How Healthy Eating Can Help You With Addiction Recovery
Written by Munis Topcuoglu, Editor at EHN Canada.
Healthy eating helps you with addiction recovery by allowing your mind and body to work better and heal faster. It helps you maintain your recovery by supporting your mind and body to function well consistently, thus maintaining your good health. Eating a healthy diet helps you with addiction recovery in a number of specific ways such as stabilizing your mood, improving your focus, increasing your energy, and making you better at resisting cravings for addictive substances and behaviors. Conversely, nutrient deficiencies can make addiction recovery more difficult by making you more susceptible to depression, distraction, fatigue, and cravings. Substance use disorders can make you are especially vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies, for a number of behavioral and biological reasons—but healthy eating can help correct your nutrient deficiencies and greatly improve your odds of successfully achieving recovery and maintaining it long term.
Healthy Eating Means Getting the Right Nutrients and Calories in the Right Quantities
Your mind and body use up nutrients and energy constantly, so healthy eating requires that you get sufficient nutrients and energy regularly from the foods you eat. Healthy eating means getting enough of all the nutrients you need to function well and be healthy, but not excessive amounts of any nutrients that would be enough to harm you. Healthy eating also means getting enough calories (energy) that you need for performing healthy physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight, but not so much that it would cause you to gain an unhealthy amount of body fat.
There are two main categories of nutrients, macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients. Macro-nutrients are basic building blocks and energy sources for your body; you must get them in relatively large amounts, such as 10’s or 100’s of grams per day. In comparison, micro-nutrients have specialized functions in your body; you need them in much smaller amounts, such as micrograms or milligrams per day.
The three macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
Protein is used for building and repairing all the cells in your body. It is especially important for muscle and connective tissue, but is also necessary for producing hormones and neurotransmitters. Proteins are composed of amino acids. There are some amino acids that your body needs but cannot produce: these are called “essential amino acids.”
Fat is a preferred energy source, but is also essential for your nervous system, building cell membranes, and producing hormones. There are some fats that your body needs but cannot produce: these are called “essential fatty acids.”
Carbohydrates are an optional energy source. Appropriate carbohydrate intake depends on your physical activity levels and your genetics. Excessive carbohydrate intake can disrupt your metabolism, cause you to gain unhealthy body fat, and lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The two main groups of micro-nutrients are vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are organic molecules and minerals are chemical elements. Each vitamin and mineral has specialized roles within your body and they are all required in small amounts for your mind and body to function properly. Your body cannot produce vitamins or minerals.
Essential nutrients and healthy foods
Essential nutrients are nutrients that your body requires to function properly but cannot produce, they are the following: essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Since your body cannot produce them, you must get them from the food you eat.
Healthy eating means getting all the essential nutrients that you need. Therefore, healthy foods are foods that contain high amounts of essential nutrients; they are usually whole, unprocessed, and fresh. In contrast, unhealthy foods contain low amounts of essential nutrients and are often refined, processed, and contain preservatives.
Addiction Makes It Difficult to Eat Healthy, Often Resulting in Nutrient Deficiencies
Addictive substances and behaviors can make healthy eating more difficult in a number of ways. They can also prevent you from getting enough nutrients despite a normally healthy diet. When you don’t get enough of a particular essential nutrient in your body, you develop a nutrient deficiency. Addictive substances can interfere with healthy eating and cause nutrient deficiencies in the following ways.
Reducing your appetite
When your appetite is reduced and you regularly eat less food, you might not get enough nutrients and energy even if the foods you eat are normally healthy foods.
Increasing cravings for unhealthy foods
When you have cravings and eat a lot of unhealthy foods, it can be difficult to get all the nutrients you need, since unhealthy foods contain low amounts of essential nutrients.
Reducing how well you absorb nutrients
Getting enough nutrients requires that you absorb the nutrients from food in your digestive system. Since some addictive substances can reduce your ability to absorb nutrients, you might not get enough nutrients even if you have a normally healthy diet.
Depleting nutrients in your body
Getting enough nutrients means that the amount of each nutrient you get equals the amount your body uses up. Some addictive substances can cause your body to use up nutrients in much larger quantities than normal, or they can destroy nutrients in your body. When either of these happens, you might not get enough nutrients even if you have a normally healthy diet.
Reduce your motivation to eat healthy
Staying motivated to eat healthy requires maintaining the belief that healthy eating will produce positive outcomes for you. It also requires the confidence that you will succeed at healthy eating long enough to experience those positive outcomes. Addiction can make it more difficult to maintain a positive outlook on the future and can also negatively affect your confidence.
Take your attention and energy away from your goal of healthy eating
Especially when you first start, healthy eating requires that you pay careful attention to choosing the foods you eat. Shopping for and preparing healthy foods also usually requires more time and energy compared to unhealthy foods. Addictions can be distracting and take your attention away from healthy eating. They can also get in the way of healthy eating by draining your time and energy.
Nutrient deficiencies and too few calories
As described above, recovering addicts often do not eat healthy and do not get enough nutrients and calories. If you are a recovering addict, you may have nutrient deficiencies that are harming your mind and body in ways that make getting sober and staying sober much harder. A caloric deficit (eating too few calories) can also make getting and staying sober much harder.
Healthy Eating Makes Addiction Recovery Easier—Nutrient Deficiencies Make It Harder
There are a number of factors that are essential for addiction recovery and recovery maintenance. These factors are positively affected by healthy eating and negatively affected by nutrient deficiencies.
Mood and confidence
A positive outlook and confidence in your ability to overcome challenges makes it easier to accomplish difficult tasks. Healthy eating can help maintain a stable positive mood whereas nutrient deficiencies can make you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. For example, research has shown a relationship between folic acid (vitamin B9) deficiency and depressed mood, and also a relationship between thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency and decreased self-confidence (Ottley, 2000).
Focus and awareness
Focusing on achieving your goals combined with maintaining awareness of yourself and your environment are very useful practices. Healthy eating can improve your ability to focus and maintain awareness whereas nutrient deficiencies can make you more vulnerable to distractions. An example is magnesium deficiency, occurring especially frequently in recovering addicts, which has symptoms including confusion and insomnia (Flink, 1985).
Motivation, drive, and energy
Consistent motivation, drive, and energy are necessary for problem solving and overcoming obstacles. Healthy eating can help maintain high levels of motivation, drive, and energy whereas nutrient deficiencies can cause you to experience more ups and downs that jeopardize your success. A well-known example is iron deficiency which can cause apathy and abnormal fatigue (Ottley, 2000).
Experience of cravings and ability to resist them
Feeling cravings less intensely and being able to resist them are both critically important. Healthy eating can make your cravings for addictive substances and behaviors less intense, it can also strengthen your willpower to resist them. Conversely, nutrient deficiencies can make your cravings more intense and weaken your willpower. One example is a study which showed that alcoholics treated with a traditional therapy combined with nutritional therapy had less alcohol cravings and were more successful at abstaining compared to alcoholics treated with only traditional therapy (Biery et al., 1991).
Too Much of Certain Macro-Nutrients Can Also Make Recovery and Maintenance Harder
Certain macro-nutrients consumed in excess can harm you and make addiction recovery and recovery maintenance more difficult, a few examples follow.
Too much sugars (simple carbohydrates) can cause you to have unstable energy levels, intensified cravings, and lower willpower. Sugar is a reinforcing substance which has demonstrated cross-sensitization with other addictive substances such as amphetamine and alcohol in rodent models (Hoebel et al., 2009).
Fat: ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3
Researchers believe that a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (two fatty acids) can increase systemic inflammation which contributes to the development of chronic conditions such as arthritis and cardiovascular disease (Patterson et al., 2012) and also depression (Berk et al., 2013).
Some addictive substances cause kidney damage. If you have kidney damage, there is evidence which suggests that excessive protein consumption can make it worse (Levey et al., 1996).
For Best Results Make Healthy Eating a Part of Your Addiction Recovery Plan
Healthy eating will ensure that the food you eat is helping your addiction recovery and not holding you back. It will ensure that the food you eat is protecting you from relapse and not increasing your risk.
Healthy eating is challenging for anyone and to succeed you need a clear plan for how you will start eating a healthier diet and for how you will develop habits to keep eating healthy for the rest of your life. The following list is a good starting point:
- Eat whole, fresh, unprocessed foods.
- Avoid fast food—completely, if possible.
- Avoid refined sugars—completely, if possible.
- Avoid highly processed vegetable oils (e.g. canola)—completely, if possible.
- Cold-pressed olive oil and other minimally processed vegetable oils are okay in small amounts.
- Avoid grains—completely, if practical. If you are very physically active or trying to gain weight, go with white rice.
- Consume unprocessed, whole-food sugars and starches sparingly (e.g. fruit, sweet potatoes, squash) unless you are very physically active or trying to gain weight.
- Eat a variety of different foods whenever possible.
- Eat meat that is grass-fed, organic, or naturally raised.
- Eat fish that is wild-caught or organic.
- Grass-fed butter is a great source of healthy fats and fat-soluble vitamins.
- Consume grass-fed milk or cheese only if you, personally, can tolerate dairy.
- Eat vegetables as tolerated and needed for regular digestion.
- Consume nuts and seeds sparingly.
However, each individual’s nutritional requirements are different, due to a wide range of factors. Professional consultation can help you design a personalized plan for your own specific needs and develop a deeper understanding of your unique nutritional requirements.
EHN Canada Facilities Can Help You Eat Healthy, Achieve Recovery, and Maintain It
The comprehensive drug rehab and other treatment programs at EHN Canada facilities include nutrition planning through consultation with our staff dietitians. Our nutrition planning aims to get you eating healthy with the following objectives for successful long-term addiction recovery:
- Stabilize your mood and improve your resilience;
- Increase your focus and energy levels;
- Reduce your cravings for drugs, alcohol, and addictive behaviors;
- Heal the damage caused to your body by alcohol or substance abuse;
- Improve any other medical conditions you may have;
- Develop habits of self-care and a healthy lifestyle.
Please Call Us for More Information
If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC
Online Treatment and Support
If you’d like to learn more about our online treatment and support options, please call us at 1-800-387-6198 or visit onthewagon.ca.
Further Reading About How Specific Nutrients Can Help Addiction Recovery and Recovery Maintenance
Protein Part 1
Protein Part 2
Vitamins & Minerals
Berk, M., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J. A., Moylan, S., … & Maes, M.
(2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from?. BMC medicine, 11(1), 200.
Biery, J. R., Williford, J. J., & McMullen, E. A. (1991). Alcohol craving in rehabilitation: assessment of nutrition therapy. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 91(4), 463-466.
Flink, E. B. (1985). Magnesium deficiency in human subjects—a personal historical perspective. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 4(1), 17-31.
Hoebel, B. G., Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., & Rada, P. (2009). Natural addiction: A behavioral and circuit model based on sugar addiction in rats. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 3, 33-41.
Levey, A. S., Adler, S., Caggiula, A. W., England, B. K., Greene, T., Hunsicker, L. G., … & Teschan, P. E. (1996). Effects of dietary protein restriction on the progression of moderate renal disease in the modification of diet in renal disease study: modification of diet in renal disease study group. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, 7(12), 2616-2626.
Ottley, C. (2000). Food and mood. Nursing Standard (through 2013), 15(2), 46.
Patterson, E., Wall, R., Fitzgerald, G. F., Ross, R. P., & Stanton, C. (2012). Health implications of high dietary omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2012.x
Can spirituality and therapy get along?
By Jeff Vircoe
If you came into recovery at peace with the God word, the old-school A.A. slogan “There is a God and you’re not it” won’t particularly bother you.
You’re not alone. Studies show that most people do have some kind of God with whom they are comfortable. Gallup Polls conducted in the U.S. in 2005 showed that 90 percent of respondents held a belief in a personal God. Arguably, that may be different in Canada, but the point is that the conclusion that “there is a God and the guy or gal in the mirror ain’t it” just doesn’t freak the majority of people out.
Psychotherapists and religious types have long been at odds with one another about this topic. The great Sigmund Freud once characterized spiritual experiences as pathological, an illusion, and “an infantile need for a powerful father figure.” The renowned American psychologist Albert Ellis once deemed all religion as “childish dependency.”
In a modern, evidence-based society, especially in the health industry in which addiction therapy finds itself, old-school slogans containing the God word can be problematic to qualify if you are a clinician.
While the nature of the “G word” is debatable, it has always been part of deal for millions who practice the 12 Step way of life. Anyone who takes a chair in 12 Step rooms will hear regular talk of Higher Powers at meetings, and witness the omnipresent scroll of the Steps on the wall that ooze and encourage spiritual discussion way more than they do abstinence.
So, God or no God, faith or no faith, agnostic or atheist, just how does one qualify the slogan “There is a God and you’re not it” as good therapy?
Those who have their sleeves rolled up and are doing the work say it can and is being done.
Like many things in recovery, it all depends on how you choose to look at it.
“Well, first off, what is God? Who or what am I taking directions from in my life?” says Edgewood Treatment Centre counselor and former chaplain, Anthony Cafik.
As a man who has been on the receiving end of literally hundreds of Fifth Steps, he says that the word God in that slogan is not necessarily what people assume is meant.
“In addiction, if my choice has been taken away to say no to alcohol and drugs after I pick up the first drink, it is officially where I am taking my direction from. It is my authority. Someone in their active addiction, in their delusion, may think that, just because they didn’t say no to it, that they can freely say yes, they don’t see that they are a slave. That is their God.”
As Cafik sees it, they already have a God and they just don’t know it.
“It’s not religious, no. It is whatever is the authority and direction you are taking from in your life.”
In the rooms of recovery, most members are quick to point out that religion and spirituality are very different animals.
“Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there,” the saying goes.
Many people who are not big fans of the “G word” are often put off by the amount of religious overtones in the literature or even the shares of group members. That may be unfortunate, given that, in the A.A. Preamble, members are assured that the organization is not affiliated with any sect or denomination. Nonetheless, it is important to remember the roots of the program come from an evangelical Christian movement and, as such, many old-timers were raised on the language passed on to them from their sponsors. Language that includes the word God.
So, is there a God? That’s far too complex a subject to cover in this story. But if you are one of those who believe there is, there is evidence to show that you can benefit from that way of looking at things.
In a opinion column for the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Ruth Buczynski commented on the a pair of studies done by psychologist David Rosmarin and his team at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in 2011.
The idea of the studies was to see how spirituality and belief impact worry and doubt – things most addicts suffer through in great detail once the fog lifts and when the truth of their new sober life is looking at them square in the face. The results of the study, which included 332 subjects, showed how participants who chose to believe in a caring God reported lower levels of worry and were more open to uncertainty.
“Some therapists are hesitant to include spirituality in their practice. But if it can calm worries and lower stress, wouldn’t we want to integrate it into practice?” Buczynski writes.
In another study, this one in 2015 by London, UK-based psychologists Yveline Arnaud, Ava Kanyeredzi and Jacqueline Lawrence, the clinicians found that, in the analysis of 10 recorded one-hour interviews, it could be argued that “the Higher Power is not only central to sobriety but also to the well-being of A.A. members, whatever their original or current declared spiritual or religious beliefs may be.”
The study quoted from the late American psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck, who once said, “the importance attributed to the HP is seen by some as the main reasons why A.A. has been much more effective than psychiatry in treating alcoholics, because A.A. addresses the spiritual needs of these people – something that traditional psychotherapy, with its secular humanist values, does not address.”
In a 2012 posting on Scotland’s Castle Craig Hospital website, the facility noted that Peck’s main criticism of western psychiatry is that “it disregards spirituality.”
“In 1992, he was invited to address the American Psychiatric Association and he told them that people were turning away from the profession because they were unable to discuss spiritual issues with their psychiatrist. He urged them to incorporate spirituality into their thinking and stop the loss of patients to “the competition” – lay, fundamentalist and new age healers.”
After six years working as a chaplain at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre, a high security remand centre for men, Edgewood chaplain Shaun Jessop says the God issue is front and centre for those arriving at the House of Miracles, as Edgewood is fondly referred to by many of its alumni.
“It’s huge. I find, with a lot of patients that come in, the God thing, they don’t want anything to do with it. It’s religion and all that kind of thing,” says Jessop, an ordained minister with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sacred Literature.
Hearing slogans like the ones recovering old-timers hurl about like Frisbees regarding the higher power concept can be a powerful, and even necessary, wake up call.
“So, it’s the beginning [of] redefining what is God and what’s religion. It’s kind of drawing the line in the sand and saying, ‘Okay, religion is one thing, God is another thing.’ They tie the two together all the time,” he says.
“It is beginning that journey of connecting with something outside of themselves. A lot of them come in and they already are their own Higher Powers. So, it’s a case of, ‘How is that working for you?”
And once they are getting curious about God, then comes the next piece: You’re not it. That often brings with it a sense of relief when the implication is understood, Jessop says.
“You’re not it? It’s very freeing. People don’t usually think they’re God – but they act like it. Self-centeredness. Grandiosity. False pride. Where the whole world revolves around them. A victim mentality. Where they think that everything outside of Edgewood relates to them, or is because of them.”
When you are your own God, your own Higher Power, you’re isolated, he says. There’s so much pressure. The weight is on your shoulders.
“The ‘you’re not God’ part? Connecting with the ‘We’ is a huge starting point. Because that spirituality thing, well, it’s often too vague and weird. So, it becomes about starting to connect in group [therapy]. Beginning to connect with somebody outside of yourself. They begin doing that and then they’re like, ‘Oh, this helps! This is great!’ and it gives them life and freedom. Then that builds that confidence to step out a bit more out of their comfort zones. To risk a bit more with prayer, with meditation. So, it’s baby steps.”
Anthony Cafik agrees.
“Many come from homes of addiction, and that means abuse. [The] authority figure becomes abusive and, therefore, they can’t trust it. So, guess what? They become their own God. ‘I’m going to make the choices in my life so I don’t have to get hurt like that again.’ They choose something to comfort them because that’s a lonely place. So, alcohol and drugs. Then they become a slave to that, unknowingly. So, unless they fire themselves as their authority and their God, they are going to continue to be slaves to addiction,” says Cafik.
“If they fire themselves as God, they need to find something that is greater than their addiction and greater than themselves, that will help them and they can trust.”
The door is open for addicts to choose their own concept of a power greater than themselves. It certainly does not have to be religious. Many choose this power of “We” that facilities like Edgewood support. An addict and his or her peers can do it. “If that person can stay sober, why can’t I?” One addict talking to another. Group of Drunks. Good Orderly Direction. Acronyms abound.
Of course, not everyone buys into the slogans which imply a supernatural being at play.
Asked for his opinion on the “There is a God and you’re not it” slogan, Roger C., website master of Toronto’s A.A. Agnostica site had this to say: “There are idiot slogans that I don’t process or interpret, and that is one of them.”
In this fellowship, whose expressed written Third Tradition assures members that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”, the message is clear: Take what you like and leave the rest.
Live & Let Live: A battle-tested slogan in the fight for recovery
By Jeff Vircoe
As Canadians pause this week to remember the battle of Vimy Ridge and its impact on a wide-eyed, impressionable nation 100 years ago, it may surprise some in recovery, from their own battles with the bottle, to learn that one of the most sage bits of advice offered to them has a close connection to the war “over there.”
One of the most enduring slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous is Live and Let Live. Found in the organization’s basic text book, the title from which the name of the fellowship originated, Live and Let Live is one of the big three slogans, sandwiched between First Things First and Easy Does It in the chapter The Family Afterward in all four editions of the Big Book.
Its meaning is not vigorously debated. Most would agree that Live and Let Live fits along the lines of “mind your own business”, “let sleeping dogs lie”, or my personal favourite, “What people think of me is none of my business.”
“We try not to indulge in cynicism over the state of the nations, nor do we carry the world’s troubles on our shoulders,” wrote A.A. co-founder and Big Book author, Bill Wilson, in the chapter in which Live and Let Live appears.
Practical. Sage. Innocuous advice, perhaps.
In early April 2017, as we solemnly watch rickety black and white images of young men racing up steep trench walls and out into Vimy’s no man’s land pockmarked with millions of shell craters, the juxtaposition of the peaceful concepts behind Live and Let Live and any military connection may seem polar opposites, yet the battlefields are precisely where the term originated.
In a series of unofficial, but widespread, ceasefires on the Western Front around Christmas 1914, French, German and British soldiers laid down their weapons, crossed the trenches and created a sense of fellowship with one another. There were reports of joint burial ceremonies and exchanges of food and souvenirs. Harmless soccer games broke out. These spontaneous mini-truces broke up the horror and monotony of steady shelling and sniping, attacks and counter attacks. The truces meant, literally, that the soldiers would stay alive – Live, and would allow the other side to stay alive, as well – Let Live.
The New York Times and Britain’s Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch newspapers published reports of the examples of good faith exhibited by those warriors, but as senior commanders on both sides learned of the fraternization on the front lines, orders were given to knock it off. Some units defied the no fraternization order over the next year, especially around seasonal holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving, but by 1916, with gas attacks and casualties continuing to climb into the hundreds of thousands, the war bogged down, resentments hardened and Live and Let Live was put on hold as far as the battlefields went.
In his book, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System, British author Tony Ashworth went through diaries, letters and veterans’ testimonies and came to the conclusion that the term and concept of Live and Let Live was widely known by that generation.
These days, when you think about sayings like, “Pick your battles” or “I’m not willing to die on this hill”, you can see the potential military correlation. Not necessarily so with “Live and Let Live.”
It may be important to remember that, in 1939, the Big Book was introduced to a world only 20 years removed from the supposed War to End All Wars, or The Great War, as World War One was known by that generation. Much of the lexicon of the day still held a military connection. In fact, many in the 12 Step movement were veterans of WW1.
Bill Wilson was part of the Vermont National Guard, having had his first drink after being commissioned as an artillery officer.
“I found the elixir of life,” he wrote in Pass It On. “Even that first evening I got thoroughly drunk, and within the next time or two I passed out completely. But as everyone drank hard, not too much was made of that.”
Neuro-Psychiatrist Dr. William Silkworth, the physician in charge of Towns Hospital in New York City where Wilson detoxed, served in the U.S. Army from 1917-1919. Rowland Hazard, who brought Ebby Thatcher to the Oxford Group before Ebby introduced Wilson to that organization from which A.A. evolved, had been a Captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Corps. And Jim B., an agnostic A.A. pioneer who is credited with establishing the Third Tradition, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and the terms, “God As We Understand Him” and “Power Greater Than Ourselves” rather than religious terminology, was a first class private in the U.S. Army in the First World War. His story, The Vicious Cycle, was published in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions of the Big Book.
With all these veterans having input into the Big Book as Wilson cobbled it together through most of 1938, it is no small wonder that Live and Let Live, a military term urging alcoholics to put their own psychological weapons of mass destruction down, came to pass.
Photo: An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”
Live & Let Live: It makes good therapeutic, scientific sense
By Jeff Vircoe
When, as children, we are told not to put our hand on the hot stove, it’s kind of a no-brainer. Yeah, I think I can figure that out, mom.
And when we come to the rooms of recovery, beat up, lost, and feeling like old little kids in an adult world, the term Live and Live can have a similar connotation.
Intuitively it makes sense… but how the heck does one do that?
Live and Let Live is one of the big three slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous, in that it is one of the trio of helpful suggestions written at the bottom of page 135 in the 12 Step movement’s basic text, the Big Book, alongside First Things First and Easy Does It. Sage advice for anyone, not just for people with addiction—Live and Let Live has plenty of therapeutic value. In the treatment world, where people suffering from addiction are clamoring for a way out of their pain, the slogan speaks to modalities employed by counselors.
“For me, therapeutically, Live and Let Live is being in the moment. Being right now,” says Ryan Tompkins, 50, an addictions counselor at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, B.C. “If I’m working with patients who are living in the past, or they’re living in the future, that’s all they’re focused on. They can’t live in the now. So they can’t process what they need to do now, to just live and let live and move on.”
For the past three and a half years, the retired naval chief petty officer has been helping Edgewood patients learn to deal with their clear and present danger—addiction.
“Addicts get so caught up in the past or the future. Addiction lives in the past or the future. If we help the patients live in the now, in this moment, addiction can’t live here, with their people, with their peers, with what’s happening to them in that moment, whether they’re breathing – or not breathing half the time,” he says with a smile.
Tompkins says a lot of the work he does with patients is utilizing various grounding techniques.
“Breathing in the moment. Living. Right in this moment. Focus on, ‘How am I living in this moment? What’s happening in me? What’s happening to me right now?’ These [are] reflective questions that I get patients to ask themselves. How do we help you be in the room with us right now and not be caught in the past? So, the breathing, the grounding, we do a lot of schematic stuff, ‘What’s happening in your body right now?’, so they can begin to recognize this is what I’m feeling like in this moment right now, process it, and then they get to move on to the next minute. Versus living in their past and holding onto a resentment, or moving towards the future and how they’re going to figure everything out. So, that mindfulness piece of being in this moment right now. The here and now.”
Psychologists and scientists seem to agree with the philosophy of Live and Let Live. The practices of Mindfulness – defined as the psychology of bringing a person’s attention to external and internal experiences happening in the present moment, embody the concepts proposed in the slogan. It’s not just a good idea. The scientists have proven it works.
Pointing to a series of neuroimaging studies exploring the neural mechanisms underlying mindfulness meditation practices, scientists are finding that “experienced meditators exhibit a different gray matter morphometry in multiple brain regions when compared with non-meditating individuals,” according to six different studies done between 2005-2010.
In other words, “We can train our brains to automatically reconnect to what matters, break free from the limiting stories in our minds, incline our minds toward the good in life and even learn how to relate to our difficult feelings differently to realize an emotional freedom from the confines of our habitual thoughts and reactions,” says Dr. Elisha Goldstein, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, in a Huffington Post blog in 2013.
Though the contemporary version of Live and Let Live may have originated on the battlefields of World War One, when opposing armies were recorded standing down and interacting in a non-violent way at Christmas and other important holidays, the truth is, since ancient times, getting grounded, choosing acceptance and seeking coherence with the world – right now – has always made sense. Early Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism used meditation as far back as 4,000 years ago. The practice remains a critical component of their beliefs. In today’s fast paced world, the versatility of mindfulness practices means virtually anyone can find a form of the practice to fit their schedule, and the benefits are undeniable, whether you have an addiction or not.
“That therapeutic bond that happens in the here and now? Addiction can’t live there. Addiction can live in the past or the future,” says Tomkins.
Indeed, with many individuals with addictions refer to themselves as control freaks. Acceptance, a radical departure for most people struggling with addiction, is a big part of finding the peace to calm down a busy brain.
Marsha M. Linehan, an American psychologist credited with creating dialectical behavior therapy, once put it this way:
“Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.”
She’s also quoted saying acceptance is the only way out of hell, a place with which too many people with addiction can identify.
Live and Let Live as a concept doesn’t appear in A.A. literature in the Big Book only. One of the books patients study at Edgewood is called Living Sober, an 88 page book detailing some of the methods A.A. members have used to not drink. This handy resource dedicates an entire chapter to the slogan, two and a half pages of wise advice to ponder.
“To begin to put the concept of Live and Let Live into practice, we must face this fact: There are people in A.A., and everywhere else, who sometimes say things we disagree with, or do things we don’t like. Learning how to live with differences is essential to our comfort. It is exactly in those cases that we have found it extremely helpful to say to ourselves, “Oh, well, ‘Live and Let Live.’”
“In fact, in A.A. much emphasis is placed on learning how to tolerate other people’s behavior. However offensive or distasteful it may seem to us, it is certainly not worth drinking about. Our own recovery is too important. Alcoholism can and does kill, we recall.”
In other words, how important is this resentment we are building up rather than accepting them for who they are.
Nicole Makin is a clinical counselor at the Edgewood Health Network’s clinic in Victoria, B.C. With over a decade of helping people who suffer from addictions and other mental health issues find peace, she says Live and Let Live is an important bit of advice to get our heads around.
“It’s complicated. I think of addiction as isolation and the opposite of that is connection. So when we are living in an interconnected way, we have to have a balance of allowing others to make their choices, and also having boundaries around what we are willing to experience,” she says.
“For me, Live and Let Live would come into play if I was struggling with someone else’s behavior. It’s a reminder that I have a responsibility to set healthy boundaries for myself and allow others to have their own choices,” she says.
In closing, whether you have an addiction or not, Live and Let Live is a bite-sized jingle packing a powerful psychological and scientifically-backed punch. As one anonymous writer put it in the book Stress Less: The Essential Guide to Reducing Stress With Meditation and Mindfulness, it’s just something we need to think about.
“When we are stressed, it effectively makes us less intelligent. This is due to the reduction in prefrontal activity, which in turn is designed to make us more focused and alert. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for forward planning, creative thinking and other ‘high-order’ brain activity.
“When you are being chased by a lion, though, it is really not the time to be thinking about the meaning of life! So, shutting down this part of the brain and placing your focus on feedback from your senses makes much more sense.”
How recovering addicts use ‘Live and Let Live’ to quieten their minds
By Jeff Vircoe
It’s one thing to sit in a circle or around a table and talk the talk. It’s another thing to practice it when the meeting is over.
Live and Let Live is one of those slogans which requires any alcoholic or addict to pause. What does it really mean in my case? How do I not live and let live, or as Paul McCartney flippantly wrote, Live and Let Die?
Asking people in recovery about the slogan Live and Let Live, it quickly becomes obvious that control seems to be a major issue for many when they first arrive in the rooms.
“Control was a huge issue for me, always being overly concerned with what everybody else was doing and living their lives – particularly my siblings,” says Lindsay, a 35 year-old woman who recently celebrated her 10th year clean.
“I have a brother and a sister in recovery. But, when I was first getting sober and my brother was still in his addiction, I was like, you know, putting the Big Book downstairs, and doing stuff to try and get him to change his life rather than just kind of letting it all happen mechanically, which it did in the end.”
“So, today I use Live and Let Live in remembering that their program and their choices are theirs, and that my choices and my program are mine and I don’t have any control over what they do or don’t do – just like they don’t have any control over my program. “
Another woman who had a strong desire to steer the outcome back in the day is Janina B. At age 43, she’s 19-plus years clean and sober, and has over a decade in the field of addiction treatment. She says the slogan Live and Let Live can be compared to Step One, in terms of being powerless over people.
“So Live and Let Live is: I live, and then I let you live. At least, that’s what it means now to me,” she says.
But, of course, it wasn’t always that simple to figure out, she says.
“Before, I would just obsess about everything. I say the first year I was MOCUS – which is Mind Out of Focus. I was going a million miles a second in every direction and not going anywhere. I fired a sponsor of mine because she called me manipulative. But I was. I just wasn’t ready to hear it. But I was totally manipulative!”
“She told me, ‘I’ll be on your Step Nine!’, and in my head I was, like, ‘No, you won’t!’ But she was right. She totally was right. In that instance, I was manipulating one of my male friends to give me money, when I could have just gone to the bank. So, in that instance the Live and Let Live was I wasn’t letting him live. I was manipulating him so that I could “Live.”
If Live and Let Live can be aligned with Step One, at least one member of the recovery community we talked to sees a comparison to Tradition Three as well.
Warren W. will notch nine years out of the darkness of addiction later this month in Nanaimo. The 48 year-old says the gist of the slogan is acceptance.
“It reminds me of Tradition Three, whereby the only requirement is a desire to stop using. You don’t have to be white, straight, male, Christian, sis-gendered, whatever. It reminds of inclusivity. Tolerance,” he says.
“It’s about accepting that anyone can do this and get this with the support of others with similar goals. So Live and Let Live, to me, equals I want to get this and I want you to get it too, no matter who you are or where you come from.”
One woman in recovery in Al-Anon says practicing Live and Let Live can be a battle for many who come out of the world of addiction.
“It’s a challenge for people with addictions because we lose our sense of self. Whether we have addiction or co-addiction, we lose our sense of self and we don’t develop relationship skills in our isolation,” says Nicole M. “So, in that sense, [I] don’t know how my life ends and somebody else’s begins. Reminding myself that I’m here to live. I have my life to live and other people have their lives to live. That’s what the slogan is all about,” says the 42 year-old.
It takes years of practice to live and let live, Janina concurs.
“I want my partner to behave in a certain way. I want you to call me. I want you to, if you have a plan, I want you to cancel. I also don’t, but there is a part of me that does. So the Live and Let Live is, I can ask for what I want or need, and then let him respond in his way.”
In the end, another woman in recovery says the slogan is about respect.
Andie M., who went through Edgewood in May 2012, says living her life and accepting others is the key to serenity in recovery.
“Basically, I live my life to be the best that I can be, the best that I know how, and respect that others do the same in their own way. ’To each their own,’ as they say,” says Andie, 38.
“In my day to day life, coming across so many different people at work and in the recovery community, I come up against different ideas, points of view, values and beliefs. I may not always agree, but can respectfully disagree. We are each entitled to our own thoughts and opinions, our own way of being. It’s those differences that make life interesting. I live my life to the best of my ability with what I have learned, without fear of judgement, and I hope others can do the same.”
From an Addict’s Perspective: Addicts Keep Their Feet on the Ground By Using Old Slogan
It’s about that First Things First slogan. Some say it originated with Moses walking down the slopes of Mt. Sinai carrying the tablets burned with the 10 Commandments – the second of which says no Gods before that God. Historically speaking, that’s pretty old-school First Things First.
While many of the early 12 Step recovery men and women were not necessarily religiously obsessed, they were teachable enough to see the importance of First Things First’s cautionary finger wag of, “Don’t drink, no matter what.”
These days, on the clinical side of addiction medicine, many counselors and psychologists refer to mindfulness and the importance of being grounded when talking about First Things First. Clearly, it’s a cautionary tale, an urging of staying in the moment and not letting the distracted mind overtake the mission of recovery.
Historical and clinical definitions aside, just how do those in the boat row to the chant of First Things First?
Perspectives asked several men and women in recovery to explain the layman’s approach to utilizing the slogan, which has been part of 12 Step lore from its beginnings in the mid-1930s.
“I use the slogan First Things First when I’m overwhelmed, or have too much going on in my head,” says Jennifer B., who is coming up on her six year anniversary of achieving recovery. “It helps me focus on the next right thing. For instance, on my day off, with all the running around and things I think I have to get done, the first thing, to stop the crazy train thoughts speeding around, is to stop and pray that I do my best and ask for help. First Things First reminds me to think of solutions like calling someone in my support group,” says Jennifer.
Another woman in recovery who will get her sixth medallion this August, agrees.
“It means show up. Be present, try with your whole heart, every day, all the time,” says Kathleen S.. “And that’s what I want, every day. To leave nothing on the field, if you know what I mean.”
Patrick D. came through Edgewood in 2010. Now pushing seven years, he says First Things First is about being willing to do the heavy lifting of recovery.
“First Things First, to me, reminds me that, for years, I’d want to bypass all the uncomfortable pain of growing in early recovery. I’d be sitting in a detox and not focusing on the present, or even the next day or week, but months away, devising how to get my girlfriend back or get a nice ride again,” he says.
“Really, all I needed was to focus on not being full of shit that day, and being open to taking anyone’s suggestions but my own!”
Still, another woman points to the focusing value of First Things First. Mara K., who will notch seven years on the beam this fall, says it has to do with letting go as well.
“First Things First is letting go of the petty things and focus on the important things,” she says. “So, where do my priorities lay?”
“I try to no longer get caught up in drama and chaos, and instead either steer clear or offer solutions. Am I bringing recovery to the table or sickness? I now ask myself before I engage, ‘Am I helping, enabling or hurting the person or situation?”
Underneath all the many possible applications of First Things First, however, lies a basic, time-tested premise. How do I stay sober?
“I think of the sobriety statement,” says Ross M., a man closing in on two years. “Everything has to follow my sobriety. Without it, I have nothing,” he says, adding that, in the end, it all comes down to doing the next right thing for himself.
“In my life today, I have to do what is best for me. Fifty years of people pleasing just didn’t turn out so good.”
First Things First Offers a Remedy For More Than Addicts
By Jeff Vircoe
On the surface, the slogan First Things First may seem to mean simply getting your priorities straight.
After all, the Big Book and the Akron manual remind alcoholics that sobriety needs to be the most important thing in one’s life “without exception.”
But do addicts all need to be focused singularly on not drinking or drugging all day every day for the rest of their lives?
Not necessarily. Most addicts with multiple years of recovery will tell you they have lost the obsession to drink or use. So, in that sense, First Things First does not necessarily speak to drugs and alcohol, say professionals in the field.
“When I think of First Things First, I think of just slowing down,” says Elizabeth Loudon, clinical director at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo. “Being in the moment. Not giving in to that mental obsession or that compulsive nature of addiction, and just taking the next step and doing the next right thing. Realistically, for me, it’s about being right here, right now.”
With over 16 years of helping addicts change their lives, Loudon says a big part of addiction is recognizing and accepting that the addicted brain is used to doing things a certain way, and that way needs to be changed.
“So, First Things First should just be about connecting back with themselves. Their defense system allows them to place blame or rationalize, defend in one way or another, so there’s never been that kind of ability to feel feelings and honor what’s happening in their world. That would be first for me. Then, it comes to connecting with other people who are important to them and learning to live a manageable life again.”
Connecting with one’s self and others even after many years of recovery.
Paul A. is a driver at Edgewood. He has over 26 years in recovery and still reminds himself that doing it his way is not the way to go.
“Sometimes you’ve got to watch yourself will,” he says. “That can run riot for anyone of us.”
“To me, First Things First means pointing at myself for self-care. Not making it all about me, but being conscious. Everything seems to be about action. A guy said to me one time, ‘You can’t think yourself into good living. You have to live yourself into good thinking.’ So it’s the action that sets you free.”
One by one, the people interviewed for this story pointed to self-awareness – mindfulness – as the true meaning behind the First Things First slogan, which A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson made sure was included on the bottom of page 135 in Chapter Nine, The Family Afterward, of the Big Book.
Mindfulness is not a new philosophy, of course. Buddhists have been practicing it for centuries. And if you research into the theory behind it, it is not too hard to imagine Wilson’s mindset when it comes to suggesting First Things First as a slogan to be considered.
John Kabat Zinn is the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In 1979, Dr. Kabat-Zinn found that chronically ill patients were not responding well to traditional treatments. He developed an eight-week stress reduction program which, when practiced with traditional therapies, did work. Since then, many studies have pointed to improved mental and physical health when treated with mindfulness-based programs. MBSR type programs are now commonly found in hospitals, schools, prisons and yes, treatment centers around the world.
In a 2012 interview given to Time Magazine, Kabat-Zinn tried to explain in layman’s terms what he had been trying to accomplish since founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre.
“In Asian languages, the word for mind and the word for heart are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it,” he told Time. “Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.”
In another interview, posted on the mindful.org website, he explained it this way:
“My working definition or what I call the operational definition of mindfulness is it’s the awareness that arises through paying attention to purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And sometimes I add in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
So when you think of First Things First, at least in the Edgewood Treatment Centre setting, it means being aware of your surroundings and acting accordingly, without adding unnecessary drama.
Debra Kine is an addictions counselor at Edgewood. She says addicts have a habit of making mountains out of molehills, and First Things First is a great way to combat that.
“When I’m saying to our patients, ‘First Things First’, it’s because they can get very overwhelmed by thinking about the past and by thinking about the future. So, if I can help them learn to live in the present time, then whatever comes their way first, that’s what they need to take care of instead of worrying about yesterday and tomorrow.”
So, it’s about prioritizing?
“Yes. Prioritizing what is in the present moment. Living in the present moment.”
And since they are not drinking in treatment and hopefully not in recovery, it isn’t about substances. It is about the brain and how one looks at and pays attention to, life, says Kine.
“Are they being conscious of their environment? Are they conscious about what effect they have on another person? Are they conscious about their language, and the effect their language has on another person? Are they conscious about what effect another person’s language has on them? Or what somebody else’s energy, when they sit beside them, has on them?” she says.
“Addicts get jumbled up, they get overwhelmed, and when they do that they create chaos for themselves, or they procrastinate or they want to go isolate. So, then, it is up to us to bring them back to the present time and help them stay grounded,” says Kine.
Another counselor, and an Edgewood alumnus, Moe Elewonibi says First Things First helps keep his patients, and himself, grounded.
“It has a couple of connotations for me in the job I do. Helping them see where they are. Helping them see that they are not in recovery yet, they are in treatment. Helping them to accept that fact. That helps them down the road.”
It’s about staying in your shoes, and knowing where you are at, too,” says the former National and Canadian Football Leagues standout.
“Sometimes our patients, like myself, we want to jump ahead. They think just because they are here they are in recovery. But here is the learning phase.”
Even with 17 years of recovery under his own belt, Elewonibi applies the slogans to himself as well.
“For me, in recovery, I still get that finish-line mentality. So First Things First reminds me to ask, ‘What do I need to do today? What’s on my plate today? What do I need to own? What do I need to be accountable for?’”
“I think the biggest thing for me is I need to get up and suit up. I still get lazy. I’m lazy as … you know. I’ll procrastinate on everything. So, First Things First for me? What do I need to do? I need to get up. Do my meditation. Call my sponsor. Some of those simple things.”
“I’m not really good at it. But I’ve got a sponsor that says I need to get on it,” he says with a laugh.
What Edgewood does in an obvious way as far as First Things First goes is to provide structure, something addicts who are used to chaos need to learn a thing or two about.
“When I look at treatment, it is about getting up in the morning, eating breakfast. Connecting with people at the breakfast table,” says Loudon. Then, it’s going back and doing your basic chores, no different than you and I have to do every morning when we get up. Getting to the next structure as they kind of put one foot in front of the other. And attempting, during all of that time, to stay out of their heads and just connect with others on an intimate level.”
That structure is really important if addicts are to turn their lives around and do different, agrees John Marshall, an Edgewood counselor with nearly 28 years of recovery himself.
“In treatment, it’s the simple things about following through with the schedule. Rather than taking on “I’ve got all this work to do, all these assignments to do”, just follow the schedule. Follow the routine. Stick as close as you can to the basics of the day. It keeps the obsession down. It keeps the anxiety levels down. It helps them stay focused and more grounded in the moment,” says Marshall.
“It really makes a big difference in keeping grounded and in the moment. Keeping them from being overwhelmed. They just need to deal with the next right thing. They just need to do the next healthy action. You know – I don’t need to take on a whole bunch of stuff in the future because that creates anxiety.”
And for alumni reading this story, Marshall says First Things First is much the same for those out in the world of recovery now.
“It’s the simplicity of getting up and recognizing I only have to deal with today. How do I start my day in a healthy way? Have I done my prayer and meditation? Have I got myself grounded in the day? So, what’s the first thing in my day? Is it making my bed? Is it getting ready for work?”
“It’s not about 3,000 things two days from now. It’s about keeping me grounded. So today – stay sober. Start my day off in a healthy way that’s going to keep me sober in terms of meditation and prayer and grounding that way, before even looking at anything else.”
First Things First Slogan Has Deep Roots Outside of Recovery
By Jeff Vircoe
In the middle of page 12 of the Akron manual — a thin, powder blue colored, 20-page pamphlet created by the members of Akron’s historic AA group No. 1, and approved by Dr. Bob Smith, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous — the priority of recovery first is about as clear as it can be.
“Sobriety is the most important thing in your life, without exception,” reads the document, which pioneer A.A. members put together in 1939 as a resource for helping new alcoholics and sponsors in their midst. “You may believe your job, your home life or one of many other things come first. But consider, if you do not get sober and stay sober, chances are you won’t have a job, a family, or even sanity or life.”
In central Vancouver Island, the warning about putting recovery first is headed to the point that many A.A. groups read that section of the Akron manual before the start of meetings. It has a place of prominence in the meeting format, just as How It Works and the A.A. Preamble does.
It is the obvious introduction to any story about the slogan of recovery, First Things First.
It’s all about priorities.
First Things First, of course, is not the property of any 12 Step movement nor anyone at all. In modern times, First Things First is a song by the Neon Trees. Another band, Stormzy, does a version by that name. So does Nadia Sirota. First Things First is the name of a book by Steven R. Covey, the author of the bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. First Things First is a magazine from the Institute on Religion and Public Life. The First Things First Foundation is a Christian organization founded by the two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl winner quarterback, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.
So, when you try to get to understand why Bill Wilson included First Things First at the bottom of page 135 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there are myriad of rabbit holes to climb down. A.A. literature, such as Pass It On or Dr. Bob and The Good Old Timers, contains plenty of historical gems, as do A.A. Comes of Age and, of course, the Big Book itself.
But, like many of the slogans used by people recovering from addiction to navigate from point A to point B on their journey, First Things First has powerfully richer roots than a drunk or two coming up with a catchy phrase.
In the FAQ section on the A.A. fellowship’s website, AA.org, the organization’s former General Service Office archivist, Frank M., said this about the slogans in 1989:
“Your interest in the origins of ‘One Day at a Time’ is shared by many of us. Like hand-holding, however, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact ‘moment.’ That is the problem we find with most of our A.A. slogans, unfortunately!”
It goes on to refer to a quote from A.A.’s first secretary, Ruth Hock, who typed every single word of the Big Book manuscript for Bill Wilson.
“Bill [W.] and I first worked together in January 1936 when he had been sober just a little over one year and at that time ‘Easy Does It,’ ‘Live and Let Live,’ and ‘First Things First,’ were part of the daily conversation. They were also used in the very first drafts of the book, but probably only Bill himself could tell you where he picked them up,” wrote Hock, whose impact on A.A. was so important that, at the fellowship’s Montreal International Convention in 1985, she was presented with the 5 millionth copy of the Big Book, a year before she died.
Where Bill picked it up is a guess. It may be like asking the average North American where the term “cool” came from. It is just a common phrase, a term which, back in the 1930s, was in the lexicon, the language of the day.
Digging deeper, however, it seems likely that First Things First may be tied into something much more important than colloquial use. Given that the abstinence pioneers in Akron and New York were part of a religious movement known as The Oxford Group, which billed itself as a form of first century Christianity and discipleship, First Things First has some religious connotations. Historians show how A.A. co-founder Dr. Bob Smith frequently recited scripture passages as answers to questions posed by new alcoholics. And the scriptures are loaded with references to a First Things First theme.
In the Gospels, Matthew 6:33 says Jesus put it this way: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”
In the Hebrew bible, in the Book of the prophet Haggai (520 BCE), it says, “God will grant true blessing when we put His house first.”
And, of course, in the scriptures, arguably no document has more meaning than the 10 Commandments. It is there that First Things First can also be traced – in the first directive in particular: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
So, as Ruth Hock said, many of the slogans being bantered about by Bill and Bob back in the 30s came from their own experiences, and as the Big Book was being written, many of those experiences were spiritually, and, in the Oxford Group’s case in particular, scripturally based.
No matter where it came from, the First Things First slogan was clearly all about putting things in their right place, whether those things are spiritual, literary, music or sports.
Timelessly, First Things First is all about priorities.
Can Therapy Dogs Play a Role in Addiction Recovery?
Do therapy dogs have a place in addiction treatment? According to a 2015 research initiative by three Canadian universities (University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan, McMaster University) therapy dogs can help people with addiction and mental illness. The study had therapy dogs visit patients at various addictions and mental health treatment centres for six months.
The study found that therapy dogs can help people with mental health, addiction, and trauma concerns. According to this study, “in 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) identified six evidence- based principles for service providers to address the consequences of trauma in the individual and to facilitate healing.” These principles focus on supporting recovery, resilience, emotional regulation and relational connection.
It was discovered at the end of the study that the dog’s instincts and “effortless interactions” with participants were in accord with those principles. These principles are:
- Trustworthiness and transparency
- Peer Support and mutual self-help
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice and choice
- Cultural, historical and gender issues
One of the researchers from the University of Regina states that dogs can help patients focus and feel more comfortable to open up during counselling sessions. The interaction with man’s best friend “initiates the release of the hormone oxytocin in humans, which makes us feel good.” Edgewood Health Network last year introduced a therapy dog at each of our addiction treatment centres.
Findlay, a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback trained therapy dog, owned by Cara Heitmann- therapist at Bellwood Health Services introduced him to Bellwood’s inpatient community last December and so far the feedback has been positive. Cara says that clients and staff love having Findlay at Bellwood. “Clients comment on how much they love him, how it brightens their day to see him, and how it helps clients who are missing their pets while they are here.”
Cara believes having a therapy dog like Findlay provides many benefits for clients and clinical staff during therapy sessions and for overall mental health. “Findlay attends group therapy and individual therapy sessions with me because with his mere presence he can calm the room. As for staff, we have a job that can be highly stressful and I have heard many staff members share that seeing Findlay’s face brightens their day and their interaction with him is very soothing.”
Cara remembers a time where Findlay helped a new client entering treatment feel welcomed, “Introducing Findlay certainly has made a difference. An example that immediately springs to mind is a first day client who came to group late due to an orientation of sorts, knocked on the door before entering and was immediately greeted by a smiling face with a wagging tail. I can’t imagine that didn’t ease some discomfort! I have had many, many clients share how Fin has helped them while in treatment and they are shocked that anyone would not just automatically know that. It’s a no brainer.”
According to the Executive Director of National Service Dogs (NSD) in Canada, they’ve received a ton of praise from their clients about the benefits of using service dogs in the treatment of PTSD. Last year, Wounded Warriors Canada donated $50,000 to help fund more certification of service dogs for Canadian Forces members, Veterans and First Responders with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in BC and Alberta.
In addition, NSD believes animals can lower anxiety, reduce the cost of medication, provide comfort and security for a client and their loved ones. Cara believes therapy dogs work because the connection is different than that with other humans, “It’s less threatening and highly comforting. A dog’s instinct to sense when a person is struggling or having a difficult moment and seeing how they are comforted has no words.”
Colleen Dell one of the researchers that was part of the study last year was amazed to see how consistent the outcomes were from all the centres they had considered. It didn’t matter if they were youth, seniors or groups of people. In their study, therapy dogs had a positive impact on each person’s “healing journey in a multitude of ways, from providing comfort through to increasing therapeutic alliances with service providers.”
Chalmers, research from the University of Regina believes there are still other animals that need to be studied, such as horses to better understand the benefits of service animals. The three universities released their study’s findings during Addictions Awareness Week last year on purpose, “The theme of Addictions Awareness Week this year is ‘Addiction Matters.’ And it is precisely for this reason that our team has stepped outside the box, so to speak, to research an intervention that can potentially support long-term recovery.”
As more research is conducted and more testimonies are accrued, it seems therapy dogs can play a role in helping clients who are in rehab by providing comfort, security and non- judgmental love. Cara shares, “I am honoured to have Findley work for a number of years. Every time I see that interaction it warms my heart, puts a smile on my face, and makes me proud to be his mom.” At Bellwood it seems Findlay’s natural instincts and interactions continues to have a positive effect on our clients and team.
In our next issue of the Phoenix magazine we discuss in further detail EHN’s valuable experience introducing therapy dogs at our treatment centres. To subscribe to our magazine, please click here.
Want to learn more about our addiction treatment programs and what they include email us or give us a call at 1-800-387-6198.
Colleen Anne Dell, Nancy Poole, (2015). Taking a PAWS to Reflect on How the Work of a Therapy Dog Supports a Trauma-Informed Approach to Prisoner Health. Journal of Forensic Nursing, Volume 11, Issue 3.
CBC News Saskatchewan
National Service Dogs
CBC News British Columbia
Replenishing Vitamins and Minerals in Addiction Recovery
The foods and beverages we consume every day offer an assortment of vitamins and minerals which helps our body function normally. Although we don’t need large amounts of these vitamins or minerals, the small amounts we get from food plays a big role.
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients, meaning they are vital nutrients needed in lesser amounts. There are many duties that these micronutrients assist in, including normal cell functioning, growth and development, metabolism, disease prevention and energy conversion to name a few. The abuse of alcohol, drugs, or behavioral addictions such as food and sex addiction can have a substantial effect on overall nutrition. Some areas that are impacted include appetite, energy levels, motivation to eat, poor food choices and normal digestion and absorption of food. Due to the interference of drugs, alcohol and poor eating habits, many vitamins and minerals are not sufficiently consumed or absorbed, which can compromise the countless activities these micronutrients contribute to. As a result, those in active addiction may have vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which can have some detrimental effects in overall health. There are a few vitamins and minerals that those with an addiction are more likely to have low levels, due the effects of appetite, the quality of food eaten and the substance of choice.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficits in Addiction
There are eight B vitamins, ranging from B1 to B12, all of which are water soluble. They are transported throughout the body but have no storage sites. As these vitamins aren’t stored, they are needed on a daily basis for normal functioning. While each B vitamin has different roles, they contribute to energy production, synthesis of neurotransmitters, normal functioning of the nervous system and other critical tasks. Food sources of various B vitamins include whole grains, legumes, meats, vegetables and milk products.
Alcohol abuse has an impact on the way that B complex vitamins are absorbed and used within the body. Alcohol destroys B vitamins, and as a result chronic alcohol use can limit the amount of B vitamins that are available and contribute to a B vitamin deficiency. Also, those in an active addiction may not be eating well, consuming foods that are processed and refined and lacking vitamins and minerals, or not eating enough due to poor appetite. With these two factors limiting the amount of various B complex vitamins within the body, there are numerous health consequences that can arise in this population. Due to the role of various B complex vitamins in the nervous system, cognition and energy conversion, some of the symptoms include headaches, nausea, fatigue or weakness, palpitations, numbness, tingling, tremors or /shakes. Some of the B complex vitamins that those in active addition are at risk of developing a deficiency includes thiamin or B1, B6, folic acid (also known as B9) and B12.
Calcium, Magnesium and Zinc
Calcium and magnesium are two minerals that go hand in hand, and can be directly impacted by drug or alcohol addiction. Calcium and magnesium play a large role in the building and breakdown of bone mass and in muscle contraction and relaxation. Magnesium is one mineral that is used in the metabolism of alcohol, and this accelerates the loss of magnesium. Chronic alcohol abuse increases the excretion of calcium and magnesium, causing depleted amounts in the body. In addition, poor eating habits such as consuming foods low in essential vitamins and minerals can contribute to a deficiency in these minerals. These lower than normal values can manifest as symptoms commonly seen in withdrawal such as tremors, muscle cramps and changes in heart rhythm (Gabbay, 2005). Due to these impacts on various body systems such as the skeletal system and cardiovascular system, it is important that these minerals are replenished to ensure normal functioning. Food sources of calcium include dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Magnesium can be found in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and seaweed.
Zinc is another mineral needed in trace amounts, with important roles in maintaining the immune system, carbohydrate and protein metabolism, and preserving vision. Like magnesium, it is used heavily when metabolizing alcohol. During chronic alcohol abuse, zinc is depleted quickly and without any dietary replenishment a deficiency can arise. Low levels of zinc can affect vision, wound healing, appetite and manifest as depression. Food sources of zinc include whole grain products, eggs, meat, and legumes.
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin with many roles, which includes promoting calcium absorption, bone growth and development, neuromuscular function and boosts the immune system. Vitamin D is the only vitamin that our body can produce when exposed to sunlight. However, living in the northern hemisphere where less UVB photons reach the earth during the winter months, means that Canadians hardly produce Vitamin D during this time, increasing the risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency (Statistics Canada, 2013). According to Statistics Canada, 32% of Canadians do not meet the recommendations for Vitamin D. Insufficient amounts of vitamin D is a concern for all Canadians, including those in active addiction, and an area that needs to be improved for better health. There are dietary sources of Vitamin D which are found naturally in fish, egg yolks and milk as well as foods that are fortified with Vitamin D, such as juice, yogurt and soy beverages. Incorporating these foods into our diet helps to meet Health Canada’s recommendations of 600 – 800 IU/day, to prevent infections and for optimal health.
Variety is Key
In addiction recovery, sobriety from the addictive substance in itself helps to reverse some of the damage sustained, as the toxic effects from drugs or alcohol are no longer present to compromise ones’ health. Also, consuming a meal plan of three meals and three snacks a day with a variety of foods, helps to ensure that different nutrients are consumed and available to meet the nutrient requirements and restore normal functioning of various body systems. Canada’s Food Guide for Healthy Eating is a great tool that helps all Canadians understand how much of each nutrient we need, and which foods assist in meeting these requirements. Healthy eating is such a vital component of addiction recovery, and often times overlooked. Be mindful of the importance of how of food choices affect addiction recovery, as it undoubtedly fosters a happy and healthy sobriety.
‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’ ~ Hippocrates.
For more information on Canada’s Food Guide, go to:
Gabbay, S. (2005). Kicking Addiction . [Weblog]. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from https://www.alive.com/health/kicking-addiction.
Janz, T., Pearson, C. (2013). Statistics Canada. Retrieved 12 October, 2015, from https://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-624-x/2013001/article/11727-eng.htm.
Addiction Recovery: How Healthy Fats Help
The topic of dietary fat often brings forth different opinions, with both negative and positive connotations. As one of the six essential nutrients found in food, fats also known as fatty acids or lipids play a vital role as a source of energy for our body. Despite the importance of this nutrient in our diet, fats have been given a bad rap in recent history, with beliefs that limiting and even avoiding fats is best practice. What is often minimized in this discussion are the different types of fats, including beneficial fats which are essential for normal functioning of our body and disease prevention.
Active addiction has many consequences in overall health, and one area that is often impacted is diet and nutrition. In recovery from alcohol, drug, sex and food addiction, balance and moderation is an important component of refueling, healing and restoring good health. Fats are an imperative part of maintaining these tasks, and ultimately improving both physical and mental health concerns.
Saturated and Unsaturated fats
Saturated fats are unhealthy fats found in animal based foods such as meat, poultry, cheese and dairy products. Trans fats are another group of unhealthy fats that are made during partial hydrogenation, or when liquid oil is turned into a solid fat. Foods include margarine, baked goods and fried foods.
Both saturated and trans fats offer minimal health benefits, and when consumed in large amounts have been linked to heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Saturated fats have been shown to increase LDL (low density lipoproteins), which is known as the ‘bad cholesterol’. It increases plaque buildup on the walls of the arteries and causes blockages and increased risk for developing heart disease, and specifically for a heart attack. Trans fats also increase LDL levels, and in addition it decreases the ‘good’ cholesterol called HDL (high density lipoproteins) which helps to take the cholesterol out of the blood vessels, reducing plaque buildup on the blood vessel walls and improving heart health.
Unsaturated fats are healthy fats that can be broken down into monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) which include omega 3 and omega 6. Monounsaturated fats include nuts, canola, olive, sunflower and safflower oil and avocados. Omega 3 PUFA includes fatty fishes such as trout, herring, salmon, sardines, flaxseed, walnuts and soybeans. Omega 6 PUFA includes vegetable oil, corn oil and walnuts. Choosing unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats help to reduce LDL levels, and increase HDL levels which is best for normal cardiovascular function.
Fats are an important source of energy, and depending on the foods chosen, they can help or harm ones’ overall health. However it is important to remember that too much of any fat can have negative impacts on overall health. Health Canada recommends that 20-30% of our total daily caloric intake come from fat. While remaining mindful that choosing unsaturated fat sources, limiting saturated fat intake, and less than 2% of fat intake from trans-fat provides optimal health and meeting dietary recommendations.
Health Benefits in Addiction Recovery
Due to low appetite, irregular eating patterns and poor food choices, healthy fats may not bet consumed in sufficient amounts, which affects the health of those in active addiction. Choosing the right fats in addiction recovery can have significant benefits on both mental and physical health.
Studies show that low levels of omega 3’s have been linked with depression. As omega 3 rich foods may not be consumed during the addiction, this nutrient deficit could contribute to symptoms of depression. Another study shows that low levels of EPA (a type of omega 3) have been linked with ‘impulsive behaviour, hostility and cynical ideas’ (Barclay, 2007). Mood swings or fluctuations, as well as depression can be a significant trigger to use an addictive substance or behaviour. Correcting this deficit by incorporating omega 3 rich foods such as fatty fish for example is important in potentially reducing these symptoms and obstacles in recovery. Healthy fats are also important as they aid in the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Some of the other functions of fats include providing texture and mouth feel to foods, as well as promoting satiety which helps us feel full for longer periods.
These examples all have an impact on addiction recovery. Practicing good nutrition by following a meal plan of three meals and three snacks a day is key. A meal plan including a good source of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats is an important part of supporting sober living, by improving heart health, cognition, mood and brain function. Each of these macronutrients play a role in addiction recovery, and despite the negative views on fats, it too has an important role by protecting and healing our mind and body.
- Barclay, L. (2007). Fighting Depression and Improving Cognition with Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved 2 July, 2015, from https://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2007/10/report_depression/Page-01