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The Science Behind Healthy Living & Recovering From Addiction

Living under the burden of addiction is exhausting, discouraging, and frustrating. Unfortunately, for many people, recovery feels just as difficult if not more so. Between fighting cravings, restoring damaged relationships, and all of the other struggles associated with overcoming addiction, people often find that the lifestyle they developed during their addiction does not support their recovery.

Although starting over may be difficult and exhausting,  it’s possible that developing a new healthier lifestyle may actually be the best thing for recovery. Focusing on a wholesome diet, an engaging exercise routine, and consistent sleep habits could be a key element of successful recovery.

What Causes Addictions?

Addiction is not a choice or a bad habit. It is an illness.

The brain releases a chemical called dopamine, which is related to pleasurable sensations. Certain drugs, alcohol, and even everyday activities like shopping and sex release dopamine, causing us to feel good. 

Addictions develop when certain activities or substances prompt enough dopamine release that, over time, it starts to change the structure and function of the brain. Eventually, addiction essentially hijacks the brain; changing the motivation centre to become singularly focused on the substance or behaviour that causes that release of dopamine.

Can Healthy Living Really Help Eliminate Addiction?

Before we go any further, it is important to note that while addiction is not a choice, recovery is. No one can be forced to recover or convinced to begin recovery if they are not committed to overcoming their addiction. 

For someone suffering from addiction, clean and sober living requires lifelong commitment and extraordinary willpower.

Having said that, for someone who is dedicated to their recovery, living a healthy lifestyle may help. 

man in red shirt looking happy.

Exercise & Addiction Recovery

Exercise naturally causes your brain to release hormones that can contribute to pleasure and overall feelings of wellbeing. In fact, much like many sources of addiction, some types of exercise trigger the release of dopamine, the same neurotransmitter that provides a foundation for addiction. 

Physical activity makes the brain and body feel good. Generally speaking, people struggling with addiction are not desperate for their drug of choice; they’re desperate for the way it makes them feel. 

Exercise can be a positive source of invigorating satisfaction that doesn’t rely on destructive behaviours.

There is evidence to suggest that regular exercise can help willing participants to reduce or even stop relying on their addictive behaviours or substances. One study introduced a group of individuals who all had an addiction to an exercise routine including 3 workouts a week. A year later, 10 said they had cut down on their substance abuse and 5 said they had stopped using altogether.

Good Exercises to Try

Any exercise that causes physical exertion could be helpful in your recovery journey. Some examples you may want to try could include

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Dance
  • Yoga
  • Hiking

Do Exercise Addictions Exist?

While exercise has the potential to play an important role in someone’s recovery journey, people in recovery should also be aware of the symptoms of exercise addiction.

We’ve already discussed the role dopamine and other neurotransmitters can play in developing an addiction. Because exercise is a source of mood-altering hormones, some people (particularly people who are prone to addiction) can become addicted to the way they feel when they exercise.

For a person in recovery, it can be far too easy subconsciously to switch from one addictive behaviour to another. And while exercise is far better than drugs, alcohol, or indiscriminate sex, it can still hinder the brain’s ability to build relationships and make well-reasoned decisions.

Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

  • Feelings of guilt after a missed workout
  • Working out at unusual hours
  • Missing important plans to work out
  • Unwillingness to reduce time spent on exercise
  • Injuries consistent with overtraining
  • Secrecy around workout habits

Nutrition & Addiction Recovery

If your body were a machine, your mind would be the engine and your food would be the fuel. The quality of the fuel has a direct impact on the performance of the machine. Of course, in reality, the biology of addiction is far more complicated than that. Even so, the principle still applies. 

Your brain relies on a delicate balance of hormones to function properly, keeping your mood, motivation, and other factors all in line. With an appropriately-varied diet, your body has the nutrients it needs to produce those hormones in the right proportions. However, a diet that’s high in starch, carbohydrates, or sugars can’t support that delicate balance. As a result, you can feel depressed, hopeless, anxious, or a range of other crushing emotions.

In an attempt to self-medicate the imbalance, an individual with an addiction may turn the substance or behaviour that alleviates their negative feelings. It works temporarily. But in the long term, it only serves to further damage and restructure the brain.

A nutritious diet helps keep the brain as balanced as possible while an individual in recovery works to regain control. Whole (unrefined or unprocessed) foods are the best bet for maintaining a healthy diet. Look for foods that are high in:

a table of healthy fruits and vegetables.

Nutritious Foods to Try

  • Organic peanut butter & honey on whole-grain toast
  • Spinach salad with pecans and dried cranberries
  • Sunflower seeds and fresh fruit
  • Quinoa with grilled salmon and asparagus

Recovery is a Multifaceted Process

An active lifestyle fueled by healthy foods could make a huge difference in your recovery journey. Still, it’s important to remember that it’s all about balance. Going to meetings, seeing your doctors, taking medications as prescribed, and maintaining healthy relationships are all just as important as you continue to pursue your sobriety.

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  • Chris Sciberras

    Written by Chris Sciberras

    Director of Program and Mental Health Clinician Chris is a Registered Provisional Psychologist with a Masters of Counselling from the University of Calgary and a Bachelors of Counselling from the Australian College of Applied Psychology. For the past decade, he has worked extensively with youth, adults, and families in a variety of capacities, with a focus on mental well-being and addiction recovery. Chris has served as the Mental Health Clinician and Program Director at the Calgary Dream Centre since 2017. Prior to joining the Dream Centre, Chris worked in the school system as a Mental Health Counsellor. Chris is passionate about supporting clients at the Dream Centre and helping them along their path of recovery. Chris is originally from Australia, has travelled to over 30 countries, and now happily calls Calgary home.

    More Articles by Chris Sciberras

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