Matthew Lovitt is a Master Nutrition Therapist, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition, specializing in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction with food & fitness. You can learn more about him and his diet and lifestyle philosophy at his blog twelvewellness.com and on his Facebook page.
Sugar tastes really good. I mean really really good. Sometimes there is nothing better than a giant helping of cake, candy, or whatever other sweet treats are out there to brighten one’s day. In recovery, especially early recovery, sugar is often used as a quick and effective way to manage all the physical and emotional uncertainty that accompanies sobriety. And, it works! At least for a little while, but, unfortunately, when consumed often or in excess, sugar can mimic the effects of our drug of choice, increase cravings and withdrawals, and, ultimately, jeopardize a new and drug- or alcohol-free way of life. Layer on top of that sugar’s known contribution to nutrient deficiencies, weight gain, and a slew of potentially life-threatening health concerns and it becomes clear that sugar and sugar-laden foods are not something to be taken lightly.
SUGAR IS A DRUG
You know that feeling you get when you eat that huge piece of cake? That feeling of overwhelming relief washing over you despite all the chaos swirling directly overhead? Well, part of that can be explained by sugar’s relationship with the brain, specifically the neurotransmitter dopamine, which ignites the reward center and reinforces drug-seeking behavior. When we eat foods that contain sugar, a boatload of dopamine is released in the brain and we start to feel really good.
Obviously, it’s good to feel good so we eat more sugar. Soon enough we are sprinkling sugar on our sandwiches and putting maple syrup in our chicken noodle soup. If you’re addicted or have a family history of addiction, you may be particularly vulnerable to sugar’s dopamine effect because our brains have been primed to respond favorably to this effect. It has also been found that addicts and alcoholics may be unresponsive to non-drug (sugar) related stimuli, which places us at a unique disadvantage when it comes to eating sugar moderately.
Another mechanism by which sugar may be detrimental to recovery is its effect upon blood sugar. Alcohol is essentially straight sugar and chronic or excessive alcohol intake can create an extremely volatile blood sugar response. Volatile blood sugar can increase susceptibility to hypoglycemia, or dangerously low blood sugar, a condition that is most easily treated with sugar. Drugs, specifically opiates, can produce a similar blood sugar response, albeit in a less direct way, that increases our susceptibility to the dangerous effects of sugar. In other words, if we eat a bunch of sugar and have a history of addiction, we may ignite wild swings in blood sugar to promote cravings for sugar or, if things get really squirrelly, cravings for drugs or alcohol.
THERE IS A SOLUTION
The best way to reduce any detrimental effect sugar may have on our health and, more importantly, sobriety is complete elimination. But, that’s not any fun and may not even be reasonable. A more moderate approach to sugar may be to limit our intake and make strategic dietary decisions when sugar does make an appearance.
3 steps to reduce sugar’s impact on your recovery
- Consume high quality proteins with every meal. Proteins stabilizes blood sugar and contains tons of amino acids, precursors to all those brain chemicals that make us feel normal. High quality proteins are those that contain all the essential amino acids, or, more simply, anything that comes from an animal. However, there are many ways someone minimizing or avoiding animal foods can obtain all the essential amino acids. Either way, eat plenty of protein throughout the day.
- Eat every color of the rainbow, in real food form. Fruits and vegetables contain tons of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other essential phytochemicals promote physical health, blood sugar stability, and a positive mood.
- Reduce, ideally eliminate, processed foods. Processed foods are loaded with highly refined foods, mostly carbohydrates that destabilize blood sugar, and artificial ingredients that can have a detrimental effect upon physical and psychological health. If that’s crazy talk, start with sugary beverages like soft drinks, juices, sports drinks, and flavored waters. After you’ve mastered that, try removing some of your favorite convenience foods – chips, crackers, cookies, pastries, cereals, etc. Rinse and repeat until your eating mostly whole foods.
Eating a little bit of sugar here and there isn’t going to kill your health or recovery. But, be mindful and really put some thought into the role you want sugar to take in your recovery life so that you can continue to participate in life and sobriety.
By Matthew Lovitt. For more writing by Matthew, click here.