Alex Zaphiris, MD, MS, an integrated family physician and neuro-nutrient specialist, joined Andrea Donsky and Lisa Davis on Naturally Savvy Radio to discuss the role nutrition plays in overcoming addiction.
[The following transcript has been edited for print.]
Naturally Savvy: Here on Naturally Savvy we love to talk about diet and nutrition and staying healthy, but one thing we haven’t touched on is using diet and nutrition to overcome drug addiction. Alex Zaphiris, MD, MS, an integrated family physician and neuro-nutrient specialist practicing in San Francisco, California is here to tell us more about this important connection.
Alex Zaphiris: What we are finding more and more is that the brain requires nutrients in order to heal and recover. After years of substance abuse (be it painkillers, heroin, alcohol), the brain changes. We know from a lot of research that the brain is deficient in certain nutrients after years of substance abuse. People who are in recovery are in need of multiple key nutrients; it’s about giving the brain what it needs to help it recover.
NS: What are the nutrients that they need?AZ: Vitamin D, which is thought to be more of a hormone actually, is very nourishing for the brain. Fish oil, of course, is another. There have been lots of research on fish oil as a brain nutrient and it has clear impacts on symptoms like depression, too, which may be an underlying factor for many people. Often addiction and depression or anxiety go hand in hand. The nutrients that help the underlying issues that led someone to use substances as a way to self-medicate can be used to help the brain recover.
B vitamins are another. We are finding that about 30% of people have a genetic variation where they don’t convert B vitamins from the inactive form to the active form. There are genetic tests that we can use to test our patients to see if they carry that genetic variation which shows if a person is converting B vitamins into the active forms that the brain needs in order to make neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters come from food – they come from amino acids, from the proteins in our diet. How many of use are eating enough protein?
The standard American diet full of things like high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats. These are pro-inflammatory substances. Someone healing from a brain injury (which addiction basically is – the brain has been injured and structurally changed from years of abuse) needs substances that are anti-inflammatory, things that are healing. Food is medicine, and when we supplement specific nutrients, it can make a big difference.
However, supplements aren’t regulated in the way pharmaceutical drugs are. Just because a bottle says that it has 1000 mcg of methylcobalamin, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what it contains. It’s really important not to buy the cheapest, but to buy supplements from a company that does third-party testing to prove both safety and purity of their ingredients. More and more integrated doctors are starting to look at the genetic testing options which can help indicate which supplements are most important for you to take.
NS: Tell us a bit about recoverysuperstar.com. I really love this program. I think it can make such a difference in people’s lives.
AZ: Thank you. The standard treatment for addiction is abstinence-only programs. It may incorporate some sort of detox, but people aren’t given all of this other information about what the brain needs to heal and recover. Therapy is important, but this other piece really isn’t taught. In my one-on-one practice with patients, I can only reach so many people. So I put all this together on a website as a self-directed program where people can learn what is it that their brain needs to heal and recover. It is designed to be completed over a three month period, with weekly lessons that people can do at their own pace. It will also help to start connecting people, because so many people feel like they are alone. There is so much shame and embarrassment. Healing that shame and connecting people with each other for support is a really huge part of the healing as well.
NS: Who are you hoping will visit this website?
AZ: I am targeting people who are in recovery for addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin. It’s a huge problem that there isn’t a lot of discussion about. But to be honest, the same issues that apply to this population applies to people who have depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. So many of the same issues come up; the content is very transferable. Just take out the language around opiate addiction and the same valuable content can benefit so many other people.
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Zaphiris and her program visit recoverysuperstar.com, or follow on Twitter @dr_zaphiris.