The Effects of Sugar on Alcohol Cravings and Relapse
Recovery is hard. The introspection and willingness required to alter an alcoholics natural response to life and stay sober is physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing. Further, the predisposition in alcoholics for hypoglycemia, which primes the body for craving and relapse, make food and eating a sensitive subject for alcoholics in early recovery. However, with a mindful approach to nutrition aimed at healing the body and reducing the symptoms of withdrawal, we can greatly improve the chances of obtaining long-term sobriety and growing into the individuals we were meant to become.
What does an anti-craving, -relapse nutrition plan look like?
Although we are all unique in our physiological response to food and the effects it may have upon our ability to stay sober, there is one dietary tenant that can greatly improve an alcoholic’s chance at recovery. Eating foods that promote beneficial blood sugar levels will reduce the symptoms of withdrawal and craving that plague those new to recovery while helping to stabilize mood and behavior so that the body, mind and spirit can fully escape the death grip of disease.
According to the principles discussed in Potatoes, Not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons, one of the best ways to overcome dramatic swings in blood sugar is to eat three protein-rich meals each day that emphasize complex carbohydrates and nutrient rich fruits and vegetables. Consuming a ‘healthy’ breakfast that includes eggs, lean meats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables within an hour of waking is probably the most effective way to control blood sugar and prevent erratic swings in mood and behavior. Also, snacking on fruit and nuts in between staple meals may be a beneficial strategy for managing erratic behavior in those particularly susceptible to low blood sugar or for those with highly active lives.
Alcoholics also need to give up foods that have a stimulating effect or contain refined sugars in order further prevent wild swings in blood sugar while helping to break the body’s dependence upon substances that are easily converted to glucose. Caffeine, nicotine and blatant sources of sugar like cakes, candies and pastries are the greatest contributors to volatile blood glucose and should be the first things eliminated from an alcoholics diet. Also, the elimination of highly allergenic foods like dairy and wheat is encouraged as these foods 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.
Why might such an approach prevent alcoholic cravings and relapse?
Alcoholics generally experience more dramatic swings in blood sugar in response to their food choices. When they consume a carbohydrate (sugar) rich meal, it causes an exaggerated spike in blood sugar that the body tries to correct by releasing a hefty shot of insulin. This large dose of insulin works to stabilize high blood glucose by quickly moving excess sugar out of the blood and into the body’s cells. Unfortunately, this quick response by the body encourages a correspondingly dramatic drop in blood sugar and increases vulnerability to uncomfortably low blood sugar levels (the hypoglycemia mentioned above). Often times, the quickest and most efficient way to remedy the discomfort and dis-ease associated with low blood sugar is to consume simple carbohydrates that are easily broken down to restore blood sugar and reenergize the body. And, for the alcoholic this often means sugar, beer or other spirits that the body is quickly able to convert to glucose.
I hate to posit something that runs contrary to the wisdom of the Big Book, which asserts that, “all alcoholics should constantly have chocolate available for its quick energy value at times of fatigue,” but I really think such a tactic is misguided and has the potential to generate more harm than good.
Alcoholism is an insidious disease that touches the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of almost every American in some way or another. However, a mindful recovery program that utilizes dietary modification can better help an alcoholic overcome the self-destructive behavior that can create so much damage in one’s life.
Oh! And for then non-alcoholic out there, this fun little infographic courtesy of the fine folks at Addiction Treatment Magazine that does a pretty good job of illustrating America’s addiction to sugar and the physical harm it is causing. Enjoy!