Recovery from alcoholism can be really, really hard—so if you've been sober for some time, congratulations! It's prudent, though, to recognize that those years of drinking may have taken a long-lasting toll on your body.
"Alcohol abuse can do cumulative damage to the brain, heart, liver, digestive tract and other parts of the body. Unfortunately, millions of people in recovery unwittingly shortchange themselves of years, if not decades, of joyful living by succumbing to illnesses associated with self-destructive lifestyle patterns," said John Newport, PhD, author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. What can you do now to protect your future health from the excesses of the past? Steps to take…
- Make a healthful diet a cornerstone of your sobriety. Many active alcoholics (those still drinking) are malnourished because alcohol, which has virtually none of the nutrients of healthful food, provides a large proportion of their calories. Thus, you probably entered recovery with nutritional deficiencies that can exacerbate alcohol-induced health problems.
Also: Alcohol causes blood sugar spikes and plunges that, over time, may increase the risk for chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, belly fat accumulation, slowed metabolism and impaired cognitive function.
Many recovering alcoholics continue to eat in ways that keep them on the blood sugar roller coaster, including overindulging in sweets. This can create a chronic feeling of being "out of sorts" that can tip the scales in the direction of relapse, Dr. Newport cautioned.
Self-defense: To replenish nutrients your body needs for self-repair, stabilize blood sugar and reduce cravings for sweets, adopt a "Mediterranean diet" high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein sources (such as legumes)...and low in processed foods and saturated fats.
Important: Some Mediterranean diet descriptions include a moderate amount of red wine, but no amount of wine is appropriate for a person in recovery.
- Supplement with the nutrients recovering alcoholics need most. While not a substitute for a healthful diet, supplementation can provide a nutritional insurance policy. Consider taking a daily multivitamin or consult a physician with expertise in nutrition and recovery for individualized guidance on supplements and dosages, Dr. Newport suggested. Recovery supporters include…
- L-glutamine. This amino acid may help curb cravings for sugar, alcohol and other drugs.
- Milk thistle. Some evidence suggests that this herb can assist a damaged liver in rebuilding itself.
But: "If you have been diagnosed with liver damage, be sure to also follow through with appropriate medical treatment. I wouldn't want anyone to think that milk thistle will fix cirrhosis, for instance," Dr. Newport emphasized.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These have anti-inflammatory effects that may help repair your heart, digestive system and other alcohol-damaged tissues. Omega-3s also are highly concentrated in the brain and thus may help combat depression and aid cognitive function and memory (which can be impaired by years of heavy drinking). Supplement sources include fish oil, evening primrose oil, black currant oil and borage seed oil.
- Vitamin A. This antioxidant helps repair damaged cells of the bones, teeth and soft tissues. It also may reduce the risk for cancer, many types of which are seen in higher levels among heavy drinkers
- Vitamin B complex. The B vitamins improve nervous system function. They also help the body and brain cope with stress, which is important since stress is a risk factor for relapse.
- Vitamin C. This stimulates the immune system, promotes blood vessel health and helps detoxify the liver-all of which may have been compromised by excessive alcohol.
- Vitamin E. This improves the function of heart and muscle cells and reduces cardiovascular risk
- Curb caffeine consumption. It's fine to have a cup or two of joe in the morning. But unfortunately, said Dr. Newport, many recovering alcoholics radically increase their caffeine intake, overstimulating the adrenal glands and elevating blood sugar. Symptoms of caffeine overload include anxiety, irritability and insomnia (which won't help your sobriety), plus frequent urination that can deplete water-soluble Vitamins. If you consume more than five servings of caffeine daily from coffee, black tea, soft drinks and/or chocolate, cut back gradually to avoid triggering withdrawal headaches...and substitute herbal tea, decaffeinated green tea, spring water or fruit juice mixed with sparkling water.
- If you smoke, make quitting part of your recovery. Smoking rates are significantly higher among active alcoholics than nonalcoholics-and many people in recovery from alcoholism continue to smoke. You can see that at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Dr. Newport said, because there is almost always a group of people smoking outside the door.
Smoking is harmful for everyone, but particularly for alcoholics because it exacerbates chronic alcohol-induced nerve cell injury and cell membrane damage in the brain. It also impedes cerebral blood flow and thus slows the process of healing the damage caused to the brain by excessive alcohol consumption—so the longer you continue to smoke, the more you interfere with that process.
Recovering alcoholics may hesitate to give up cigarettes for fear that doing so would jeopardize their sobriety--but recent research contradicts this notion. Because smoking and drinking behavior often go together, continued smoking actually can trigger cravings for alcohol and thus reduce your chances of staying sober.
The same sorts of tools that helped you quit drinking also can help you give up cigarettes. Ask your doctor about smoking cessation aids, including nicotine replacement products, medication, psychotherapy, group support and 12step programs (such as Nicotine Anonymous, www.nicotine-anonymous.org)
Also helpful: Call 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) to reach the smoking quitline sponsored by your state health department. "This gives you access to trained counselors who can help you over the hump," Dr. Newport said. Beating your nicotine addiction not only will do wonders for your physical health, it also will support your recovery from alcoholism.
Fish Oil May Lower Suicide Risk
Recent research showed that military service members with low levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA were 62% more likely to commit suicide. Some earlier research has shown that omega-3s in fish oil may relieve symptoms of certain forms of depression, but larger, more rigorous studies are needed.
Love Helps Your Heart
When researchers surveyed 5,654 adults, those who were secure in their romantic relationships (that is, able to get close to others and willing to let others depend on them) had lower rates of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke than those who were anxious in their relationships (for example, needy and worried about rejection).
Theory: Anxiety in relationships can negatively affect your cardiovascular system.
Self-defense: If you are having problems in your relationships, consider seeking advice from a therapist, who may help you learn more about your relationship style.
Boost Your Self-Esteem at 60+
Researchers who surveyed 3,617 adults four times over 16 years found that self-esteem generally began to decline around age 60-a time when factors such as retirement, poor health, disability and reduced income may come into play. Self-esteem was determined by how participants responded to statements such as "I take a positive attitude toward myself." People who are less confident and less satisfied with life are more susceptible to depression.
To maintain your self-esteem: Exercise regularly, eat healthfully and stay socially connected-volunteer in your community, join groups and/or regularly contact family and friends.
If You Don't Like Your Body…
People who hate their bodies have different activity patterns in areas of the brain devoted to visual processing than people with normal views of their bodies. Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a syndrome in which people become overly focused on a perceived body defect, is estimated to affect about 1% to 2% of Americans. Treatment includes a combination of drug treatments and cognitive behavior therapy.