Alcoholism and Blood Sugar Management
Ever experience a little afternoon fog? What about a huge surge than an equally dramatic plunge in energy? Have you ever gotten weak, dizzy, or shaky after skipping a meal?
If so, what was your solution? Did you ride it out, journal your experience, and then explore what could have possibly triggered your episode? Ha!
When this happens to me, the first thing I do is reach for a little caffeine or sugar to pick me up and help me get on with my day and I feel like it’s probably pretty fair to assume that the majority of people out there do the same. Unfortunately, this tendency to artificially stimulate the body via blood sugar manipulation can be extremely hard on the body and have some dire consequences, especially for the alcoholic.
Blood Sugar Imbalance and Hypoglycemia
Generally speaking, abnormal blood sugar levels characterize glucose metabolism disorders. Diabetics have chronically elevated blood sugar levels while those with hypoglycemia experience those that are abnormally low.
In a healthy body, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. As carbs are broken down and glucose enters the system, blood sugar rises and the pancreas spits out a proportionate amount of insulin to help move that glucose into cells where it can be used to create energy. As insulin moves sugar out of the blood, glucose levels return to their normal and the body goes on about its daily activities.
With hypoglycemia, the glucose metabolism system is dysfunctional and the body has a great deal of trouble finding blood sugar balance and is prone to drops well below the optimal level. When blood sugar drops below normal, symptoms can develop that can greatly impair one’s ability to live a happy and productive life, including:
When left unmanaged, hypoglycemia can be quite unpleasant and increases the risk of developing more serious glucose metabolism disorders such as diabetes.
Hypoglycemia and Alcoholism
Alcoholics are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to controlling blood sugar and are highly susceptible to hypoglycemia.
According to Dr. Joan Matthew Larson, author of Seven Weeks to Sobriety, “ study after study has demonstrated that the vast majority of alcoholics are hypoglycemic.” Citing work done by Dr. John Tintera, Dr. Matthew’s suggests that, “Until severe fluctuations in blood sugar are stabilized, alcoholics will be predisposed to depression and what only appears to be ‘deep-rooted emotional and psychiatric disorders.’”
Blood sugar balance is an especially precarious situation for the alcoholic in early recovery, because, according to Tintera, “when blood sugar falls to a certain level, a craving for alcohol results.” More specifically, when alcohol cravings develop, it is actually a craving for sugar, “but patients inherently know they will respond quicker to the intake of alcohol” and, in typical fashion, they seek the easier and softer way.
Unfortunately, this idea still holds for “recovered” alcoholics who have been sober for years yet continue to suffer the effects of hypoglycemia.
The association between hypoglycemia and alcoholism suggests that in order to effectively treat a problem with drink, we must focus on ways to control poor glucose metabolism and prevent symptoms that are associated with alcohol cravings, withdrawal, and relapse.
Managing Blood Sugar for Recovery
The major nutritional forces behind blood sugar abnormalities include sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine and food allergens. Sugar and refined carbohydrates generate large spikes in blood sugar that encourage an equally large, if not larger, release of insulin by the pancreas.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase the amount of sugar in the bloodstream by stimulating the adrenals to produce catecholamines, which signal the liver to break down stored glucose in the liver. Although I would like to say that moderation with caffeine might be okay, when has a true addict or alcoholic (myself included) ever been really good at moderation?
Food allergens like dairy, wheat and soy frequently contribute to problems with blood sugar management because they can stimulate the same regions of the brain that drive addictive behavior and reinforce certain biochemical pathways in the body that make sobriety more challenging.
The dramatic swings in blood glucose created by sugars, refined carbohydrates, caffeine and food allergens make finding blood sugar balance even more difficult if not impossible for the hypoglycemic alcoholic. As an added bonus, constant stimulation of the pancreas and adrenals in response to ups and down in blood sugar may lead to organ fatigue and dysfunction.
Managing hypoglycemia with food is built upon integrating more fiber-rich plant carbohydrates that favor blood sugar stabilization and eliminating highly refined carbs and sugars that generate wild swings serum glucose, energy, and mood. In addition to carb modification, consuming protein-rich foods like chicken, fish, eggs, and beans (preferably organic and free range) at every meal will further enhance blood sugar balance by slowing the carbohydrate digestion and helping you stay satisfied longer. Finally, meal timing is essential for alcoholics, especially those with hypoglycemia, because fasting or skipping meals will eventually contribute to a whole host of unsavory symptoms that depress energy levels, mood, and the probability of sobriety.
In bullet point form, suggestions that will improve blood sugar management and promote complete recovery, include:
- Consume the highest quality proteins available, which include: organic, free range, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat and meat products; wild, sustainably caught fish; and organic beans and legumes.
- Eat every color of the rainbow at every meal.
- Enjoy high fiber, low sugar fruits like raspberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries.
- Integrate plenty of healthy fats in the form of nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut and extra virgin olive oil.
- Eat three solid meals a day, the first within an hour of rising, and snack in between according to hunger.
- Refrain from eating gluten grains, dairy, high-glycemic fruits and vegetables.
- Eliminate all food and drink that contain added sugars, highly refined carbohydrates, or caffeine.
A Quick Aside on Bill Wilson
Although they may be anecdotal, there are stories out there that suggest that Bill Wilson was very interested in the connection between hypoglycemia and alcoholism. Apparently, Bill W. consumed copious amounts of sugar and caffeine and was prone to extreme bouts of depression, which he attributed to poor glucose metabolism. When he noticed the connection and eliminated sugar and caffeine, his symptoms improved dramatically. This experience prompted the First and Second Communications to Alcoholics Anonymous Physicians in 1965 and 1968, respectively, which he sent to AA physicians.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Bill W.’s blood sugar discoveries fell on deaf ears as the Big Book still suggests that, “all alcoholics should constantly have chocolate available for its quick energy value at times of fatigue.”
I know that the deck is already stacked against the alcoholic in recovery, but with a little dietary modification and a lot of awareness we can better prevent and overcome the triggers that may interfere with meaningful sobriety.