I've been dependent on a lot of substances over the years.
When my brain wasn’t working and I struggled with mental illness, it simply made sense to find immediate relief from something outside myself – even if it wasn't good for me - at least until I found better long-term, sustainable solutions.
I really felt like I had no other choice at the time.
And I know there are a lot of people out there grappling with the same thing.
You may feel like you need something to get through the day and fall asleep at night.
Whether that’s alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis or harder substances like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines.
Or you’re on prescription medication, such as antidepressants or benzodazipenes, and have no idea how you could possibly live without them.
I’m here to tell you that you can. And you can thrive. :-)
These 9 nutrients have helped me minimize withdrawal symptoms, overcome my addictions, and get on with my life.
I personally have experience with tobacco, nicotine, alcohol, benzodiazepines and antidepressant dependence and withdrawal.
And even if you don’t struggle with addiction, these nutrients are still great for optimal brain and mental health.
How Does Nutrition Impact Addiction?
Addiction is not simply a psychological issue.
Historically, most drug treatment programs have included counseling and 12-step approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
But these traditional approaches are not very effective.
In her book Seven Weeks to Sobriety, Dr. Joan Mathews Larsen points to studies showing that AA has a success rate of about 25 per cent.
This is because they address the psychological aspects of addiction without considering the physical aspects of the disease.
Dr. Charles Gant worked as the physician and psychiatric consultant for the New York State prison system, and dealt with hundreds of drug users and traffickers.
He realized that they wouldn’t overcome their addictions without addressing their physical health:
Addiction is a chronic brain disease. Studies show that drugs physically change the structure and functioning of the brain, and these documented brain changes lead to cravings (96).
And in my experience and research, high-quality bioavailable nutrients are an important aspect of combating and correcting this.
Research shows that vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause metabolic imbalances that create addictive cravings (97, 98).
Dr. Roger Williams, an American biochemist who discovered pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), found that rats that were deficient in certain vitamins consumed more alcohol than those that were not vitamin deficient. But once those vitamin deficiencies were eradicated, alcohol consumption decreased (99).
Nutritional deficiencies can also cause withdrawal-like symptoms such as fatigue, depression, irritability, and other mental symptoms that block recovery and lead to a relapse.
So, without further ado, let’s get into the nutrients that helped me the most.
Citicoline (also known as CDP-Choline) is the most bioavailable form of choline, an essential B vitamin that most people don’t consume enough of, because very few foods in the Western diet contain it. That’s why I recommend supplementing with it.
It has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, and enhances the synthesis of acetylcholine and dopamine (two neurotransmitters that are critical for optimal brain function) and increases the number of acetylcholine and dopamine receptors in your brain (2-7).
Overall, it’s one of my favourite nutrients for optimal brain and mental health.
And there’s evidence that it helps reduce addictions to drugs (1).
In one study, people previously addicted to cocaine took 500mg of citicoline twice daily for two weeks and experienced a reduction in cravings for the drug (8).
In another study, people with cocaine dependence and bipolar disorder who supplemented with citicoline reduced their cocaine use. Researchers had directed them to not consume cocaine during the study, and at the end of it, they found less cocaine in the urine of the participants (9).
Some preliminary research also suggests it could help people with alcohol, cannabis and food addiction (10).
It’s important to note here that many prescription drugs are anticholinergic, meaning they reduce acetylcholine in the brain.
The commonly-prescribed antidepressant Wellbutrin is anticholinergic, meaning it inhibits the physiological action of acetylcholine. I took it for multiple years, and I experience gradual cognitive decline during that time.
Once I got off Wellbutrin, I felt pretty terrible. But once I started supplementing with citicoline, I noticed an improvement in cognitive function since it increased my levels of acetylcholine and dopamine. I still take it today because it helps me focus, improves my mental energy and clears brain fog.
Theanine is a relaxing amino acid found in tea that has a number of brain and mental health benefits. It’s known to produce a calming effect on the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier and increasing the production of both GABA and dopamine in the brain. Unlike prescription anti-anxiety medication, it does not cause sedation and drowsiness (13, 14, 15).
Considering all of this, it’s not surprising that it has anti-addictive properties and can help reduce withdrawal symptoms.
According to the research, it’s particularly helpful when it comes to withdrawal from nicotine and opioids (16, 17).
I find that theanine improves my mood, helps me focus and cancels out the jitters of my morning coffee. It’s sort of like meditation in a pill. My mind has a tendency to jump around a lot, and theanine helps me “zero in” on what I’m doing.
However, too much theanine can also make people anxious. This is because theanine increases alpha brain waves, and I found out from my neurofeedback practitioner that very high alpha brain waves can actually cause anxiety. I usually take just 200 mg, but you should experiment and see how much you can tolerate.
You can also get theanine from black and green tea. However, I personally can’t drink most teas because they tend to contain mycotoxins (mold toxins) and I’m very sensitive to them after living in a moldy home.
If you’ve lived in a moldy home or have found out that you’re genetically susceptible to mycotoxins, you can supplement with straight theanine like I do.
Theanine is available in this anti-anxiety supplement, along with a number of other natural compounds that have helped me manage my anxiety over the years (You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount).
As I’ve discussed before, omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that the body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system (18).
They can support your mitochondria and increase your brain’s growth hormone, and have been shown to improve mood, sleep, learning and memory, and protect against psychiatric disorders including depression, mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease (19-21).
They’ve also been shown to help addicts and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Research shows that increased anxiety is one of the primary reasons why substance abusers and alcoholics tend to relapse (23, 24).
And one study found that giving omega-3 fatty acids to substance abusers significantly reduced their anxiety (22).
Other studies have shown that omega-3 supplements reduce cravings for nicotine and reduce the number of cigarettes people smoke daily (26, 27).
Researchers have also studied the relapse rates of cocaine addicts discharged after a period of detoxification, and found that the cocaine addicts who relapsed had significantly lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids compared to addicts who didn’t relapse (29).
Lastly, in abstinent alcoholics, elevated omega-3 intake reduces stress and cortisol, and omega-3 fatty acids significantly lower the desire for alcohol in mice (30, 31).
Unfortunately, most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet. That’s why I recommend people supplement with krill oil, a special kind of fish oil that contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids. I take this one. I find that I have a brighter outlook on life when I take krill oil consistently.
You can also order very high-quality seafood and krill oil supplements here.
4. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)
Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine.
It can also reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
In one study, alcoholic patients treated with ALCAR stayed sober for longer because it reduced their cravings (48).
ALCAR can also help treat opiate addiction and withdrawal. Thirty subjects with methadone dependence were given 2 grams of ALCAR daily during a 3-week detoxification period, and it reduced their pain and the length of their withdrawal (49).
And research in rats shows that ALCAR can significantly decrease alcohol consumption and reduce the onset of tremors during alcohol withdrawal. Researchers concluded that it should be considered in the treatment of alcohol dependence (50).
ALCAR gives me a huge boost in mental energy and resilience. It sort of feels like drinking a cup of coffee, so it’s helpful if you want to stop or reduce your intake of caffeine.
5. N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC) and/or Glutathione
N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is a modified form of the amino acid cysteine.
As I’ve discussed before, it can help treat several mental illnesses. But it can also reduce addiction and cravings during withdrawal (32-34, 41, 42, 45):
- In a small study, 13 people abstaining from cocaine were given 2400 mg of NAC or placebo over two days. The participants who received NAC witnessed a significant reduction in their withdrawal symptoms and cravings for cocaine. Follow-up studies also showed that NAC reduced desire and interest in cocaine (35-37).
- Smokers voluntarily reduce their cigarette use by around 25% after two weeks of supplementing with 2400 mg of NAC (38, 39).
- Young marijuana users claiming to be addicted to marijuana supplemented with 1,200mg of NAC twice daily for four weeks and experienced a significant reduction in their symptoms of addiction (43, 44).
- And it’s not just addiction to drugs. NAC also shows promise for the treatment of gambling addiction. A randomized control trial with 27 pathological gamblers showed that gamblers who supplemented with NAC scored 60% lower on the “Obsessive Compulsive Scale for Pathological Gambling." (40).
I used to take this NAC every other day, but I don’t need to take it as much anymore. I now take it about once a week.
NAC is also the precursor to glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant, which can help fight addiction.
Chronic use of drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamine and alcohol, can lead to the formation of oxidative stress (47).
Oxidative stress can change neuronal pathways and cause addictive behaviour. But glutathione can reduce oxidative stress and therefore decrease the development of addiction (46).
Every tissue in your body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system. This means your entire body needs it to function properly and a deficiency can lead to costly physiological and psychological consequences, including addiction.
Researchers have concluded that chronic vitamin D deficiency is an environmental factor contributing to drug use, and supplementation should be considered for the effective treatment of drug abuse and addiction (51-54).
Other studies have discovered that:
- Vitamin D protects against the dopamine-depleting effects of methamphetamine (52-54);
- There is also a positive association between vitamin D deficiency and severity of alcohol-use disorders (55); and
- Patients prescribed narcotic pain medication – such as morphine, fentanyl or oxycodone – end up having to take higher doses if they are deficient in vitamin D (56).
Magnesium is a vital mineral that participates in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. This includes neurotransmitter, enzyme, and hormonal activity, all of which can have a huge effect on our mood and brain function.
It’s another one of the three nutrients that I think everyone should be taking for their brain, as most people are deficient.
It’s been shown to decrease dependence on opiates, nicotine, cocaine, amphetamine and alcohol, and reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms when stopping these drugs (84).
It can also lower relapse rates, particularly with cocaine and amphetamine addicts (84).
Researchers have also concluded that magnesium supplementation can decrease nicotine addiction in heavy smokers. It does this by naturally improving the stimulation of the reward system, which reduces the need for stimulation by nicotine or by others addictive substances (85).
Studies have also found that magnesium deficiency is very common in people dealing with alcohol addiction and withdrawal, and supplementing with magnesium diminishes withdrawal complications, reduces the severity of their withdrawal symptoms, and lowers their need for anti-anxiety medication (86, 87).
Foods that contain magnesium include spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate and bananas.
I take this magnesium supplement.
As I’ve discussed before, zinc is an essential mineral for mental health, especially if you struggle with chronic anxiety.
It can also help treat addiction and withdrawal.
Research shows that opioid users have lower levels of zinc (72-75).
And in the case of alcoholism, alcohol is known to deplete zinc from the body. Over time, chronic consumption can produce a downward spiral in which zinc deficiency causes chronic stress, driving a person to drink more alcohol, which further depletes zinc and causes more anxiety in the long run.
In animals, zinc reduces the intensity of morphine dependence, and zinc chelators worsen withdrawal symptoms (76, 77, 78).
Some of the best food sources of zinc include oysters, grass-fed beef, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms and spinach.
However, I still recommend at least short-term supplementation to ensure you get enough.
I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement.
9. Vitamin C
This might seem unbelievable but there is research demonstrating vitamin C’s usefulness in overcoming addiction and reducing withdrawal symptoms.
First of all, vitamin C levels are significantly lower in drug addicts (68).
And high doses of vitamin C have been shown to increase endorphin levels, decrease opioid use, and reduce the withdrawal syndrome of heroin addicts (58).
The chronic administration of vitamin C may also prevent the development of tolerance and physical dependence on morphine (59, 69).
When I weened off psychiatric medication, I took large doses of vitamin C every day. By large doses, I mean about 10 grams spread throughout the day. I noticed it reduced stress and helped calm me down.
Various studies show that vitamin C reduces stress and anxiety and decreases the severity of depression (62-67).
And other research shows that long-term vitamin C deficiency contributes to nervousness and emotional instability, and there was a 35% reduction in mood disturbance in hospitalized patients after vitamin C treatment (60, 61).
Foods that contain vitamin C include green peppers, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage.
But if you’re taking large doses of vitamin C, you’ll have to supplement with it.
Here are some others to consider. Based on my research and experience, these nutrients can help manage addiction and withdrawal but they aren’t as effective as the ones above:
- Lithium Orotate (79)
- Taurine (80)
- B Vitamins (82)
- Glutamine (83)
- DL-Phenylalanine (DLPA) (81) – I almost included this one in the main list because it has really helped me, but there isn’t too much research on it. I originally wrote about it here.
- D-Serine/Sarcosine – This one has a lot of promise and research behind it but I haven’t tried it myself yet (88-95)
Just like mental illness, you can beat addiction. They often go hand in hand.
I’ve learned with time and the proper information and resources, people can snap out of the addiction cycle and be happy and calm with themselves without mind-altering drugs and habits.
You may feel like you have no other choice but you do. You can get on with your life without addictive substances.
Overall, I really believe in the power of these nutrients for tackling addiction and minimizing withdrawal symptoms:
Taking a combination of them can make the transition to sobriety much easier.
I’ve experienced the benefits of them firsthand, and I hope you do too.
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Reviewed by Dr. Richard Nahas, MD CCFP DCAPM ABIM