Addiction Nutrition: The Healing Power of Food

by Victoria Abel, MA, MNT

As soon as I graduated from Prescott College in 1993, I went right into the counseling field, becoming a therapist at a world renowned treatment center at the age of 23. I got my training on my feet and wouldn’t have had it any other way. From there, I specialized in working in eating disorders and dual diagnosis (clients with both a chemical addiction and another diagnosis such as an anxiety disorder or PTSD).


In 2003, my daughter was critically ill with respiratory illnesses. Rejecting the chemical cocktails the hospitals wanted her on with terrifying side effects, we turned to nutrition and naturopathic medicine. On our first appointment, the new Dr. took her off all gluten and dairy products. Almost overnight, she was breathing better and even could run a little. I was hooked on the healing power of food. I decided to get another Master’s degree, this time in Nutrition Therapy. From there, I combined the two areas of interest and created The Center for Addiction Nutrition

Addiction nutrition is the science of diet and health directly related to helping those with chemical and process addictions. Though relatively new to the addiction treatment field, addiction nutrition is a fast-growing and dynamic addition to present treatment modalities. Recognizing the role of the body in recovery through nutrition, exercise, wilderness experiences, yoga and acupuncture solidifies and validates the changes clients are making psychologically.

As an instructor at Prescott College in the Human Development department, I can share the knowledge I have in both fields, Psychology and Human Health. In the classes I teach such as Addiction and Recovery, I can integrate holistic health components such as supplementation and whole foods healing.

My students are able to come to the treatment centers where I work as an Addiction Nutritionist and tour facilities, meet with staff and even get in on a cooking class that I teach. They get cutting edge information on how clients can be helped such as: Faster drug and alcohol detoxification; increase the healing time of the brain and GI damage from drugs and alcohol; Decrease in relapse rates; learn techniques of treating depression and anxiety with food; and gather information all of us need to know to stay healthier, longer.

Substance abuse and poor nutrition often go hand-in-hand, with one issue exacerbating the other. These nutrient imbalances often can make cravings for alcohol and drugs intensify, and can worsen depression and anxiety.

In the five years that I have been a Nutrition Therapist, I have seen the incredible power of food almost daily. One 19 year old client, Andrew, came to me emaciated from his five years of IV heroin and prescription opiate use. He was severely depressed and was having trouble staying awake. He didn’t eat regularly and when he did, it was mostly candy, fast food and soda. His bowels were working on average two times a week. His blood work came back with severe anemia and very high blood sugar.

Andrew was leery of “the food lady”. But he gave me a chance and he changed his life. We first shifted from $1 pizzas and soda to eating protein (eggs, beans, chicken, fish) three times a day, drinking ¾ of a gallon of water slowly, introducing vegetables five times a day as well as whole grains such as quinoa. I also put him on four different supplements. The most important supplement for Andrew was vitamin C. The prescription opiates that he was taking causes internal damage from gastrointestinal lesions. He was bleeding internally and we had to give him a high daily dose of liquid vitamin C. He also took Omega 3 fatty acids, L-Glutamine and a B-complex.

The first thing that Andrew noticed was his energy. Instead of falling asleep in his counseling groups, he could stay awake and alert. He also noticed that he started to gain weight back and could go to the gym. His bowels came back to daily functioning in about 6 days. And he rated his anxiety as a 2 out of 10 (10 being most severe) which was a first for Andrew in 6 years. His blood sugar came down to almost a normal range by the next month and he is 18 months sober as I write this.

Many of my clients can find strength in their new and long term recovery by using their “daily medicine” of their food intake. In fact, three of my former clients have gone on to get their Master’s degree in Nutrition Therapy from my alma mater and two have come to work with me as interns.

It is inspiring how many treatment centers and medical centers are integrating nutrition therapy now. Approximately 25% of addiction treatment centers have a nutrition program or a nutritionist on staff. In the addiction treatment field, even the most widely accepted methods of treatment can result in a relapse rate of over 85% when used alone, with no adjunctive services. Treating the body as a whole, rather than just treating the disease, can increase an addict’s chances at not only recovery, but also a healthy life.

Through The Center for Addiction Nutrition, I have presented at 6 national conferences and put on a successful day long workshop on the Prescott College campus, attended by 75 therapists, clients and students.

Looking into the future for Addiction Nutrition, it is my hope to talk to more students, therapists and treatment centers to increase client’s chances at staying sober and decreasing relapse. I hope that this information can help people increase their mood and reduce anxiety and depression. I am also excited to be writing a workbook with a Prescott College On Campus Undergraduate student Natalie Boggs for her senior project. We are using important books like Seven Weeks to Sobriety by Joan Matthews Larson, Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky and The Water Cure by Dr. F. Batmanghelidj as well as our own research. This workbook will be written specifically for recovering people on the power of food in their recovery.

Look for the book in early spring 2013.

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