We all know that excessive consumption of alcohol is unhealthy, but what we may not know much about is how to counteract the effects of alcoholism to enjoy a healthy life in recovery. We recently talked with Maxime Zara Stadlen, MSHN, a celebrated local holistic nutritionist here in Northern California to learn more about how to find balance in sobriety through proper nutrition.
Q. Individuals who have abused alcohol & drugs are often malnourished because in the all-consuming search for substances, they’ve completely neglected their diet. Does this type of malnourishment pose any long-term risks or problems in sobriety?
A. For sure. Malnourishment is malnourishment, whatever the cause. When we are deficient in some way, we begin to crave things.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? The problem is that we don’t always crave exactly what we need. Many times the malnourished, addicted brain will reach for foods that mimic the effects of the drug or alcohol of choice—drinking lots of coffee and sugary, white flour type foods is very common.
This is problematic because it maintains the crave-feed-crave cycle. Many addicts have damaged digestive function so they may need supportive nutrients to digest healthy food, and they will most often benefit from increasing protein foods and vegetable foods with every meal. They shouldn’t necessarily restrict fats, but learn to consume healthy fats.
Q. What role does nutrition play in the overall wellness of someone in recovery? Can proper nutrition play a contributing role in achieving long-term sobriety?
A. Certainly. Balanced nutrition is key to wellness, in general. Optimally, in recovery, there is going to be a process of not just restricting the substance or substances in question, but of pinpointing originating causes, addressing them, and then incorporating into the diet and lifestyle healthier options to support healing in a comprehensive way.
You want to create healthy, satisfying substitutes for all the previous habits, which were so depleting and damaging. Proper nutrition balances the brain, the metabolism, every part of the body and function that we need to feel our best. And feeling good naturally is the best possible way to maintain sobriety.
Q. How does proper or improper nutrition affect cravings for drugs & alcohol?
A. I will give you an example. An alcoholic, for instance, has been living on sugar. This is something many people fail to understand. Take the beer drinker. They often crave salty foods like potato chips. They don’t make the connection and what they don’t realize is that all alcohol, including beer is basically like injecting sugar.
Alcohol raises the blood sugar level and then, after insulin shunts it all out of the bloodstream, there is a crash. That is what causes the craving for more. So recovering alcoholics must keep to a strict no-sugar diet, or they will keep activating their cravings. Many times they will have serious intestinal damage from the alcohol and the sugars, intestinal dysbiosis, Candida. This should all be evaluated, and diets should be customized to meet the needs of the individual in recovery to really establish sobriety in a sustainable way.
People in recovery will need help to maintain this new lifestyle when they come out of rehab. Part of any successful rehab program will be cooking and food prep instruction. Everyone must learn this basic self-care—how to feed ourselves and our loved ones, how to sit around the hearth and be together with kindness and compassion. Eating an organic tomato out of the garden can be an ecstatic, sensory experience, as well as providing some really great physical nutrition.
We should be able to provide some naturally exciting nutrition in exchange for the ravages of drugs and alcohol. Protein, once again, will help rebuild damaged tissues and also replenish serotonin in the brain. Serotonin deficiencies, as you know, are epidemic in this country. Symptoms of serotonin deficiency include depression, low self-confidence, some anxiety, sleep disturbances, cravings, apathy, even some OCD behaviors, etc. Can you see how a person with such symptoms may have become accustomed to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol?
So by eating properly, and possibly supplementing to replenish, we can address the root cause and thus eliminate the desire or need for the “medication” or substance of choice.
“Feeling good naturally is the best possible way to maintain sobriety.”
Q. There’s an old adage we like to use, HALT, that says never get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. We say this because these factors affect our mood and our mood can affect how susceptible we are to the triggers of addiction. How does nutrition affect one’s mood?
A. So I am going to repeat some themes here because they can’t be said enough—blood sugar levels are key.
When we get too hungry, we will eat what gives us energy the quickest: that’s high-glycemic foods, starchy carbohydrates, etc. This will set up the binge and crash paradigm all over again. So we recommend eating 3 meals plus snacks every day, that all contain some protein, healthy fats and wholesome, whole food carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are plants, veggies, grains, fruits, anything that converts to sugar ultimately; you want to optimize the type of carbohydrates that transform to sugar SLOWLY. These are the plants and grains that have the highest fiber content and are in their closest form to how they grow out of the ground. The foods that have to be processed for us to eat, such as sugars and flours, convert too fast and are often stripped of any nutrient content. They are empty calories and poison in this context, and should be considered off-limits.
There are alternatives, wonderful alternatives now, so there is no need for people to feel deprived. In the beginning, while the system is in recovery, and maybe for a while after, we suggest eating fruit only in combination with protein, never alone. Slow the movement of sugar with the slower-digesting fats and proteins, such as nuts, for instance, or nut butters. Don’t drink sodas or juices. It’s not necessary or helpful. If you want fruit, eat the whole fruit with the fiber, combine with some walnuts. The juice is pure sugar without the fiber. Yes it has vitamins, but you have to begin to look at the big picture.
Drink pure water and lots of it, herbal teas, and coconut water, which is loaded with electrolytes. Alcoholics are often dehydrated. The electrolyte minerals are essential for proper hydration, essential for cardiovascular health, for metabolic health.
If you’re not fatigued all the time, you won’t reach for a stimulant to get going. So getting enough rest and eating well, not over-burdening the system, all of this is going to be supportive. The person who knows how to cook will always have friends! Learn to cook healthy and you’ll always have healthy friends to help you stay healthy and sober.
Q. So what foods should those in recovery look for to help them stabilize their mood and make it easier to maintain their sobriety?
A. Protein, protein, protein, most of which also contains healthy fats.
I am defining healthy fats in this case as stable saturated fats, extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil, raw unrefined coconut oil, Omega 3 fatty acids (like fish oil), the fats in fresh, raw almonds, cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, etc. (Un-healthy fats are refined vegetable oils, cottonseed oil, canola, corn, and of course the trans fats. The chemical structures in these new oils are so foreign to our bodies, they don’t know how to process and eliminate them, so they build up and cause damage.)
So let’s just talk for a moment about animal protein, because there is a lot of hype right now in the media promoting vegetarianism. I am sorry, but if you are in recovery, I hope you will be open to being an omnivore because most people will not make it on a vegetarian diet long term. With exception, most cannot keep up with the protein requirement for the healthy brain from a vegetarian or vegan diet. We have the teeth for it. If digestion is a problem, we can support digestive function.
Just be sure to source meat from purveyors who are enabling the animals to be pastured fully, not fed grains or pumped full of antibiotics. Choose wisely. Pastured, humanely-raised animals provide a high quality protein source for humans. Consider all the money once spent on drugs invested wisely in nourishment, and observe healing take place.
Q. What’s the key to good nutrition?
A. Balance. Wholistic Nutrition looks at how, what, when and why we are eating what we are eating. The body is always seeking for balance. In biology this is called “homeostasis.” We can help our bodies get there more efficiently by providing balanced nutrition.
Balanced nutrition is basically eating a varied, whole food diet and eliminating the refined and processed foods. Almost everyone feels better in this way. Then we may have to tweak a few other things to fine tune. But good nutrition all comes down to balance.
Q. Do you offer any services that would be helpful to those in long-term recovery?
A. Yes. I practice Wholistic Nutrition, which is nutrition for the body, mind, and soul; and Amino Acid Therapy, which is targeted support for mood and addiction recovery. When we address all of these key areas, we experience healing and can achieve and learn to sustain balanced, good health. I create a safe space for examining and refining our consumption of food, media, the thoughts we tell ourselves or believe about ourselves and others, our relationship to our Source Power or Higher Power, and how we create our lives through our choices. This is empowering. Healing is an inside job, but it’s way more fun to do it together!
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A. One additional thing I would like to address is the role of the community in healing, sobriety, and life as a human being in general. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a supportive community to grow with and heal with, where it is safe and supportive to be authentic.
The AA groups provide this, and so do many other sorts of groups and circles, so I would encourage everyone in recovery to try on all sorts of different communities. Go to a drum circle, a sweat lodge, a temple or church group, an NVC training or study group, just find a community of support somewhere.
We are pack animals and the American culture has revered the lone wolf for far too long, at our peril. Humans don’t fare well in solitude, generally speaking. Or rather, we may need some solo time periodically or even daily, but we also have a very real need to feel we are connected to others, as well as to the earth itself/Herself. So people in recovery should also connect with the earth and the elements of life, ground oneself frequently in nature. Go to the beach, the mountains, the forest or a nearby park and put your bare feet on the ground. Lay on the earth and gaze up at the sky. This feeds the soul.
Maxime, Thank you so much for talking with us and providing such helpful information about nutrition in recovery! You can learn more about what Maxime does and request her services through her websites: prasadnutrition.com and mobilemandala.org.