The Sugar Fix

I’ve noticed that a common thread for those of you on the sobriety journey is talking about how you seem to have increased your consumption of sugary drinks and carb loaded snacks. As food is my “thing”, I thought I’d do a bit of research as to why (Understanding why something is happening can lead to finding the tools to overcome it…) and possibly some suggestions for moving past it…

I have to stress, I am a lay person, with an interest in food, and in recovery. You should always seek the help of an expert in the field; but this may give you some insight into why, especially early recovery, sees you reach for those chocolate biscuits…

Some of this information will also apply to most recoveries – drugs, alcohol, and depression; feeding the brain better will make the recovery easier and help make long term changes, which might lessen the chances of relapse.

Some Science made easy:

Physical – the human body is very adept at finding what it needs to survive..

  • When you drink Alcohol, it is converted to sugar in the body.
  • When you drink, you get a spike in your blood sugar levels
  • When you suddenly stop drinking, your blood sugar levels plummet and your body thinks “What happened there then?”
  • When your blood sugar levels plummet, your body starts looking to solve, what it perceives, as a problem – and sends you in search of replacement sugar.
  • Alcoholics are also technically addicted to sugar, which is as physically addictive as alcohol.
  • Sugar has the same effect on dopamine levels in the brain – the feel good chemical that helps control the reward and pleasure parts of the brain.
  • So, sugar makes you feel good..
  • Sugar is short lived in your body – hence a sugar high, is replaced by a sugar crash – and you guessed it – your body wants more sugar to maintain the feel goods.
  • The cycle of sugar high and crash can lead to depression – having a stable blood sugar level can also keep your emotions level; riding the sugar high/crash rollercoaster will play havoc with your emotions
  • The cycle of sugar highs and crashes can also cause headaches, as your body produces insulin to process the sugar, a sudden rush of insulin – causes a headache
  • If you don’t give your body replacement sugar, and you experience the sugar low, you continue to crave the alcohol you’re coming off…

Alcohol vs Food

  • When you drink alcohol to excess, you feel “full”, because the volume of liquid fills you up, and you are consuming a lot of calories (not very nutritional calories); which is why many people addicted to alcohol don’t seem to need to eat.
  • Without the balance of fibre/protein/vitamins, the alcohol/sugar calories are digested quickly, so the sugar in them surge through your body faster
  • People with addictions don’t tend to eat properly – they’re getting their “calories” from their alcohol.
  • The alcohol they’re using may also interfere with the usual mealtime schedule – skip Breakfast because you’re hungover? Too busy for lunch? Dinner replaced by the after work drink, that leads to just drinking for dinner?

Moods – the brain is better without alcohol, but still needs to be cared for

  • You “reward” yourself with a drink, for a hard day’s work; for getting through that meeting; because something good has happened and a drink will make celebrating it better
  • You use alcohol to “get through” a hard situation – “Dutch Courage” or “numbing the pain”
  • The sugar treat can do some of these things almost guilt free – “I’ll just have some chocolate, I made it through another day”
  • I’m not drinking, so I have “spare” calories, so I can have that pack of choc biccies..
  • Because alcohol and sugar both act on the reward and pleasure parts of the brain you have replaced one feel good food with another.

Solving the “Sugar solution” – the food path

  • Firstly, be aware that this is a common pitfall, you’re not alone
  • Go see a dietician, they have the best food knowledge to help you come off alcohol, without substituting sugar
  • Make a meal plan – breakfast; lunch; dinner with appropriate snacks – this will maintain your sugar levels on an even keel, keeping the urge to reach for the chocolate at bay; and will give you a sense of control, and a sense of purpose
  • Protein not only helps to fill you up – it digests slowly, releasing sugar slowly, keeping your sugar levels on an even level
  • Read labels – look for hidden pockets of added sugar
  • Eat whole foods – fish, nuts, veges, lean meats, wholegrain breads, they take longer to digest, making you feel fuller longer
  • Cut out processed food – it contains excess added sugar, and digests quicker, making you look for food sooner
  • Learn to cook. There is satisfaction in eating something you have made yourself. It also gives you a sense of purpose, fills in time, and makes you think about what you are putting in your body
  • Make 1 meal a day, a “sit down and enjoy meal” – constantly eating on the run means you’re more likely to find an “easy” meal, not necessarily a healthy one; and it makes the meal part of your new daily routine, not just fuel to keep going
  • Accept that your body is probably not going to like suddenly losing its “fix” of easy calories – you may get headaches, you may get digestive issues
  • Keep hydrated. Your fluid intake has reduced, and water is your new best friend. Dehydration makes you feel hungry; dehydration can lead to headaches… Buy a water bottle with a pull out sippy lid – easier than constantly opening and closing a bottle – you will drink more…
  • Accept that taking time to eat properly is also part of your new nondrinking lifestyle, your new normal.

Adding to your New Alcohol/Addiction Free Lifestyle

  • Find some other reward system – find the things that you love doing and make them the way to reward yourself – yoga; photography; music; a new hobby; the movies….
  • Find things that make you feel good – hanging out with a friend; taking a hot bath; scented candles; walking the dog; going for a swim – keep feeding the pleasure part of your brain

And lastly, and I know it’s a pain in a busy life – keep a food diary; try and include a bit of info about what you were doing and how you were feeling. You may find points of the day or the week, that you reach for that sugary drink or that pack of biccies, and then you can plan a distraction..

We all have patterns of behaviour in our lives, part of all our recoveries is resetting our patterns to live healthier lives.

I hope this has been of some use. Again. I am no expert. And if you want more information, I would recommend seeing a dietician.

Good luck. Eat well. Stay safe…

Helping Hands

A basic truth of recovery – any recovery – is that you cannot do it alone.

In a medical recovery – you rely on and expect to have support from medical and rehab staff.

If you have surgery, a baby, a chronic condition, even the flu, people call in and offer to help, and you accept it…

Somehow though, in THIS recovery, from addiction, mental illness, stress, burnout, we seem to shy away from seeking help; we actively hide our disease. Tell everyone “we are fine”.. And they are diseases, just like diabetes, heart disease, cancer… We need, if not treatment, then definitely help and support… And yet we are reluctant to seek it; or even admit to friends and family that we are unwell.

Maybe its because these conditions, sadly, still have some stigma attached. Substance dependency is often met with Judgement, that its somehow a personal failing; that you just need to stop drinking/using; that somehow you’re weak for not being able to stop..

And with mental illness, the same judgements can be found out there amongst people who don’t understand – you can’t just “cheer up”; take a pill; see a counsellor. That anxiety/depression are “all in the head” or “you’re just not trying hard enough”…. Is it any wonder, if these diseases strike, we cover up, often not admitting it even to ourselves for a very long time…?

Sometimes the very first step we take on the path to recovery, is to admit to ourselves that we are unwell…. And then we think “I can fix this, nobody else needs to know”… And we start a vicious cycle, that sets ourselves up for failure.. A cycle of going it alone, starting, relapsing, restarting, relapsing…  as well as still pretending to everyone else, that we are ok.

And even when we do open up, tell someone, we still have to accept that we can’t recover on our own, that we need people – in a meeting; in counselling; in a group. People who understand that we have to live our lives differently now, and will accept us as we are… people to walk alongside us, taking some of the load, offering advice, just listening to us talk, or listen as we sit in silence…

I’ve listening to conversations here and been chatting around the group, and there is a common theme – we don’t want to tell people in our lives that we are struggling, and we find it hard to ask for and accept help:

“I hate to feel needy”

I’m a stubborn bastard”

“I feel like I’m imposing on other people”

“It’s not how I’m wired”

“I am a very private person”

“I’m the caregiver, not the person who needs the care” 

“Everyone is so busy; I don’t want to take up their time”

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

I’m not part of a rehab programme, but I have started reaching out, firstly telling people here in the safety of anonymity; and just recently in Real Life, telling people I’m not OK, and I need their help…. And it is terrifying and exhausting…. But there is also this “Aha!” moment, of course most people knew I was depressed, they’ve been hovering on the side-lines, waiting to help, waiting to take care of me.. I still struggle with the honesty; with needing to be helped (which is very different to being Needy)… but as I keep telling myself I am a work in progress…

I have found that within this group, the ability to help and be helped has a balance, that I can be comfortable in… And the generosity of everyone is humbling…

So, you now find yourself in this very supportive non-judgemental group, and that’s brilliant… But it is just one place to find help and support; we all need to find that in our every day lives too; so that we can continue to grow and continue to overcoming these diseases that have shaped our journeys so far..

We have a Maori quote here in New Zealand “Kia Kaha”; it means “stay strong”. We say it to people facing adversity; people who are struggling; people who are working to achieve something profound..

I have an extension to it. And I wish it to all of you

kia kaha

kitea te kaha mai i etahi atu

stay strong

find strength from others