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The road to recovery is difficult for everyone whether you’re at the beginning or well into your journey. Incorporating wellness practices like good nutrition, exercise and improved sleep habits into your routine make your recovery easier and more successful.
Easier? You might think that sounds like extra effort when you’re already working so hard. Yet, for people in recovery, a healthy lifestyle is especially important for several major reasons. First, substance abuse causes damage to the body due to excessive stress. Second, alcohol and drug abuse can cause general malnutrition as well as specific nutrient deficiencies. Third, improved health increases your physical and mental strength which makes recovery more approachable and sustainable.
So while it might seem hard at first, a successful wellness regimen can help you to feel happier, become stronger and think more clearly. Embarking on a wellness journey can be intimidating, especially if you are also dealing with the challenges of recovery. However, wellness practices are crucial for long-term success. This helps you improve self-care which is defined as actions you take to improve your physical, mental and spiritual health.
Dave Kulsrud, Wellness Supervisor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City, MN, said the patients he sees have often neglected self-care due to their addiction. Mr. Kulsrud shared that at Hazelden Betty Ford, staff help patients develop wellness practices that improve their overall “recovery lifestyle.” Instead of teaching a specific routine, the focus of a recovery lifestyle is to help patients find the best strategies that meet their individual needs for long-term wellness and self-care. This is an especially helpful approach as it recognizes both the importance of wellness in recovery as well as the variety of ways people can incorporate it into their lives. Here are some suggestions for finding your recovery lifestyle.
There’s no one size fits all. Diet books and exercise programs can be great motivation to begin a healthier lifestyle, but they are often inflexible. Don’t let a perfect diet and fitness regimen become your new addiction. Take authors’ advice with a grain of salt, what worked for them might not necessarily be what is best for you. Make the changes that work for you.
Make short and long-term goals. Talk to your counselor, friends or yourself to figure out your self-care goals. Having goals will remind you why self-care is important for your recovery and will keep you on track. Having short-term goals (eat vegetables every day this week) in addition to long-term ones (run a 10k) will help motivate you and keep your spirits up during inevitable roadblocks.
Enlist the help of a professional. Dietitians and personal trainers can help you develop a plan that’s best for you. Also, always consult a physician who will consider your specific health needs to make sure your new habits are safe and effective. Now that we’ve covered the basics of starting a new program, let’s discuss successful exercise strategies. It’s no secret that exercise is great for you. One of the best reasons to include exercise in your life is that it boosts your mood. When you exercise, feel good neurotransmitters like endorphins and serotonin are released in your brain. This makes you feel happier and increases your energy while reducing stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise reduces symptoms from mild depression and anxiety and improves self-confidence. Exercising can help you better handle daily pressures and face the challenges of recovery.
How to start? If you’re new to exercise, it’s important to start slow. This will help prevent injury and make it more likely that you’ll stick with it. Start by walking for 10 minutes at a time and increasing by 5 minutes per week. A great long-term goal is 30-45 minutes of exercise five times a week. If you were active before and your addiction slowed you down, return to the exercise you enjoyed, but also start slow as it might take time to work up to where you were before. Be patient and give yourself a break, you’ll reach your fitness goals soon.
Create your own plan. There’s always new exercise routines and extreme fitness trends. Don’t feel obligated to go to a spinning class or join Cross Fit just because Facebook tells you to. Mr. Kulsrud shared that in his experience, the biggest roadblock to a fitness routine is that people don’t enjoy the exercise. If running bores you, try swimming or tennis instead. Just concentrate on moving more and having fun.
Work out on the cheap. Fitness doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg. While joining gyms or specialty work out classes can be motivating, they can also be expensive. Thrifty (and effective!) options include free online or on-demand workout videos, the website Meet Up which allows people of all fitness levels and interests to organize local groups, and local recreation centers that often are much cheaper than privately owned gyms. Again, always ask your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen as they can help to create the best plan for your individual health needs.
Now that we have exercise covered, let’s talk about healthy eating. Eating well doesn’t need to be difficult with these basic nutrition principles. Get regular. Jeanie Kumlien, a Registered Dietitian and the Clinical Nutrition Manager at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, stressed the benefits of eating small, frequent meals on a regular schedule of about every three to four hours. Doing so will help to regulate blood sugar levels and promote healthy metabolism. This will help to reduce cravings and improve mood, both of which are crucial to feeling better faster.
Don’t fall for sugar. In the science world, its common knowledge that sugar is addictive. In fact, science and public health experts who study sugar have advocated for it to be regulated like alcohol and tobacco. Sugar is addictive because it activates the reward centers of your brain, just like drugs. It increases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine which makes you crave even more of the sweet stuff.
Due to its addictive nature, sugar is a particular problem for those who have a history of substance abuse. Sugar cravings can accompany drug and alcohol use or sugar can become a substitute during the recovery process. Another problem is that consuming sweets causes blood sugar to spike which leads to more cravings as well as mood swings. This certainly isn’t helpful for encouraging improved well-being. Reducing your sugar consumption will no doubt make you feel better and make your recovery journey easier.
In addition to the obvious sweets, avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread/pasta, bagels, and potato chips which have the same effect as sugar. While eliminating these foods might be difficult at first, you can make it easier on yourself by eating foods high in protein and fiber that help fill you up and reduce cravings. Ms. Kumlien tells her clients to focus on fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains which help stabilize blood sugar.
Embrace anti-inflammatory foods. Our bodies are constantly flooded with toxins and stress that cause an inflammatory state. Chronic inflammation has been associated with illnesses like cancer, heart disease, depression, auto-immune diseases and others. Using drugs, tobacco and alcohol kick this state into even higher gear. The good news is that your food choices can help to minimize and even reverse some of this damage. Omega-3 fatty acids are inflammation fighting superheroes. Jeanie said that she encourages patients to eat omega-3 rich foods like fatty cold water fish such as wild salmon and sardines as well as nuts and seeds – especially walnuts and chia seeds or ground flaxseed. Other great options include olive oil, avocado, turmeric, ginger and green leafy vegetables like kale and collard greens.
Load up on antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect the body from harmful free radical damage which occurs in our everyday life from physical and environmental stress. Ms. Kumlien shared that vitamins A, C and E (all major antioxidants) are most greatly impacted by substance abuse. Increasing your antioxidant consumption will help to bring these levels back to normal so your body is able to work at its best. The easiest way to do this is to eat tons of fruits and vegetables. Choose produce from every color of the rainbow to get the best variety of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. A great goal is for half your plate at each meal to be veggies and fruit.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag holds a master’s degree in nutrition/public health and is a registered dietician. Through her writing she teaches people simple and realistic ways to lead healthier lives.