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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.

Vitamin-and-MineralVitamins 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

B Vitamins

whole grains

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

vitamin B

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

milk and eggs

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

Janz, T., Pearson, C.  (2013). Statistics Canada. Retrieved 12 October, 2015, from


Addiction Recovery: How Healthy Fats Help

health-benefits-of-omega-3-fatty-acids-featuredThe 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.


  1. Barclay, L. (2007). Fighting Depression and Improving Cognition with Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved 2 July, 2015, from

“Orthorexia”: When Healthy Eating Becomes a Problem

OrthorexiaOrthorexia is a relatively new term used to describe a type of problematic eating and food preoccupation.  As orthorexia is somewhat unknown, there is some confusion about what it actually means, and whether or not it is an emerging eating disorder, distinct from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

The term orthorexia first appeared in a 2001 book by Steven Bratman entitled Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa – Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating. The author, who is a physician specializing in holistic medicine, coined the term and defined it as an “unhealthy obsession with healthy food.”  The root “ortho” comes from the Greek meaning “correct” or “right” and “rexia” implies that it is an eating disorder similar to anorexia but with an emphasis on correct or “pure” eating. The term orthorexia is not listed in the dictionary, nor is it an official diagnosis, and as a result there are no associated criteria for diagnosis. However it may useful to think about the idea of having an “unhealthy obsession with healthy food.” Can one take an interest in healthy eating too far? If so, how far is too far? Can the interest in healthy eating lead to negative physical and mental consequences? In my everyday life experiences and in my experience as a therapist working with clients who have eating disorders, I have seen examples that I would define as “taking an interest in healthy eating too far.” I have seen the obsession with healthy eating affect people’s lives, health and happiness. I have seen this become a contributing cause of death.

I believe an interest in healthy eating can be seen as part of an attitude and behaviour continuum that ranges from those who know about, and try to make wise choices in their food selection most of the time, to those who cannot eat food that is deemed “imperfect,” even if it means starving themselves.

I personally know of an example whereby an individual let their obsession with healthy eating ultimately lead to their premature death. Not long ago, I received a call from a friend whose elderly father was in the hospital with a medical illness.  My friend was very concerned because while in the hospital, his father refused food and water. For years, this man had controlled his diet by choosing foods that he thought were healthy. He tried to buy everything organic, would not eat certain food for reasons that to me seemed obscure, was vegetarian, mostly vegan and drank only bottled water. He felt good about making these choices and generally talked about them with an air of pride. However, when in the hospital, he was not eating or drinking. He stated he considered the water to be unsafe because it came from the tap, and the hospital food, which was not organic, would make him sicker. Had it not been for these attitudes and fears, which led to his refusal to eat while in the hospital, his medical issue probably could have been treated successfully.

Although this story may seem extreme, it is not uncommon. For example, someone can start out with good intentions to improve their health, but this can spiral out of control. The ways in which it can spiral out of control include limiting or avoiding social eating when the food provided is not considered healthy enough, becoming preoccupied with food and health in general. This in turn can affect mental health and happiness, and even the ability to focus on other important aspects of life such as recreation, school and career. What started out as a seemingly “normal” interest in a healthy diet ironically becomes unhealthy.

Part of the problem is that all the messages we currently get from media, Internet, books etc. about healthy eating and healthy foods can be very confusing. Almost any food you choose can be seen as either healthy or unhealthy depending on the source of the information. If you were to follow all the advice, there would be literally nothing left to eat! And don’t forget, many sources of information such as the Internet and TV can be sensational, and not based on scientific evidence. One extreme reaction to this type of information is to try to restrict all foods that are considered “bad”, as evidenced in those exhibiting “orthorexic-type” behaviours. The other is to disregard all nutritional information, because it is impossible to meet these standards. These individuals end up eating a predominance of fast food and foods with little nutritional value.

What is ideal, however, is the idea that one can develop a balanced, middle ground approach to diet and nutrition. Granted, this is not sexy or exciting. However, it can be maintained in the long term, and would not negatively impact one’s emotional and physical well-being. In a balanced approach, one thinks of healthy eating “guidelines” rather than rules or absolutes. Food is neither good nor bad, and all food can be eaten in moderation.  An example of a healthy eating guideline is “whole grains are better than processed grains – I aim to have whole grains about half the time.” Or that “desserts or other “fun foods” taste great and add to pleasure in life. I can allow myself to have a portion of these foods daily.” This balanced approach is one which promotes recovery from eating disorders, and which I espouse in my own life.

If you are finding yourself preoccupied with healthy eating, or other eating concerns, it can be very helpful to seek counselling.  The diagnosis or label (“orthorexia”, bulimia, etc.) is not the important thing. What is important is whether food is interfering with your life; making you feel overwhelmed, taking too much time and energy, affecting relationships, self-esteem or your mood. If this is the case, a therapist, especially one familiar with eating disorders, can be of great help.