Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Beyond the Brain - Part 1

by Courtney Harden, FNP

Drug and alcohol abuse significantly affects our brain’s ability to think and feel. It disrupts the way we process emotions such as fear, pain, happiness, and anxiety. As a result, it is common to see depression, panic disorder, insomnia, and generalized anxiety co-exist with substance abuse.

In early recovery, we teach people to tackle these issues in counseling, NA or AA meetings, or group therapy. We tell them to keep their stress levels low, get enough sleep, and avoid other harmful substances such as marijuana or cigarettes to allow their brain to heal.
While these are all great steps toward successful recovery, the buck doesn’t stop with the brain. Drug and alcohol abuse leaves lasting footprints in many other places in the body. This three-part series will address some of these areas, offering solutions to restore function to those body systems.

This week, we will look at affects on gut health. A properly functioning gastrointestinal (GI) system is important for many reasons. For one, the gut houses approximately 70% of our immune system. It also communicates with our nervous system – the brain – and vice versa. (You have heard of a “nervous stomach”, right?)  Constipation and abdominal pain are commonly seen with narcotic use, whereas alcohol abuse can cause severe ulcers, acid reflux, and in severe cases, life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding.
In early recovery, appetite changes, nausea, alternating diarrhea or constipation are common. The gut is taking steps to re-establish homeostasis. Below, you will find some easy-to-use gut health tip to help this process along.  
  • First and foremost, food matters. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine, be thy food”. Thanks, Hippocrates, but what does that mean?! While eating is only part of the solution to  repair the GI system, it is the most important one.
  • Clean eating is extremely beneficial to patch up a leaky gut. Eat a rainbow variety of fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed and fast foods as much as possible by sticking to the periphery in grocery stores – steer clear of the aisles that harbor all of those products that don’t have an expiration date. Highly processed and inflammatory foods can poke small holes in the lining of our gut that will invariably delay the healing process.
  • Do your best to not skip meals. Hunger can spike adrenaline – a stress hormone – which may lead to increased anxiety. Additionally, you are more likely to overeat at your next meal. Keep a fruit and nut bar handy to eat in a pinch.
  • As mentioned above, gut health is essential to a properly functioning immune system. Probiotics help restore proper types and amounts of gut bacteria. They improve digestion and promote regular elimination. You can find these in supplement form or in certain fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, cod liver oil, and, of course, yogurt.
  • You may have heard this already, but quit smoking! Cigarette smoking can wreak havoc on your digestive system. It can cause ulcers to form or worse and nicotine suppresses hunger cues.

Next week, we will look at how drug and alcohol abuse affects the endocrine system, namely estrogen and testosterone. For additional reading on gut health, pick-up Dr. David Perlmutter’s “Grain Brain” or browse through the Whole 30 website,, for clean eating recipes and meal plans. 

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