In late October 2012, the first night I went out to a bar and didn't drink, I skipped home from North Beach, having done the impossible thing that I was certain I'd never be able to do - abstain from alcohol. I was awash in excitement over this new endeavor and all the possibilities of a life without booze, and to celebrate, I stopped at a liquor store and bought a pint of Three Twins ice cream. I looked at the calories and made an audible "psshhht" - it had nothing on the calories in my normal five IPAs - and I told that Lemon Cookie dream "I'm going to eat all of you."
For years, I had skipped the dessert. Each time at a restaurant I had been handed the after-dinner menu, I skimmed right past the creme brulee and lava cake to the only part of the menu that mattered - the liquor. I had a waist to maintain, alcohol was a non-negotiable, and dessert was something that other people who weren't as sensible as me did. But now that those precious alcohol calories were gone? It was open season.
Over the next few weeks in sobriety, this ritual continued. I wasn't drinking my calories anymore, I was doing something really fucking hard, and I deserved entire pints of ice cream, multiple bags of Haribo, and two chocolate croissants for breakfast.
And then it happened. One day, I was stressing out about something, and I was jonesing for sour gummy bears the way I had alcohol before - only THEY would fix it and I had to have them. I left my desk at work and returned, three bags of gummies in my purse, the line between abuse and addiction crossed.
On a visit with my doctor in July of 2013, she asked me how I was managing sobriety, and whether I was noticing any problems with sugar. I told her that no, I hadn't had any "problems" with sugar, so long as she didn't count the fact that all I was eating was sugar as a problem. Then I offered her a Twizzler. She put me on Amino Acid therapy.
$1,000 dollars poorer, 10 pounds lighter, and some months later, I stopped carrying around pastries in my purse.
While I still eat sugar today and by no means have a great diet, I am no longer compulsively addicted to sugar the way I was for the first 9-ish months of sobriety. I no longer say things like "I'll cut you if you don't give me that cookie right now", or travel with it on hand for "just in case". In fact, there's an ENTIRE box of See's candy in my freezer and it's been there for a week untouched. Serious. I attribute this shift to the diet changes and rigorous supplementation that I did in order to combat the sugar addiction.
If you are dealing with this common addiction transference or if you, like I once did, suspect you are keeping Haribo in business, here is a great article on how to approach breaking sugar addiction from my dear friend and colleague Mary Vance, NC. It's not the same approach I took, I followed the Diet Cure to the letter and did so with the aid of an MD, and it was costly and extreme. Mary's approach like everything she does is thoughtful, balanced, affordable, and sustainable.
Note. Nutrition and some of the issues discussed around serotonin deficiencies - such as anxiety, low self esteem, panic attacks - are things that require a holistic approach. Breathing, meditation, positive thinking, yoga, etc. are also part of the solution, as discussed throughout this blog. This article addresses these things from a Nutrition and Lifestyle perspective only, and is directed towards sugar addiction specifically.
PLUG. Mary runs the Nutrition module along with me in Hip Sobriety School. As of this writing, the Winter 2016 school is sold out, but there will be another coming in May 2016. Stay in the loop and learn more here.
Sugar & Booze.
The classic scene at an AA meeting: a table filled with donuts and cookies along with pitchers of coffee, people mingling outside smoking cigarettes. Ever wonder why a former drinker’s drug of choice becomes sugar after she kicks the booze? Or suddenly coffee, marijuana, or nicotine cravings surface?
It’s not a coincidence.
Maybe you’ve also wondered why your friend can stop after one glass of wine when you’ve had four and still want more?
There are biochemical deficiencies that may predispose a person to addiction and binge behavior, usually imbalances in feel-good brain chemicals (known as neurotransmitters), blood sugar fluctuations, nutrient deficiencies that contribute to anxiety/depression, or a combination of these factors. These physiological imbalances drive a person to seek outside substances to help themselves feel normal. Alcohol particularly can temporarily boost levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for good moods, restful sleep, and prevention of cravings. Findings indicate a single drinking session increases serotonin, making those low in this neurotransmitter particularly sensitive to alcohol’s mood boosting effects. These folks will have more of a tendency to binge drink and/or use drugs to feel good because their brain isn’t providing them with the proper levels of neurotransmitters they need for a balanced mood. They are seeking outside substances to provide biochemical balance. Source.
Does this sound like you?
- Low-self esteem
- Panic attacks
- Binge eating or anorexia
- Depression, anxiety
- Obsessive behaviors
- Cravings for sweets and chocolates
- Cravings for sweets and carbs at night
These are all signs of serotonin deficiency, and these behaviors predispose a person to binge drinking and food addiction. Source.
Certain foods have a similar effect. Sugar in particular can temporally raise serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. So, when you remove the main substance upon which a person has become dependent to feel good or normal (alcohol), the brain screams to get that relief from other substances (carbs and sugar, caffeine and nicotine, pot, etc.). Caffeine also increases serotonin concentration in the brainstem.
This phenomenon is known as addiction transfer: when you stop one compulsive behavior or coping mechanism and move to another behavior, as you are not addressing the underlying source of what’s driving the binge behavior and cravings in the first place. Now you have a better understanding about why all the coffee and sweets at recovery meetings: These substances provide relief for serotonin and dopamine deficiencies.
Adding insult to injury, many binge drinkers struggle with blood sugar fluctuations or hypoglycemia, which drives cravings for alcohol and sugar to regulate blood glucose balance. Once you stop drinking, sweets can quell your craving for alcohol. Research suggests there may be a biological connection between having a sweet tooth and an alcohol abuse problem. For example, a study of more than 300 children found that those with a heightened preference for sugary foods and beverages were more likely to have a family history of alcoholism. These children were also more likely to have a family history of depression, which is an additional risk factor for alcohol abuse. Source.
How Do I Combat the Cravings?
Don’t let your cravings for sugar undo the hard work it takes to kick the booze. There are a few strategies to help, along with foods and supplements, to get you over the hump while you’re bringing your body back into balance.
1. Eat in regular intervals, every 4 hours, to stabilize blood sugar. This is SO important. If you go too long without eating or skip meals, your body releases a cascade of stress hormones in response, causing a spike and crash in blood sugar levels that leaves you irritable, tired and wired, and craving sugar.
2. Caffeine and nicotine aggravate hypoglycemia and disrupt blood sugar balance. Do not drink coffee on an empty stomach, and do not substitute meals for coffee. If you drink coffee, always drink it with a protein-based meal, and consider swapping it for green tea a few days weekly. Do not drink coffee after 12pm.
3. Use Glutamine supplements. 500-- 1,000 mg of glutamine taken as needed can help ward off sugar cravings. (Tip from Holly - I used to carry glutamine capsules in my purse, and when in craving, broke open the capsule and poured it under my tongue for quick absorption.)
4. B vitamin complex can help the body adjust to stress. Here is what I recommend.
5. Crave Arrest Supplement. This supplement can help you overcome cravings for sugar and nicotine. It helps balance serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Take it daily to help build up neurotransmitter levels.
6. An essential fatty acid supplement. This can reduce inflammation caused by alcohol, boost your mood, and nourish the brain.
7. Really focus on good sleep habits. Sleep is one of the most critical factors for both recovery and for hormone balance, blood sugar balance, and improved stress response. Here are my sleep hygiene tips. Click here for my sleep hygiene tips.
8. Breakfast is key! When you wake up in the morning, you’ve been fasting for at least 8 hours, and blood sugar levels are low. Help your body by eating a great breakfast with protein and healthy fats, plus a little carbohydrate. This sets the stage for balanced mood and energy all day long. Click here for some good breakfast suggestions.
9. Make sure you are eating enough. Eat enough calories for your activity level and physiology. Eating too little drives cravings.
10. Get some protein and healthy fat at every meal. Proteins and fats help ward off cravings and keep blood sugar levels stable. Examples: meat, fish, eggs, legumes, protein smoothie with hemp, rice, or pea protein. Healthy fats include coconut oil, olive oil, butter, avocado.
11. Get your minerals through greens. Green vegetable juices are an excellent source of minerals, as are your leafy green veggies, so eat kale and spinach!
12. Avoid refined, white sugar and sodas. Ever notice how the more you eat sugar, the more your crave it? Get off that merry-go-round! Try the above suggested supplements and nutrition tips which should help quell your sugar cravings. Swap out refined sugary foods for healthy dark chocolate. Replace soda (even diet soda can fuel cravings and weight gain) with herbal tea or sparkling water with lime. If you get the 3pm energy crash-sugar craving, try a protein-based snack or an apple with almond butter.
13. Most of all, be patient with yourself. It takes time to rebalance your brain chemistry. I often recommend neurotransmitter and hormone testing to determine exactly what deficiencies are present in order to design specific protocols for healing.
Mary Vance is a holistic nutritionist specializing in women's health and hormone balance, digestive wellness, thyroid health, and detoxification. Her philosophy is simple: eat real food! She has a thriving practice in San Francisco and works with clients all over the world via Skype. Find her at www.maryvancenc.com or join the party on Facebook.