If you've taken your last drink, the detox has begun - here's what to expect.

What to Expect When You’re Detoxing from Alcohol and Other Drugs

Nutrition Challenges in Detox and Early Recovery 


Detoxing from mood-altering substances can be a big step in the right direction for our well-being, but sometimes it means we’ll feel worse before we start feeling better. Kicking the habit can impact our health in surprising ways when our bodies and minds are used to the routine input of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or even sugar in order to manage how we feel. This can even be the case for those of us who have never touched a drop or a drug, but whose lives have been affected by alcoholism or addiction in the family or home.

The journey of recovery ultimately leads to increased health and wellness, but we may need to get through a challenging period of detoxification first. While each substance has unique impacts on our bodies, they can all wreak havoc on our nutrition, digestion, and mood. If we don’t take steps to resolve those imbalances, it can be more uncomfortable and less enjoyable to stay in recovery than it needs to be. Harnessing the power of food as medicine can help us get and stay clean.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the general health and nutrition impacts of using mood-altering substances and what happens when we give them up. We’ll learn how we can support early recovery with our food choices next time, and consider aspects of detoxing from specific substances as well as what we can do to support ongoing abstinence and vibrant recovery in future posts.

Learn what to expect when you're detoxing from alcohol or other substances.
Our neurobiology goes into overdrive when we’re using substances – and when we’re detoxing from them.

What happens to health before detoxing


You may have negatively impacted your health if regular consumption of alcohol or other substances has interfered with your quality of life enough that you have made a conscious effort to abstain from it.

Health effects of heavy substance use

For those whose lives have been completely ruled by addiction, it’s easy to see some of the negative consequences, such as:

  • hospitalizations due to accidents, infections, physical altercations, etc.
  • extreme weight swings
  • chronic diseases such as liver disease, HIV, or sexual transmitted infections, and
  • loosing teeth or hair – not pretty!

Health effects of moderate substance use

The negative impacts may be less obvious for more moderate users. While using, we overloaded our bodies’ capacity to manage complex health systems. Health effects may include:

  • chronic inflammation and decreased immunity
  • digestive disorders such as diarrhea or constipation, food intolerances, etc.
  • nutrient deficiencies
  • weight management challenges, and
  • anhedonia, or the decreased ability to feel and enjoy the natural pleasures life offers when sober.

Long term health effects of substance use

Other consequences may be even less visible and take time to be fully revealed.

  • increased risk of developing some cancers,
  • diseases of the liver, kidney, heart, pancreas, or other organs, and
  • cognitive impairments including brain fog, psychosis, and dementia.

With all this compounded by typically unhealthy Western diets, our bodies may need to detox from more than just mood-altering substances on our journey back to a state of high-energy well-being. Abstaining from our habitual substances can bring a sense of accomplishment and hope for our future, and it’s also downright challenging. We can find the strength and support we need to persevere by knowing what to expect.


What to expect when you’re detoxing


In early recovery, we may sometimes feel as if we are on top of the world, full of energy. At other times, it can be excruciating to detox. As we stop reaching for our go-to coping mechanisms for life’s difficulties, we may be physically uncomfortable or experience withdrawal symptoms such as crankiness, insomnia, headaches, the DTs, and other unpleasant side-effects. We may begin to notice long-ignored chronic health conditions that make it hard to stay focused on our recovery. It may seem as if our health is worse than ever, once we give up our numbing substances! Now is the time to keep going, as these side-effects are related to the detoxification process and won’t last forever. It can help to know that the following symptoms are totally normal, and we’re not alone with the struggle of facing them.

Detoxing hands breaking free from handcuffs
Breaking free of addictive behavior means freedom…and possibly uncomfortable detox symptoms.

Nutrition and health during detox


Depending on where you are in your recovery process, expect to experience any of the following related to nutritional status:

  • cravings for sugar, caffeine, drugs of choice, alcohol – pretty much anything to change the way you feel!
  • seemingly unrelated bouts of being plain old “sick”, such as a cold – your immune system has been knocked off track while your inflammatory process has been in overdrive, so being “under the weather” is not unrelated after all
  • weight gain – many of us substitute eating for other addictions, and may reach for sugar and simple carbohydrates to manage cravings through the same metabolic and neurologic pathways drugs of addiction trigger
  • disordered eating – these behaviors can ramp up when the neural wiring of addiction is no longer aimed at drugs and gets focused on food instead
  • difficulty sleeping, insomnia, sleeping “too much”, sleeping at odd hours
  • generalized lethargy, depression, and just feeling crummy interspersed with
  • bursts of energy and enthusiasm – in other words, mood swings.

Whew, that doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? When we’ve unmasked our physical and spiritual pain, which was covered over by using feel-good imposters for so long, expect it to be challenging to stay the course. It takes longer than we’d like to reset our habits into healthy, high-energy patterns – studies show it can take as long as 8 months to shift run-of-the-mill habits, and for entrenched addictions, it can take longer.


What happens after detoxing?


Basic balanced nutrition helps optimize energy, rebalance biochemical function, and restore health. It can also head off the temptation to turn to food as a substitute addiction when detoxing. Extreme diets are not needed for successful recovery, and in fact may create health risks. Consuming regularly timed meals full of brightly colored vegetables and fruit, with proteins and whole grains at most meals, and prepared with healthful plant-based fats is effective, as scientific studies show.  We’ll delve into more of the details in the next post.

Fruit and water are part of your nutrition plan for detoxing from alcohol or other drugs.
Balanced food and healthy hydration can support recovery.


If you have questions about the content in this article, or want to learn more about how you can build a nutrition plan that supports holistic recovery in your life, contact Lulu Cook, RDN at Gut Feeling Holistic Health for a free discussion about your needs.



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