EHN Canada


The Power of Protein in Addiction Recovery

Does the intake of protein play a role in addiction recovery?

With high protein diets on the rise, the image of body builders and protein supplements may be your first thought when you question the power of protein. Apart from this population who require higher amounts of protein, it is also an important dietary component for those recovering from addiction.

Poor eating patterns combined with the use of drugs and alcohol can create mental, social and physical damage. Understanding this negative impact of the addiction is important, as well as identifying how to achieve optimal health in recovery. In this blog, we will look at the physical health problems that addiction creates, and how protein works to repair these issues.

The role of protein in the body
Protein, one of six essential nutrients in food, is partially responsible for the structure of all cells, tissues and organs in our body. They are broken down into amino acids, which help in the process of replacing and regenerating all cells. There is no doubt that protein plays a vital role in sustaining life.

Dietary sources of protein
So where do we find it? Foods high in protein include:

  • Meat (poultry, red meat, and seafood)
  • Legumes (dry beans and peas)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy (milk, cheese and yogurt)
  • Soy and tofu
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Some grains (quinoa, whole grains etc.)

How much protein do we need?
On average, most Canadians get enough protein from their diet. In fact, Western culture tends to have too much protein in our diet, exceeding the daily recommendations. Recommendations for dietary protein are based on weight and physical activity levels. Adults should aim to consume approximately 0.8g of protein per kilogram of weight. (Weight in kg x 0.8g/kg = protein intake in g).

However when looking at the protein and food intake of someone suffering from an addiction, their intake falls below the average Canadian. When drugs or alcohol are present in ones’ life, other areas fall short – and nutrition is no exception.

Repair for recovery
Since drugs and alcohol have a harmful effect on many metabolic processes, various organs and systems are greatly affected and need repair in addiction recovery.

Protein and the digestive system
The gastrointestinal tract (GIT), also known as the digestive system is one area that is affected by addiction. The GIT transports food to the stomach to be broken down, and into the small intestines where most nutrients are absorbed. The inner part of the GIT is lined with a thin layer of mucous, which protects the outer layers of cells, muscle, blood vessels and nerves.

Malabsorption, an abnormality causing poor nutrient absorption, can occur in addicts. Chronic alcohol use is one of the major causes of a folate deficiency, as it impairs the uptake of folate in the intestines. Most alcoholics have diets that are limited in many nutrients, including folate. Folate deficiencies alter the intestines normal physiological role of absorbing other vitamins and minerals. Another characteristic of malabsorption is diarrhea, which accelerates the excretion of nutrients and limits their absorption. This combination of factors culminates to malabsorption, which eventually leads to malnutrition. Sobriety is key in helping reverse these damages in the gastrointestinal tract, as the toxic effect of alcohol causes this chain reaction. In addition, providing extra nourishment, from protein can help to accelerate the recovery from the effects of malabsorption.

A common, yet painful occurrence in alcoholism is gastroesophageal reflux or heartburn. Stomach acid is very potent, and can dissolve a nail! Alcohol relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscle that separates the esophagus and the stomach. When relaxed, stomach acid rises up into the esophagus. In severe alcoholism, chronic alcohol use can create tears in the esophagus causing esophageal varicosities. In addition, alcohol causes direct damage to the esophageal mucosa (a thin protective layer of mucous in the gastrointestinal tract). As with all damage in the body, protein is an important element of the healing process.

Protein and muscle
As discussed in my previous blog ‘Food Matters’, food and nutrition is not a high priority for most addicts. Preparing meals is a tedious task, and time consuming. Full meals can interfere with the ‘high’, and cause unpleasant side effects when mixed with alcohol or drugs. When using drugs or alcohol, appetite is suppressed and most addicts skip at least one meal a day. Others can go for hours to days without eating. Without food, the source of fuel for our body is limited, and our body relies on stored energy supplies to sustain energy. In short term starvation, the body relies on glycogen stores, which are located in our muscles and liver. When addicts restrict their food intake and ‘starve’ their bodies, they continuously exhaust glycogen stores which deplete and reduces lean muscle mass. This is one of the major causes of weight loss during the addiction. In recovery, it is important to rebuild strength and muscle, to support a healthy lifestyle for recovery. Protein and exercise are essential in preserving and rebuilding muscle mass, as well as increasing energy levels in recovery.

Protein in recovery
Proteins are involved in virtually every function our body carries out. When dietary protein is not sufficient to carry out all these activities, they run less efficiently. For this reason amongst others, protein is needed in sufficient amounts – for our body to function at its optimal level.

Addicts are not the average healthy Canadian. With various health problems arising from alcohol and drug abuse, these need to be addressed during recovery. This usually involves higher requirements for certain nutrients, including protein. While there are no set recommendations for protein in addicts, the main focus we encourage for our clients at Bellwood is incorporating protein rich foods (as mentioned above) at all three meals and three snacks. This allows our clients to achieve the recommended daily amount of protein, as it is more available from better food choices and a structured meal plan. Sobriety itself plays a key role, as interference from drugs or alcohol is no longer a deterrent on the body.

Our clients who integrate high protein foods regularly throughout the day see the benefits in their overall health. Some areas that benefit are increased energy levels, improved strength, better digestion and improvement in liver function. With the power of protein, the body begins to heal and repair – a necessity on the road to recovery.

In Power of Protein in Addiction Recovery – Part 2, we will talk about how protein can improve your mood, and the role it has in the brain chemistry of an addict.

Want to talk to us about treatment options? 

Here at EHN Canada, we take care of you. Please contact us at 1-416-644-6345 if you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction and/ or a mental health issue. 

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