Eating to Prevent Alcohol Cravings and Relapse
Have you ever thought someone was conspiring against you in your attempts at sobriety? Okay, maybe not someone, but some mysterious force that is diligently working to sabotage you?
Well, you may not be too far off, my friend. Years of heavy alcohol consumption in addition to some of the most widely accepted AA wisdom, the liberal application of candy and coffee, may be working against you and millions of other recovering alcoholics in developing a successful recovery program that promotes lasting sobriety.
Alcohol and Blood Sugar
The heavy consumption of alcohol results in chronically elevated blood glucose levels, which primes the brain for addictive behavior and the body for disease. In the brain, glucose interacts with the brain’s dopamine system and influences reward-motivated behavior, i.e. increased consumption that may exacerbate harmful alcoholic tendencies and lead to dependence. In the body, alcohol elevates blood glucose and distorts its equilibrium, leaving the body susceptible to volatile swings in blood sugar to, again, encourage greater consumption while simultaneously increasing the risk for diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. After alcohol has altered dopamine production and blood sugar maintenance, symptoms of withdrawal and cravings will develop as alcohol is removed in an attempt to restore feelings of normalcy and the body’s new glucose baseline.
So, in the simplest of terms, alcohol works in multiple ways to encourage greater consumption, which may result in withdrawals and cravings that will delay the recovery process and may lead to relapse.
Eating to Reduce Withdrawal and Cravings
In order to reduce the withdrawals and cravings associated with the elimination of alcohol, we must work to maintain a properly functioning dopamine system and beneficial blood glucose levels. The best way to accomplish this is to eat a diet high in dopamine boosting foods and low in those that destabilize blood sugar. Unfortunately, dopamine cannot be obtained directly from food, but tyrosine, an essential amino acid and a dopamine precursor, is abundant in several protein-rich foods, which include:
- Nuts and seeds
That couldn’t get any simpler. Honestly, who doesn’t love a turkey and avocado sandwich paired with a handful of mixed nuts and seeds?
The simplest and most appropriate method for managing blood sugar may be utilization of the Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL). GI and GL measures the blood sugar response caused by specific foods. The higher a food falls on the GI and the greater the GL, the larger the rise it blood sugar, which increases the risk for alcoholic cravings and relapse.
For a quick point of reference, pure sugar maxes out on the GI at 100, which means that it is easily converted to glucose and cause a rapid increase in blood sugar.
A few foods that someone wishing to stabilize blood sugar may wish to eliminate include:
- Refined Carbohydrates. Foods like white rice, bread, cereal and pretty much everything that comes in a box have been stripped of their vitamins, minerals and, most importantly, fiber, which slows the conversion to glucose.
- Sugar. Sugar is listed at the top of the GI and increases GL when added to any kind of food. Sugar is also nutrient poor and has the power to deplete the body’s vitamin and mineral stores. This includes blatant sources of sugar like candy and cakes, in addition to the less obvious sources of sugar like condiments, soda and canned goods.
- Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that creates dramatic spikes and subsequent crashes in blood sugar.
- Wheat and Dairy. Highly allergenic foods like wheat and dairy can greatly impair an alcoholic’s ability to control and minimize withdrawal symptoms. Food sensitivities and allergies can also greatly influence an individual’s alcoholic behavior when exposure encourages increased consumption in response to the body’s production of opioid endorphins that provide relief from the discomfort caused by allergenic substances.
“He thought all alcoholics should constantly have chocolate available for its quick energy value in times of fatigue.”–Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (p.134)
So, contrary to what the Big Book would have you believe, maintaining a ready supply of chocolate may actually the worst thing you can do for your sobriety.
Habits to Promote Success
Beyond eating and avoiding certain foods, changes in our eating patterns will further improve our chances of success. Eating three protein-rich, anchor meals that emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables is a good place to start. For example, eating a couple eggs, some broccoli and half an avocado within an hour of waking will provide a steady stream of energy for the next few hours and will prevent erratic swings in blood sugar and mood. In between anchor meals, snacking on fruit and nuts will help keep energy levels high and blood sugar stable. Also, I know this doesn’t pertain to our diet discussion, but getting an adequate amount of sleep will help the body better manage the recovery process and will keep the mind fresh and ready for any obstacles that life may present.
Recovery isn’t easy; especially when the foods we eat have the ability to trigger the cravings that put sobriety in jeopardy. It is of paramount importance that recovering alcoholics integrate a mindful dietary protocol that promotes dopamine production and stable blood sugar so that they are better able to avoid relapse and fully recover from the physical, psychological and spiritual damage caused by addiction.