Addiction is among the leading public health crises facing the United States. Drug overdose puts millions of Americans within millimeters of death, killing over 81,000 Americans in 2020 alone, and alcohol kills over 95,000 Americans per year through both direct and indirect causes.
In addition to these tragedies, there are millions more who, while fortunate enough to receive treatment and enter recovery, are still dealing with chronic disease and other lifestyle-related health issues that have seriously impacted their overall wellness and quality of life.
Those who enter addiction recovery immediately become aware that abstinence is only the first step to healthy living. Addiction ages the body and mind, and it’s important to take steps after treatment to turn back the clock. If you or someone you care about are in recovery, here are some health-related insights that will serve you, whether you’re brand-new or a veteran of the process.
Your primary care physician is not only a medical provider; they’re your advocate, your partner and your guide through managing all of the medical issues that you’ve developed as a result of your prolonged substance use. The reality of addiction is that its medical effects can last the rest of your life, whether they include the associated chronic diseases, neurological damage, weight or skin issues, mental health issues or anything else.
Your primary care physician may not be equipped to manage all of these problems by themselves; but they can refer you to experienced and qualified specialists who can help with each aspect of your care. Your care providers will coordinate with one another to develop an ongoing comprehensive care plan. If you’re pursuing any sort of opioid maintenance medication, like Vivitrol or Suboxone, it’s particularly important to stay in close contact with your administering doctor. If you don’t yet have a primary care physician, talk to someone from your treatment center for an informed referral.
Just because you’re seeing your doctor more frequently, doesn’t mean you should throw away the apples, or any other fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce, whole grains and other plant-based foods can help reduce inflammation from long-term withdrawal. They can also help increase energy needed to exercise, improve cognitive function and focus and aid in digestive health. Avoid sugar and processed foods as they can not only impede weight loss, energy production and cardiac health; they can also have some of the same effects on the brain as heroin and other types of drugs through surges of dopamine.
If possible, have your doctor link you with a nutritionist who can help you cultivate healthy eating habits. This is a hard thing to do on your own, and it can be difficult to know where to get started. A nutritionist can help you map out a proper dietary plan according to your unique physiology, your lifestyle and care needs.
Make fitness, or at least movement, a priority from the beginning. If you can’t run, jog; if you can’t jog, walk; if you can’t walk for long periods of time, do seated exercises like arm raises and shadow boxing. Incrementally increasing mobility is key to upping your fitness level, raising your heart rate reducing chronic pain and fatigue and improving self-confidence. Enough cannot be said about the importance of continued exercise for both physical and mental health. The best part is that you can get moving in any number of ways. If there’s a physical hobby you’ve been meaning to take up, like swimming, hiking, kickboxing or even speed-walking, now’s the time to do it!
If you’re exercising outdoors, choose environments that are pleasing to you, whether it’s the beach, a fitness trail or anything else. The trick is to keep it fun and interesting, so you stick to it. Fitness routines are often derailed when people get bored with them or irritated by having to do them. Make your exercise fun and engaging, and don’t overdo it when you first start. If you’re able, try working with someone more experienced who can show you proper form. It’s important to learn proper form for each type of exercise so you and understand what muscles the exercise is supposed to work, you can maximize its benefits and reduce the risk of harm and long-term damage to your body.
Mental health is just as important as physical; and it suffers just as much in the wake of prolonged and untreated substance abuse. Everyone’s mental health struggles are different in recovery, but it’s important to work with a therapist, and perhaps even a clinical psychiatrist, to address your specific care needs. Addiction and mental health are linked in a variety of ways. On one hand, mental health issues can be caused by experiential trauma or changes in brain chemistry brought on by drug or alcohol use; on the other, many start using drugs or alcohol to cope with existing trauma or dysfunction in their lives.
Taking care of your mental health in recovery, even years after you get clean and enter treatment, means continuing to work through mental health issues that were either caused or affected by your drug or alcohol use. Healing from these issues can be a lifelong process. While you may be able to cut back eventually, therapy is a solid pilar of the wellness process. It can also help you develop permanent coping mechanisms to deal with everyday stresses that you’re bound to encounter in your day-to-day life. In addition to therapy, you can also try techniques like meditation, yoga and breathing exercises that help you to increase mindfulness.
It may be easier than you think to turn back the clock of addiction through basic everyday measures like proper diet, exercise and an increased focus on mental health. Remember that you’re a richly complex person with multiple facets to your life and personality. While addiction doesn’t define you, it can impact every aspect of your existence so it’s important to heal as an individual. This means investing yourself, recognizing your immediate and long-term needs and taking proper steps to meet them. You got this!
About the Author
Dominic Nicosia is a New Jersey-based journalist and content writer covering addiction care and mental health. He currently serves as Senior Content Writer for Recovery Unplugged Treatment Centers, a national addiction treatment organization that offers a full continuum of care and uses music to help people more readily embrace the treatment process.