Most alcoholics and addicts have low levels of dopamine, the brain’s “feel good” chemical. For some, the low levels of dopamine have a genetic base which predisposes them to addiction. Dopamine levels also drop as a result of substance abuse. Regardless of the reason, boosting dopamine levels naturally through diet eases the detoxification process and provides a sound base for lifelong recovery.
The high patients get from substance abuse comes in part from the increased dopamine release stimulated by drugs or alcohol and, in some cases, from overeating. Over time, the disruption of the natural production and release of dopamine leads to ever lower levels circulating in the brain and increased need for external stimulation. When people enter recovery, they are in a dopamine trough — their brains are not producing it on their own and they are no longer receiving the signal previously provided by the drugs.
A low glycemic/dopamine rich diet can kick start the brain’s ability to produce dopamine, providing a critical edge in assisting patients who have decided to stop substance abuse. Detoxification rids the body of toxins from drugs, alcohol, and other poor choices in diet such as the high fat, high salt, high sugar foods that addicts often crave. Many people with addictions will relapse during detox because of the need for dopamine. Cleansing the body with a minimum of discomfort by addressing those cravings gets people through this very challenging phase and leads to higher success rates.
Based on neuroscience, the ideal diet for recovery eschews white flour, most added sugars, and foods with low nutritional value. It emphasizes foods high in protein, a variety of vegetables, and fruit with lower sugar content. Recommended foods include eggs, cheeses, yogurt, nuts, tofu, lean organic meat (not pork) and poultry, non-farm-raised fish, fruits with the exception of melons and bananas, vegetables other than white potatoes and corn, whole wheat breads and pastas, whole grains such as barley, spelt, buckwheat, farro, quinoa. Using low-glycemic index foods prevents sugar spikes and crashes that can negatively affect mood and energy levels.
The diet repairs the brain, improves mood and helps to restore overall health, which has often been severely compromised by the addiction. At the same time, the dopamine diet discourages transference of the addiction to food, a common occurrence in recovery. Recent research indicates that weight gain following cessation of substance abuse may continue for more than a year in individuals who have the dopamine D2 receptor gene. For these patients, a high dopamine diet provides double benefit.
A dopamine rich diet also enables patients who have comorbid eating disorders to adopt a healthy eating pattern and stop using food to self soothe. For those who take medications that slow their metabolisms or otherwise contribute to weight gain, the holistic approach to recovery helps them learn more appropriate food choice and keep their diets, weight and exercise in balance.
Within a week of starting on a healthy eating plan, patients can feel the impact. When combined with mindfulness and breath work, they gain greater mental clarity, which helps them tackle the cognitive work of recovery and continue to make better life choices. That confers a greater sense of self-efficacy around self-care, particularly as patients learn to buy and prepare foods that improve their mood and overall health.
The constant level of dopamine the diet provides keeps those in recovery feeling good while reducing their cravings for drugs and alcohol. Because addiction is a chronic disease, those in recovery find that continuing to choose high dopamine foods helps them maintain sobriety and minimize the risk of transferring their addiction to another dopamine-stimulating substance or activity.
The diet also provides a base for long-term improvement in health which contributes to a greater sense of control, self-mastery and self-worth. Together, those cognitive and emotional benefits lay a foundation for long-term remission and successful recovery.