Health and Recovery

health header

Addiction is a disease, and just like with other diseases, it is important to take care of the body during recovery in order to speed up the healing process. Over 22 million Americans aged 12 and older, or 8.6 of the adult population, battled substance abuse or dependence at the time of the national survey in 2013.[1]

Substance abuse and dependency are highly treatable. A recent survey found that 10 percent of the American population aged 18 or older report that they are in recovery from a drug or alcohol abuse problem, meaning that 23.5 million Americans who once struggled with substance abuse or dependency found their way to sobriety.[2]

Eating a nutritious diet and engaging in healthy exercise endeavors can bolster recovery. Yoga and meditation are great methods to help recovering addicts cope with stress and anxiety, and learn new ways to reduce both naturally. A successful substance abuse treatment program will often include psychotherapies and counseling sessions in addition to holistic methods of healing that can be perpetuated throughout recovery to maintain sobriety.


The Importance of a Balanced Diet

Drugs and alcohol abuse can have many negative effects on the body, depleting individuals of essential nutrients, and addiction can create chronic health problems if not managed correctly. Stimulant drugs, for example, may suppress the appetite and cause drastic and unhealthy weight loss, while alcohol can damage the liver and dehydrate the system. Substance abuse can lower the effectiveness of one’s immune system and make changes to blood pressure, heart rate, and metabolism.

Addiction may create drug or alcohol cravings and compulsions that put substance abuse ahead of everything else, causing the addict to neglect physical well-being. Many substances have withdrawal symptoms that may be characterized by nausea and/or vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation, which can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes. Detox is the process of purging drugs or alcohol from the body and may require around-the-clock medical supervision and care as well as adjunct medications to reach initial physical stabilization and manage withdrawal side effects.

Up to 50 percent of substance abusers also have a co-occurring eating disorder, making a detailed nutritional plan during detox and recovery even more important.[3] The body will need to regain a natural balance during recovery, and a healthy diet and a responsible relationship with food are great places to start.

The appetite that may have been suppressed while abusing drugs or alcohol, and it will likely return with a vengeance during detox. It can be easy to overeat initially, making it important to stick to healthy snacks and meals. Caffeine and tobacco should be limited, as they are likely to feed cravings. It’s recommended that the individual eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains during recovery, making these more a part of the diet than processed foods. Sticking to scheduled mealtimes and a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, and fiber, and low in sugars and fats, can help to restore physical balance. In addition, a nutritious diet can also improve mood, metabolism, and energy levels. Energy levels are likely to be low during detox and the initial recovery period, and complex carbohydrates can help increase these levels naturally, without the highs and lows that substance abuse created.

nutritious diet

Substance abuse and dependency can also affect sleep patterns. Reestablishing regular sleep schedules by getting plenty of rest can enforce a healthy lifestyle and help the body to heal as well. When you get enough sleep, you are more mentally clear and emotionally able to take on a new day.

The production and absorption of serotonin and dopamine – some of the brain’s neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, responsible for pleasure, emotions, and restful sleep – may be disrupted with substance abuse and dependency, and certain foods can help reverse this. For instance, complex carbohydrates aid in producing serotonin and regulating blood sugar levels, keeping moods stable and cravings to a minimum. When you eat healthy, you are less likely to feel depressed, agitated, and irritable, and it will also ensure you have more energy and sleep better.

As the immune system is negatively affected by substance abuse, proper nutrition can improve vitality and immune functions. It can help to heal some of the organs that were negatively affected and reverse other body and cell damage that may be a product of drug or alcohol abuse.

Vitamin or mineral supplements may be helpful during recovery, too, including vitamins A and C, zinc, and B-complex, which may be depleted with substance abuse. Omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in fish oil, can aid in boosting the immune system and regulating moods.[4] Drinking plenty of water can help to absorb medications, vitamins, and minerals as well as keep cravings at bay and improve general health. Often, drug or alcohol cravings may be mistaken for hunger and ensuring you eat enough of the right foods at the right times, and making sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day, can help to prevent episodes of relapse, or a return to substance abuse.

A dietician or nutritionist may be a great additional resource to substance abuse and mental health counselors and therapists, helping you to set up an individualized plan that you can follow for a long and sustained recovery.

Yoga and Exercise Make Positive Changes in the Brain

Physical fitness also improves mood, and typically, the better you feel physically, the more emotionally stable you are liable to be as well. Regular exercise releases endorphins that can make you feel good, reducing depression and anxiety, and increasing cardiovascular, endocrine, and pulmonary functions while improving overall physical well-being. Setting up a fitness plan during recovery and sticking to a regular schedule of activities can keep the mind busy and active, resulting in fewer drug cravings and episodes of relapse. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the level of physical fitness that is appropriate for you.


While the root cause of substance abuse is still hotly debated, many agree that it is often used a form of self-medication for mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, and as a method to temporarily cope with stress. About half of those suffering from severe mental illness also abuse substances while half of drug abusers suffer from a mental disorder and one-third of alcohol abusers also do.[5] When two disorders are present in the same person at the same time, it is considered co-occurring disorders. Many mental and mood disorders as well as substance abuse disorders are characterized by an unhealthy response to stress or stressors. Treatment for co-occurring disorders often includes behavioral therapies in order to adjust these coping mechanisms, replacing them with healthier strategies going forward.

Addiction makes chemical changes in the brain related to motivation and reward pathways. Neuroimaging, or brain mapping, has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) actually makes positive changes to the brain in relation to negative emotions and stress regulation, reversing some of the dysfunctions in the central nervous system.[6]


Yoga is often thought of as primarily an Eastern practice, although national surveys indicate that almost 8 percent of Americans have tried yoga at least once.[7] Yoga focuses on physical poses, controlled breathing, and meditation to create a mental awareness and sense of control. It can be practiced virtually anywhere, requiring no special equipment or tools and can be attempted by anyone. Yoga poses, called asanas, promote physical fitness in a safe and gentle manner, many of which are relatively easy to learn, fostering the connection between physical and mental abilities.

Recent studies have also shown that yoga may be an effective tool for the reduction of stress and anxiety by potentially increasing the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) by as much as 27 percent an hour after practicing yoga.[8] GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that decreases anxiety and stress, producing calming and relaxing effects. GABA production is stimulated by anti-anxiety medications, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, indicating that yoga may be an effective alternative to these common substance of abuse in regulating stress.

Another study took women with emotional distress symptoms and asked them to attend 90-minute yoga classes twice a week for three weeks. At the end of the study, their depression, anxiety, and general well-being scores were compiled, and the findings showed that anxiety symptoms improved 30 percent, depressive symptoms improved 50 percent, and overall well-being was improved 65 percent.[9] When used in conjunction with behavioral therapies, yoga can be an effective tool for treating depression and anxiety, which are often precursors to substance abuse and addiction.

Mindfulness Techniques

The idea of “mindfulness” may have initially come from Buddhists thousands of years ago as a way to become more self-aware of one’s actions, thoughts, and motivations. While mindfulness may be rooted in spirituality, today it is often practiced through yoga, controlled breathing, and meditation as a method to reduce anxiety and stress and better control emotions. Yoga focuses on the concept of wholeness and on creating a balance between the mental, physical, and spiritual self, which may be partially why it can be so effective in reducing cravings and episodes of relapse.

Controlled breathing exercises as well as meditation can quiet the mind and help you to better understand and, therefore, better regulate emotions. Meditation requires discipline as you train your mind to focus on one thing or body part at a time, focusing your energy inward instead of relying on outside influences. Mindful meditation sessions teach you to be more present within yourself and stop trying to self-medicate in order to relieve emotional pain and suffering. It is a practice that encourages a nonjudgmental assessment of yourself, with the end result being acceptance. Mindful meditation and yoga can assist you in becoming more connected and in tune with your body. As you learn to respect and have more compassion for yourself, you will have less desire to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse.

The concept of mindfulness used in yoga and meditation creates a new way to self-soothe and reduce stress and anxiety while increasing impulse control abilities. It may also help you to define underlying or potential triggers that may lead to negative behaviors. By understanding what they are, you can better learn skills for coping with them through deep breathing and periods of absolute stillness during meditation.

One study took a group of incarcerated inmates who were substance abusers and taught them mindful meditation techniques. Three months after their release, they showed fewer instances of substance abuse, anxiety, and depression symptoms.[10] Regaining control over life is an important step in recovery from substance abuse or dependency, and mindfulness techniques can be wonderful tools. Addicts often feel out-of-control, restless, and jumpy, and yoga and meditation can improve the mind-body connection through sheer will and determination. Yoga and meditation can be empowering and practiced without any help or outside influences, once you learn the techniques, making them great tools for sustaining abstinence anywhere and at any given time, even when you are unable to reach your support network.

Other Holistic Methods Useful in Recovery

The term “holistic” is often used in medicine and treatment procedures these days, and by definition, it means to treat the whole person and not just the physical parts.[11] Commonly referred to as “alternative” medicine, holistic methods are gaining popularity, and more and more scientific research pronounces the effectiveness of holistic methods when used in conjunction with traditional methods. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices as well as nutritional planning and exercise therapy are considered holistic approaches to substance abuse and dependency treatment that are very effective, especially when combined with psychotherapies and adjunct medications.

Many holistic techniques focus on the Chinese concept of “qi” which is the energy or life force that flows through a person. Pain, both physical and emotional, is thought to block qi, and holistic techniques can restore the flow, reestablishing the balance between mind and body. When qi flows as it should, inner peace is reached.

Other holistic methods that have shown promise in substance abuse treatment include:

  • Acupuncture: This ancient Chinese treatment utilizes needles placed into some of the 365 identified specific acupuncture points on the body to stimulate organ functions, promote balance, and remove blockages, restoring qi flow.[12]
  • Qigong: This is a Chinese health care practice that cultivates energy using breathing, postures, and mental focus much like yoga, although it incorporates more movement. It is often the precursor to tai chi and other martial arts.
  • Tai chi: This low impact martial art focuses on breathing, relaxation, and meditation. It uses slow and gentle movements to promote healing and balance.
  • Biofeedback: This involves the use of electronic monitoring to teach you how to regulate involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure, that increase with high levels of stress.
  • Massage therapy: This healing art uses manual manipulation of tissue to decrease pain, relieve stress, and increase levels of dopamine and serotonin, helping to achieve a state of relaxation and promote restful sleep that is necessary for recovery.
  • Creative arts: Art therapies may include painting, drawing, sculpture, or other artistic forms of expression as a method of clearing the mind, focusing on something else, and producing a positive end product.
  • Equine-assisted therapy: This involves the use of horses to promote physical and psychological growth by forming a connection between the horse and person through taking care of and interacting with the animals.

Traditional 12-step models used in recovery are spiritual in nature, highlighting the need to accept one’s faults and limitations and turn oneself over to a higher power while making amends and striving to be a better person. Mindfulness techniques can go hand in hand with this philosophy. In order to complete step four, for example, addicts are asked to have “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” which can easily be accomplished through mindful meditation.[13] In order to complete all 12 steps addicts are expected to experience a “spiritual awakening” that can be aided with holistic methods and through practicing mindfulness techniques.

Expert chefs, fitness facilities, holistic therapy options, and a supportive and peaceful environment at Axis can provide you with the highest level of comprehensive care tailored specifically to you, helping you to recover from substance abuse, mental illness, or both, and setting you up for success. Contact an admissions coordinator today for more information.


[1] (2014). “Results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH): Summary of National Findings.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Accessed on April 21, 2015.

[2] (March 2012). “Survey: Ten Percent of American Adults Report Being in Recovery from Substance Abuse or Addiction.” State of New York Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS). Accessed April 21, 2015.

[3] Salz, A. MS, RD, LD. (Dec. 2014). “CPE Monthly: Substance Abuse and Nutrition.” Today’s Dietician. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[4] (2015). “Health Benefits of Fish Oil.” Organic Facts. Accessed April 24, 2015.

[5] (Jan. 2013). “Dual Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Illness.” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Accessed on April 21, 2015.

[6] Fiquieira, I., Oliveria, L., Porto, PR., Mari, J., Ventura, P., Volchan, E. (Spring 2009). “Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Change the Brain? A Systematic Review of Neuroimaging in Anxiety Disorders.” The Journal of Clinical Pyschiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[7] (April 2009). “Yoga for Anxiety and Depression.” Harvard Health Publications. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[8] Grazioplene, R. (Sept. 2012). “This is Your Brain on Yoga.” Psychology Today. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[9] (April 2009). “Yoga for Anxiety and Depression.” Harvard Health Publications. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[10] Brewer, J., Bowen, S., Marlatt, G., Potenza, M., Smith, J. (Oct. 2010). “Mindfulness-Based Treatment for Co-Occurring Depression and Substance Use Disorders: What Can We Learn From the Brain?” Addiction. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[11]Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Definition of Holistic.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[12] Chan, Y., Chin, Y., Lin, J. “Acupuncture for the Treatment of Opiate Addiction.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Accessed April 21, 2015.

[13] (June 2014). “The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.” General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Accessed April 21, 2015.