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Recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is a long journey and getting clean is a huge accomplishment. The impact of drugs on the brain and mental health are well documented, but years of drug abuse can also take a heavy toll on the body. To properly heal following recovery from addiction and help prevent a relapse, it is important to take gradual steps to restore your physical health.
The Negative Effects of Drugs on Your Body
If you are a recovered substance abuser, you know that drugs negatively impacted your life and you personally witnessed the destructive aftermath. However, you might not be aware that long-term abuse of any drug will leave its mark on your body. Every drug has side effects that are inherently tied to its chemical ingredients, even drugs that aren’t addictive. Before implementing a physical healing regimen, it is helpful to understand the detrimental effects and health risks that drugs can inflict on your body.
Alcohol: Long-term addiction can cause damage to the entire body. Heart: cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), stroke and high blood pressure. Liver: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Immune system: Alcohol can weaken the immune system, making you prone to diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Alcohol can also increase the risk of oral, esophageal, throat, liver and breast cancer.1
Cocaine: Short-term effects include increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, narrowed blood vessels, enlarged pupils, headache, abdominal pain and nausea, insomnia, heart attack, stroke, seizure and coma. Long-term effects include loss of the sense of smell, nosebleeds, nasal damage and trouble swallowing, infection and death of bowel tissue from decreased blood flow, and poor nutrition and weight loss from decreased appetite.2
Heroin: Short-term effects include warm flushing of skin, dry mouth, heavy feeling in the hands and feet, itching, nausea, vomiting, and slowed breathing and heart rate. Long-term effects include collapsed veins, abscesses (swollen tissue with pus), infection of the lining and valves in the heart, constipation and stomach cramps, liver or kidney disease, and pneumonia.2
Marijuana: Short-term effects include balance and coordination problems, and increased heart rate and appetite. Long-term effects include being overweight/obesity, chronic cough and frequent respiratory infections.2
Methamphetamine: Short-term effects include increased breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature, irregular heartbeat, and decreased appetite. Long-term effects include weight loss, insomnia, severe dental problems (“meth mouth”), and intense itching that can lead to skin sores from scratching.2
Prescription opioids: These include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine and oxycodone. Physiologic tolerance may occur from chronic opioid use, requiring escalating dosage to alleviate pain. Short-term effects include nausea, vomiting, constipation, dry mouth, itching, sweating, headache, slowed breathing, diffuse muscle weakness, bowel obstruction, slowed or irregular heartbeat, trouble urinating and death.2 Long-term effects of oxycodone include acetaminophen toxicity and kidney or liver failure.3 Long-term effects of hydrocodone include acetaminophen toxicity, liver damage and sensorineural hearing loss.4
Steps in Healing
Nutrition: Eating is a low priority for many people struggling with addiction. A person in recovery is often prone to overeating, especially if they were addicted to stimulants. Proper nutrition and hydration are key to the healing process because they help restore both physical and mental health and improve the chance of recovery. Macro- and micronutrient deficiencies can lead to depression, anxiety and low energy, all of which can trigger a relapse.5
Individualized nutrition counseling and comprehensive nutrition education programs have been found to improve three-month sobriety success rates in people with substance use issues.6 It is recommended that you work with a nutritionist who understands the particular needs of addiction recovery. If you wish to get started on your own, here are a few helpful tips.7
- Don’t make major changes immediately — gradual dietary improvements will result in better compliance with your new nutrition regimen.
- Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day.
- Choose foods that are low in fat and include adequate amounts of lean protein to help rebuild muscles.
- Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to get the necessary vitamins, fiber and minerals.
- Avoid processed, simple carbohydrates. Opt for whole grains instead.
- Vitamin and mineral supplements may be helpful during and after recovery (including B-complex, zinc, and vitamins A and C).
Exercise: Exercise is believed to stimulate some of the same circuits in the brain as many addictive substances, therefore getting involved in physical activity may be a good way to replace self-destructive behaviors.5 When you feel ready, start incorporating exercise into your healthy lifestyle. As with nutrition, if you start out slowly, you are more likely to stick to a new exercise routine. Walking is a great way to begin. Taking a daily walk with a friend or family member can help you commit to a fitness plan. Then gradually increase the distance you walk every week.
If you are considering more intense workouts, you might want to enlist the help of a professional trainer. This is particularly important if you have any physical problems that might be exacerbated by exercise. Trainers know how to customize workout plans to address an individual’s specific needs. An optimal routine should focus on both cardiovascular exercise and strength training.
Getting your body back into top condition is an important part of recovery. Improving your physical health involves making changes to your diet and getting active. These positive changes will make you feel better, which will result in a reduced likelihood of relapsing. Drug addiction recovery is a lifelong process — for every few steps forward, there may be a step backward now and then. If you fear that you are slipping back into old destructive behaviors, seek professional help as soon as possible.
- Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body Accessed June 11, 2016.
- Commonly Abused Drugs Charts. National Institute of Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs-charts Updated April 2016. Accessed June 11, 2016.
- The Effects of Oxycodone Use. Drug Abuse website. http://drugabuse.com/library/the-effects-of-oxycodone-use/#long-term-effects-of-oxycodone Accessed June 11, 2016.
- The Effects of Hydrocodone Use. Drug Abuse website. http://drugabuse.com/library/the-effects-of-hydrocodone-use/ Accessed June 11, 2016.
- Salz, A. Substance Abuse and Nutrition. Today’s Dietitian. 2014:16(12):44
- Grant LP, Haughton B, Sachan DS. Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104(4):604-610.
- Diet and substance use recovery. MedlinePlus website https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002149.htm Updated Feb. 24, 2014. Accessed June 11, 2016.