Health and Wellness in Recovery

Health is a part of life that many people take for granted. For individuals going through recovery, health becomes a tool that needs to be used, a muscle that needs to be exercised, in the fight to stay clean. Fortunately, understandings in psychology and health sciences have broadened and diversified what can be done to heal (and boost) both mind and body in the aftermath of an addiction. Health and wellness in recovery don’t have to be regiments to simply meet a goal; they can give a person a brand new meaning and outlook on life.

Nutrition and Healing

Paying close attention to health is more than just a background part of the addiction recovery process. It starts with nutrition. A client who completes medical detox may be severely weakened as a result of the vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramping, flu-like symptoms, and insomnia (to say nothing of the damage alcohol abuse does to the liver, heart, brain, and pancreas). The staff at a hospital or specialized treatment center can ensure that the client remains hydrated and fed with the right foods in the right amounts, to build up the person’s strength and get the body working again after the rigors of detoxification.[1]

Foods rich with water, such as juice and gelatin, can complement the hydration provided by treatment staff. The second key factor about food is a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as lean protein (such as fish or poultry), whole grain food, and low-fat dairy. Anything rich, processed, or sugary could delay physical recovery, which in turn could postpone therapy – which, in turn, could hamper long-term rehabilitation.[2]

balanced diet

Cereals and eggs contain vitamin B-12, which is necessary for the production of new cells in the body. Fish, milk, and carrots are sources of vitamin A, which boosts the immune system, and vitamin D, which helps with the health and strength of bones. Every health benefit provided by these foods is geared towards undoing the damage of addictive substances and healing the body after detox.

For example, in the same way that chronic alcohol consumption can cause mineral deficiency in the body (specifically calcium and iron, but also magnesium and zinc), the right combinations and amounts of food can restore the balance. Dairy foods and greens boost calcium, which also helps with bone density, and meat helps with iron levels, which are important for the transportation of oxygen around the body.[3] Zinc, also found in beef, plays a role in the immune system.

Kitchen Therapy

cooking therapy

As important as nutrition is in recovery, it is not the only time food can be made a part of the process. Cooking therapy (also known as kitchen therapy or culinary therapy) has been praised for not only the way it gives clients something to do with their hands and minds, but also for how the creative application engages them on a very personal and imaginative level.

The goal of cooking therapy is not to create award-winning dishes or open up restaurants, but to give clients a new way they can invest in themselves. They can take pride in their culinary creations, and use the exercise to fill the void they once tried to fill with drugs or alcohol.

Kitchen therapy also gives an outlet for clients to work in groups, collaborating on dishes, praising the work of others, offering helpful criticism, learning from and teaching each other, and building social bonds, to develop key skills that will have to be applied and tested in the world outside the treatment center.

For some clients, the repetitive motions of certain cooking techniques can also be a source of comfort and relaxation. In this way, even simple cooking tasks become therapeutic.

Healthy Food, Healthy Living

Psychology Today writes how practicing the art of mindfulness – being keenly aware of surroundings and the environment – can help stimulate the senses in a positive and healthy way. What better way to stimulate smell, touch, sight, and taste (and even hearing) in a kitchen? Focusing on the bright colors of food, the vibrant aromas, pleasing tastes, and unique textures can reduce stress and curb harmful thought patterns (such as boredom, frustration, loneliness, etc.) into a more productive and beneficial outlet.[4]

The Wall Street Journal calls this “a road to mental health through the kitchen.” Creating culinary concoctions also builds self-esteem in clients, and adds to their personal toolkit when feelings of depression, isolation, or anxiety threaten to rupture their mental

health outlook. Cooking therapy has proven especially popular with teenagers, who may respond well to it because it’s not presented as “therapy as usual,” but something fun they can do with their friends. The other benefit is that guided, structured cooking can help people pay attention to what they eat, further benefitting their bodies as well as their minds.[5]

Cooking also engenders a sense of responsibility, a psychiatrist tells New York Daily News, because people will now have a greater obligation towards taking care of themselves and even taking care of others. Rising to meet challenges posed by cooking can boost self-esteem, improve self-image, and build confidence, all very important in shoring up positive mental health and defending against the temptation to relapse.[6]

Boosting the Brain

Medical Daily even suggests that cooking therapy increases familial bonds, which may be very useful if family therapy is part of treatment.

boosting the brain
Quoting a press release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Medical Daily writes that parents cooking with children not only fosters a focus on healthy eating, but also cultivates healthy habits and behaviors, an approach which would easily complement the way Cognitive Behavioral Therapy looks to replace harmful thought patterns with positive and productive ones.[7]

For all the benefits of cooking therapy, there is also a very practical reason for people to invest in their food; poor eating habits can act as a trigger for a drug or alcohol relapse, says Medline Plus. For most people, the difference between a well-cooked meal at home (that could last for up to a week), and a few days of snacking on junk food while skipping breakfast, can be massive; for someone in recovery, it could threaten to derail months of hard work staying clean and healthy.[8]

Exercise and Recovery

Nutrition is a fundamentally important part of the treatment equation, but it has to go hand in hand with other forms of physical restoration. Some treatment facilities offer services such as tennis and swimming lessons, to encourage exercise, personal growth, and teamwork, but there are other forms of physical activity that a person can participate in, in order to develop a healthy and strong body in the aftermath of a drug habit.

Many treatment programs have started to look at holistic approaches to mind and body healing, approaches that consider the psychological and the physical to be two sides of the same coin, both of which need to be simultaneously elevated. While medical science has long supported the mental health benefits of physical exercise, new schools of thought seek to bring the two dynamics even closer together.

biking exercise

Yoga as Therapy

One “new” school of thought – which, in reality, is not “new” at all – is yoga. Originally, yoga was developed as a physical discipline to harmonize the body and soul together, in union. While that element still exists, some of the many styles of yoga in the practice’s adoption in the Western world have concentrated on the mental health bonuses.

As explained by a blog published by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, yoga is sometimes used as a complementary arm of treatment, to help clients ground themselves in the physical expression of their healing and recovery.[9] If addiction is a disease of lack (a lack of self-esteem, power, love, companionship, contentedness, happiness, etc.), in the words of The Huffington Post, then yoga – even with its spiritual side removed or downplayed – gives individuals a foundation, a base of understanding of themselves and the world around them.[10]

How does that work? Yoga draws a practitioner’s attention inward, putting aside the struggles and troubles of the outside world. Simple practices – counting breaths, imagining fresh air filling every pore and corner of the body, and purging negative thoughts, emotions, and impulses through methodical exhalations – all clear the slate and prepare practitioners to begin their day, or their lives, anew.

Peace, Self-Discipline, and Community

A blog on Hip Recovery explains that by cultivating a sense of peace from within, a person is less likely to try and find solace and escape in harmful drugs and risky behavior. The compulsion to chase chemically induced excitement and adrenaline is reduced, when the boost of a natural high has been tasted, savored, and celebrated.

meditation and recovery

The writer further explains how yoga was instrumental in eliminating the temptation to react to stressful situations with impulsivity; instead of an out-of-control response (such as anger, which would be medicated with drugs or alcohol), yoga and meditation encouraged awareness, both of self and the other person. They encouraged contemplation, control, and self-discipline – qualities that are especially pertinent to people understanding the fundamentals of recovery from addiction.

Yoga in recovery also provides a sense of community. It is likely that the practitioners are newcomers to yoga, so the learning curve of standing (or kneeling, or lying down) in unfamiliar poses allows for moments of humor, but also moments of vulnerability – moments of making mistakes and ultimately learning from them. No one will get it right the first few times, but reaching the destination together – offering and accepting help along the way – gives participants a sense of accomplishment as a member of a group, taking their first steps towards recovery together.[11]

Physical Exercise and Mental Healing

Of course, yoga is only one form of exercise available to clients in recovery. Private treatment centers usually have onsite gyms and staff personal trainers who work closely with individuals on specific fitness plans.[12]

There is an abundance of evidence that shows how much physical exercise benefits mental health, whether as a regular lifestyle or for specialized purposes. The advantages are not lost on the treatment community. The American Psychological Association writes of how, much like cooking therapy, a workout can be a fun, engaging, and inspiring exercise in itself, as well as a basic ingredient for boosting mental health in the face of depression, anxiety, and the temptation to drink or do drugs.

In the same way that cooking presents clear, achievable goals, exercise also presents landmarks that can be crossed off a list, with the idea of setting gradually harder goals. This gives clients something to work towards, and something that tracks their progress in terms of accomplishments: how many minutes spent on a treadmill, how much weight gets bench-pressed, how many repetitions, etc.

Through this, those in recovery learn that they don’t need to turn to alcohol, narcotics, or stimulants to feel good about themselves. They can see improvements in their physical form as an example of a healthy mind and body, without need for artificial boosts.[13]

Serotonin and Dopamine

Exercise certainly feels good, both within and without a treatment program, but why does it work as well as it does? And how does that factor into the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction?

exercise and neurotransmitters

When people engage in physical exercise, the activity causes their brain to release a number of neurotransmitters – chemicals that communicate information from the brain, to the central nervous system and the rest of the body. For example, one such neurotransmitter released during exercise is serotonin, which, when it is released, regulates mood. In some people, serotonin is not properly processed by the brain, which is a key factor in the cause of clinical depression (and why certain pharmaceuticals are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning that these drugs artificially prolong the presence of serotonin in the brain).[14], [15]

To that point, Psychology Today quotes “numerous studies” as saying that exercise (aerobics, running, and even yoga) boosts serotonin, which may be useful for those who are too psychologically vulnerable to be prescribed a regimen of antidepressants (like SSRIs), which are not habit-forming, but should be taken with care nonetheless.[16]

Even the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience addressed that point (in an article emphatically entitled “How to Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain Without Drugs”), writing about thorough research on the clear demonstration of how exercise boosts antidepressant effects. The United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence even recommends exercise over antidepressant medications for cases of mild depression.[17]

The Root of All Addiction

Another key neurological effect of exercise is the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter. Dopamine has many functions in the brain, but when dopamine neurotransmitters are released in the brain’s mesolimbic pathway, also known as the reward pathway, it triggers a signal for predicting and anticipating rewards. This is why when people take a hit of a drug or a shot of alcohol, they might feel very strongly compelled to take another; not only did they enjoy that initial rush, but their brain is now primed to expect another one, to want another one, and to anticipate another one.[18]

The release of dopamine isn’t always related to drug or alcohol abuse. It could come from eating cookies, sexual intercourse, listening to music, or hundreds of other innocent, and healthy, sources.[19]

However, of all the connections in the brain, the mesolimbic pathway is the one where all known forms of addiction bring the most harmful changes.[20] Any drug or activity practiced to excessive levels warps the reward pathways, to the point where harmless sources of reward and pleasure can no longer cause the same chemical reactions in the brain.

The Exercise Pill

This explains the neurochemical mechanics of addiction, but how does exercise come into play in treatment? In the same way that aerobics, running, and/or yoga boost serotonin production in the brain, robust physical activity also produces dopamine. Unlike the intense burst of dopamine produced when a drug hits the brain, however, the amount of dopamine released during a workout is much more moderate, allowing the brain to process the neurotransmitter at a healthy rate. Effectively, people get a natural high that is allowed to dissipate, as opposed to an artificial high that is forced on them by an illicit substance.

To that point, an exercise physiologist at the University of Adelaide tells Bloomberg Businessweek that “exercise can be like a pill,” comparing the chemical changes in the body that arise from regular exercise to what a pharmaceutical product does.[21]


The mental health benefits of exercise are so numerous and so strong that working out has become a very popular and widespread part of recovery programs. In addition to some treatment facilities providing onsite gyms, swimming pools, and tennis or basketball courts, aftercare support groups often get together for exercise meet-ups, such as running, rock climbing, yoga, or simply going to a gym together. The emphasis on communal support and encouragement is a massive factor in a person’s mental and physical rehabilitation in the aftermath of a drug habit, providing multiple levels of protection against relapse.[22]

Recovery from a substance abuse problem does not stop at the last therapy session or the most recent support group meeting. It is an ongoing, lifelong process, but it does not have to be arduous and solitary. With the support of friends and family, and the company of likeminded individuals, health and wellness in recovery can give a person a rich, fulfilling, and healthy outlook on life.


  1. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” (n.d.) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  2. Recommended Diet for Alcohol Withdrawal.” (June 2015). Accessed February 10, 2016.
  3. Calcium and Vitamin D: What You Need to Know.” (n.d.) National Osteoporosis Foundation. Accessed February 10, 2016.
  4. Kitchen Therapy: Cooking Up Mental Well-Being.” (May 2015). Psychology Today. Accessed February 10, 2016.
  5. A Road to Mental Health Through the Kitchen.” (December 2014). Wall Street Journal. Accessed February 10, 2016.
  6. Cooking is Therapy: Making Meals Helps to Reduce Stress, Heal a Broken Heart, Among Other Benefits. (August 2009). New York Daily News. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  7. Treating Depression in the Kitchen: Cooking, Baking Classes Can Double as Therapy.” (December 2014). Medical Daily. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  8. Diet and Substance Abuse Recovery.” (February 2014). MedlinePlus. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  9. Addiction Recovery: How Yoga Can Help.” (August 2012). National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  10. Recovery 2.0: Yoga and Meditation for People in Recovery from Addiction.” (July 2013). The Huffington Post. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  11. 9 Ways Yoga Helped Me Recover From Addiction.” (June 2015). Hip Recovery. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  12. Horseback Riding, Massages and Cooking Lessons: Inside the Luxury $450k per Year Rehab Center that “Affluenza” Teen Will Attend as Punishment for Killing Four in DUI.” (December 2013). Daily Mail. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  13. The Exercise Effect.” (December 2011). American Psychological Association. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  14. SSRIs: Myths and Facts About Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.” (n.d.) WebMD. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  15. Serotonin: What Does Serotonin Do?” (December 2015). Medical News Today. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  16. Boosting Your Serotonin Activity.” (November 2011). Psychology Today. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  17. “How to Increase Serotonin In the Human Brain Without Drugs.” (November 2007). Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  18. The Unsexy Truth About Dopamine.” (February 2013). The Guardian. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  19. Oreos May Be As Addictive as Cocaine, Morphine.” (October 2013). CBS News. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  20. Natural Rewards, Neuroplasticity and Non-Drug Addictions.” (April 2011). Neuropharmacology. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  21. Olympians Hanging Up Cleats Risk Drug Addict-Like Ills.” (July 2012). Bloomberg Businessweek. Accessed February 11, 2016.
  22. Exercise as a Potential Treatment for Drug Abuse: Evidence from Preclinical Studies. (January 2012). Frontiers in Psychiatry. Accessed February 11, 2016.

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