How can food help your recovery from addiction?

Addiction affects people on all levels of their being—mind, body and spirit. Addicts often experience the pain of depression and anxiety as well as a disconnect from their families, communities and deeper selves. They struggle with thinking that tells them drugs and alcohol are the best solution to making this suffering go away, and with cravings that can never be satisfied. 

In other words, addiction hits people from all sides. 

People in recovery benefit from treatment that also affects all levels of being. Traditional addiction treatment has often focused on healing the mind and the spirit. People in recovery might work with a therapist once or twice a week and go to twelve-step meetings at night. 

This works for a lot of people. But what about the people who continue to relapse, despite their best efforts?

It may surprise you to learn that changing what they eat can make a difference.

As as the CEO of Malibu Beach Recovery Center (MBRC) from 2007-2014, I helped pioneer the use of food as an additional tool to support recovery. Working with neuroscientist Dr. Kenneth Blum and a team of chefs, we created a diet that helps people in early recovery have a better shot at staying sober.

Food is rarely talked about in the context of addiction. However, science shows that certain foods—including sugar, caffeine and white flour—light up the same parts of the brain that drugs and alcohol do. They trigger a strong release of dopamine (a chemical in the brain that makes you feel good) just like cocaine or pot or tequila. This means, in the short term, these foods actually help satisfy cravings for drugs and alcohol because they push the same buttons. 

The problem is that as any addict knows, once you have a taste, you always need more. In the long run, a diet full of sugar, caffeine and white flour actually intensifies your drug cravings, making it harder to stay sober. 

Dr. Blum’s work revealed that people who suffer from addiction often have brains that naturally produce less dopamine than most people. That’s part of why they like drugs and alcohol so much—it’s an artificial way of boosting their dopamine beyond the lower than normal levels nature gives them. But when drugs and alcohol boost dopamine, they do so in a way that causes a large spike (the high) and an equally large crash. So does (to a lesser extent) eating sugar, caffeine and white flour.

The Malibu Beach Recovery Diet shows people in recovery how to eat foods that boost their dopamine to the healthy levels naturally enjoyed by non-addicts, while avoiding foods that mimic the spike and crash effect produced by drugs and alcohol. The goal is to help break the cycle of high and low, while promoting a more gentle and sustainable feeling of well-being. It’s another level of healing.

Our diet isn’t a cure for addiction. But when people in recovery learn to eat the right foods, they can have a smoother road to staying clean and sober. Many of our clients at MBRC were amazed at how they felt after a week or two of eating our fresh, healthy food. They were caring for their bodies, and starting to come back alive. 

When they went home after treatment, they wanted to keep it up. So we created The Malibu Beach Recovery Diet Cookbook. It’s packed with recipes, shopping lists, and suggestions to guide you through a diet that can help calm your brain, nourish your body and support your journey of recovery. 

Joan Borsten