Addiction and Epidemiology

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Consider the epidemic. Most of us think of SARS, smallpox or whooping cough-things that are completely out of our control and capable of debilitating or destroying entire populations. But what about such things as alcoholism, obesity or eating disorders? These issues are often behavior-related, and many people will argue that these issues are completely a matter or personal choice. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on epidemiology in terms of society and one of the behavior-based plagues of our time: addiction.

In light of the recent death of well-known and respected actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think it’s safe to say that we can see addiction as an issue that does not discriminate. It does not select individuals solely from poverty-stricken homes or broken families. Addicts and alcoholics are found across the social spectrum, from all walks of life.

Although there has been much debate about whether or not addiction can be considered a disease, it is without a doubt an enormous public health concern. According to recent studies by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and and Alcohol Addiction, around 85,000 alcohol-implicated deaths occur every year. That’s more deaths caused by alcohol than by diabetes. Even more astonishing, it is estimated that Americans consume 80% of the prescription pain killers in the world. Although some of these drugs are consumed under the direction of a doctor, many of them are not, and are contributing to the millions of Americans suffering through addiction. These numbers are quite clearly of epidemic proportions.

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You may wonder what this topic has to do with nutrition.  While the problem of addiction and substance abuse prevention is a battle on an entirely other front, nutritionists have been faced with different stage of this issue: recovery.

More and more, doctors and scientists are finding the beneficial effects of introducing proper nutrition as a component in the treatment of addiction.  For the fortunate addict or alcoholic who makes it out of the throws of this affliction, access to an educated nutrition professional may prove to be invaluable in their road to recovery.

When someone has been repeatedly exposing their body to excessive toxins, naturally a period of healing often follows, that can sometimes take up to 2 years. Cessation and recovery from addiction involves many bodily upsets, including changes in metabolism, organ function and mental health. Addiction and alcoholism have also been shown to result in hypoglycemia with surprising prevalence.

Picture in your mind an active alcoholic or drug addict. Most of us think of someone who is emaciated and quite unhealthy-looking. The  stages of this illness range in severity, but most of the folks addicted to substances don’t put their nutrition at the top of their list of priorities. Many patients checking into rehab centers have gone months or years without proper nutritional health, and are quite out of touch with the most optimal fuels to be feeding their bodies.

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Many treatment centers for addiction are now incorporating a nutritional facet to their programs, some with in-house dietitians or community nutritionists to plan meal programs or work with the patients directly. It has become abundantly clear that while the “Just Say No” drug campaign did little to combat the actual use and distribution of drugs in our society, there is much to be done in the recovery front, and members of the health, scientific and mental health communities will likely all play a role, nutritionist professionals are certainly already being seen playing a vital role in the treatment of this modern epidemic.

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One thought on “Addiction and Epidemiology

  1. With so much emphasis being placed on obesity and chronic disease and their link to nutrition, I think your blog brings to light another very important health issue rarely addressed in relation to nutrition. As your statistics point out, there are a very large number of people battling with addiction and its effects. However, just like many other conditions and diseases, these statistics show that there is a need out there for nutrition and these services can definitely make an impact on the success of clients in addiction programs. Those suffering from addiction rarely receive adequate nutrition and this needs to be changed so poor nutrition doesn’t persist throughout and beyond an individual’s recovery.

    Obviously people suffering from addiction have numerous health problems tied directly to their drug or alcohol use, but if they can become educated about good nutrition practices they can begin to take control of their lives and health in a positive way, which could be a big step to recovery. Further, helping them meet their nutritional needs adequately is a good opportunity to prevent further disease or conditions that are related to inadequate nutrition. As fellow community nutritionists, we all know the value food has in our lives. Not only does it nourish our bodies, but also it impacts every aspect of our lives. Why not use it to positively influence and better the lives of those recovering from addiction?

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