Basically, the nutrition that we teach, the foods that we recommend and encourage clients to eat as part of their pro-recovery diet, include things like protein foods, healthy fats – the omega-3s, omega-6s and omega-9s – and then, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables. And each one plays a different part.

We also need to take stuff out that’s going to hurt the body. Our pro-recovery protocol includes minimal sugar, minimal white flour or simple carbohydrates like white rice, white bread, white pasta. We use a brown rice or brown pasta. We do have whole grain, gluten-free bread because gluten tends to exacerbate gut problems. We really use a clean, pretty basic diet when they’re at The Ranch, where we can control it.

Q: You mentioned the term, “neurotransmitters”. What are those?

A: In order to make what’s called neurotransmitters, things like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and GABA – which are our feel-good transmitters. Those are the brain hormones that allow us to feel pleasure, they allow us to feel happy, they allow us to feel calm and in charge, and dopamine gives us energy, focus, motivation.

Those neurotransmitters are created in the brain and the gut by a combination of amino acids, which we get from proteins and co-factor nutrients – things like vitamin B, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, etc.

I would say the pro-recovery diet is protein-heavier initially, especially in early recovery for the clients. This is because they really need those amino acids that come from the protein to make the brain’s neurotransmitters. So, we need the amino acids, the co-factor nutrients, and that equals the neurotransmitter production.

Q: What else is part of the pro-recovery diet?

A: We also support the nutrition piece at The Raleigh House with targeted nutritional supplements. All the supplements we use you can effectively get from foods or plants, we’re not using any pharmaceuticals. That’s the doctor’s area of expertise. We just use natural supplements like targeted amino acids and targeted co-factor nutrients like the fish oil. We also use some herbs for liver rejuvenation, for sleep and for gut repair.

Q: What do you like about the pro-recovery diet?

A: The more I used it, the more I saw the success my clients were having with their long-term sobriety. And, not only that, they were less anxious, less depressed, they were more balanced, calm and able to access the tools they need to be successful in recovery.

For example, in therapy – both group and individual – they were able to really think through their choices, rather than that impulsive brain that addicts have. And that’s also a biochemical piece. Impulsivity is when an individual is working out of their sympathetic nervous system or their limbic system and feeling like they need to problem solve right here and right now in an impulsive way.

This idea of fueling our brain and our body to repair those biochemical deficiencies allows us to work out of our parasympathetic nervous system and also work out of our prefrontal cortex, which is our rational, reasoning brain. And that helps us make better choices.

And when the addicted population acts out of that prefrontal cortex brain, and they have all these options in front of them because they’ve been through treatment, they make better choices and they have long-term success in their recovery.

Q: What does the pro-recovery diet help improve?

A: A piece of recovery that is critically important is we need to keep the blood sugar levels stable. The reason we need to keep the blood sugar levels stable is because when we have blood sugar dips and spikes, our body goes into that emergency mode and goes back into the sympathetic nervous system, which is our fight or flight body system. And again, that creates that impulsive decision-making state.

Another issue with this is the body starts to produce another chemical called cortisol, or adrenaline, and that also lends itself to impulsive decision-making and that is always a danger factor for those who are in recovery. We want to keep the cortisol production, adrenaline production down, and we only want to produce it when we need it – when we’re in a state where we really need to be fighting or flighting, not when we’re just a little bit stressed out.

Furthermore, when clients first come in, we really encourage gut repair protocol. This is because a lot of clients come in with a pretty ravaged gut. And when your gut is not healthy, you’re not absorbing or using the nutrients you’re eating and you’re not producing serotonin, your anti-depressant. About 95 percent of serotonin is produced in your gut, so if you have an unhealthy gut, you’re not producing that serotonin.

If there’s a balance of bad gut bacteria and a low amount of good gut bacteria, your immune system is going to be really low, which isn’t going to lend itself to overall healing – both brain and body healing.

View Photos Of Our Ranch

Q: How do you interact with clients during treatment?

A: The role that I play is helping a client get to a point where they work with their primary therapist to consistently access all the tools needed to recover and not sort of fall off and go back to feeling bad and feeling like they need to use their substance.

When they get into the outpatient program, I come in every other week and we go through the food that they’re buying, what their breakfast looks like, etc. We really support that nutritional change, because that’s one of the most difficult things for people.

Oh, you’re telling me that milk’s not something that’s going to be healthy for me? Or you’re saying that I have to cut out my sugar? Those challenges come in, so we troubleshoot those challenges on a weekly basis.

We don’t just send them out with a diet and say good luck, because frankly, that’s not going to work. But if we troubleshoot the issues that come up and we encourage the clients to do the best they can, add the proteins in or minimize the sugar and processed foods, cook more at home and use the foods on the protocol, they really recognize that they feel better, they’re sharper and they want to engage in their recovery.

And then I leave that to their primary therapist, and they can then engage in the emotional and spiritual challenges that come up that also exacerbate their addiction.

Q: Any final thoughts on nutrition during addiction recovery?

A: I always tell my clients that you don’t need to be perfect with the pro-recovery diet. I recommend an 80/20 split. So, if 20 percent of the time, you really want that bowl of ice cream, have it, but have it with your protein foods, your healthy fats, your fruits and veggies, and your complex carbohydrates intermingled throughout the day. Consistency on a daily basis is really important, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.

The other piece that is so critical to a recovering addict is avoiding skipping meals. The number one cause of biochemical relapse is missed meals, followed by a diet of all sugar. It’s detrimental to the brain and sends you into that fight or flight mode where you become very impulsive and make bad decisions.

This is about feeding the brain, so we can create that healing and neurotransmitter production and keep blood sugar levels stable.

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