How Addiction Leads to Malnutrition

addiction and malnutrition

Many people who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction also experience malnutrition. While malnutrition is usually thought of as not getting enough nutrients, it also means consuming too much food. If a person isn’t eating the right number of and right kind of protein and calories to meet their basic nutritional requirements, they are considered malnourished. While malnutrition may develop in anyone who doesn’t eat a healthy balanced diet, it’s extremely common for people with substance addictions.

In most cases, addiction and malnutrition are related through nutrient deficiencies or undernutrition. However, some substances, such as marijuana or even opioids, lead drug abusers to weight gain or overnutrition. Either way, being malnourished isn’t healthy and it’s especially detrimental to people with substance use disorders. After all, when your body isn’t healthy, it’s hard to keep your mind and spirit feeling well and working right. As a result, many people who check into drug or alcohol rehab programs end up benefitting from nutritional therapy and life-skills education.

Addiction and Malnutrition

Nutrition looks at nutrients in food, the ways the body uses them, and the relationships between one’s diet, health, and chronic disease. It also considers how people can adhere to certain dietary guidelines to reduce the risk of disease or malnutrition.[1] Nutrients, like water, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fat, vitamins, and minerals all decrease peoples’ risks of developing certain health conditions if they have the right balance in their diet. However, people who suffer from addiction are more likely to focus their priorities on obtaining their substance of choice, getting high or drinking, and recovering from the effects of intoxication. As a result, dietary needs go to the wayside.

People who abuse substances are less likely to care about their well-being and the foods they are putting into their bodies. Furthermore, different substances affect bodily systems in ways that either decrease or increase one’s appetite – increasing the risk that someone won’t eat a balanced and nutritious diet.

Stimulant Abuse and Appetite Suppression

Stimulants, including cocaine, methamphetamine, Adderall, Ritalin, and more, are known to suppress appetite. In fact, these medications are so effective in reducing appetite that stimulants, such as phentermine, are sometimes prescribed to help promote weight loss.[2] Although stimulant drugs increase heart rate, body temperature, and heart rate, they still reduce appetite. People who abuse stimulants may stay awake for days on end without developing an appetite. As a result, it’s normal for people who get addicted to stimulants to experience dramatic weight loss. Obviously, when not eating a balanced diet or barely eating at all, it’s difficult to get the nutrients your body needs to thrive. Consequently, people with stimulant addictions often suffer from malnutrition.

Opioid Addiction and Malnutrition

Opioids act directly on the central nervous system and digestive tract to slow down bodily functions. While people who are actively abusing opioids may neglect their nutritional needs, leading to malnutrition, people in recovery from opioid addiction struggle with malnourishment as well. Studies have found that people in recovery from opioid addiction are far more likely to have a poor diet, gain weight, and become obese after getting sober. Furthermore, the biochemical and physical changes that come from opioid addiction often lead to nutritional deficiencies.[3]

Alcohol and Nutrient Deficiencies

Many alcoholic beverages are high in calories and sugars, so it’s easy to gain weight while drinking excessively. Even though drinkers consume calories, the body processes and uses these calories differently than it uses food calories. This is one reason why diabetes is so common among chronic drinkers – their metabolism is affected and sugars build up. However, many alcoholics also eat less food than their bodies need to function properly. In addition, alcohol directly affects digestion, storage, and utilization of nutrients. As a result, people who are addicted to alcohol are often malnourished because they don’t consume enough nutrients and their bodies use them correctly.[4]

Chronic Marijuana Abuse and Overnutrition

Whether you’ve smoked marijuana one time, are a recreational smoker, or are addicted to marijuana, you’ve probably heard of or experienced “munchies.” Munchies refers to the hunger that marijuana users feel shortly after smoking. Marijuana is so effective in increasing one’s appetite that it is used medicinally to help people overcome some eating disorders, like anorexia. However, munchies are harmful to chronic marijuana smokers. Oftentimes, they crave foods that are high in fats, sugars, and carbohydrates. Eating too much of these foods isn’t healthy and may lead to weight gain, obesity, or diabetes. Although marijuana users are less likely to suffer from nutrient deficiencies than other drug users, they are still susceptible to overnutrition and other chronic health conditions.

Effects and Risks of Malnutrition

Getting sober is hard enough and when your body doesn’t have access to the nutrients it needs, both the withdrawal process and the recovery process are more difficult. Balanced diets help regulate moods, decrease symptoms of depression, and improve overall wellness. In order to sustain long term sobriety, it’s important to have stable moods, treat your mental health, and stay healthy. These three attributes are hard to accomplish if your body is yearning for healthy foods, vitamins, and minerals. Similarly, detox may be more difficult and last longer if people are malnourished. As a result, drug and alcohol detox centers work with nutritionists to develop meal plans for people who are getting sober.

Addiction clearly has severe long term effects, but malnutrition does, too. For example, long-term malnutrition leads to other complications, such as:[5]

  • Stunted growth
  • Vision problems
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Trouble regulating body temperature
  • Digestive problems

The best way to prevent these long-term consequences is by getting help for addiction and treating your body right.

Finding Treatment to Get Healthy and Stay Sober

Sobriety is about more than just abstinence. It involves getting your life in order and taking care of your mind, body, and soul. At PAX Memphis, our addiction specialists and clinical team work closely with each patient to determine his or her individual needs. If you’re suffering from addiction, it’s likely that your body is malnourished as well. Contact us today to see how we help clients heal from addiction mentally, physically, and spiritually.


Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.